Many years ago as I was working my way through grad school in the construction business I worked under a crusty old master carpenter named “Bob.” That’s right, I once worked for Bob the Builder. Bob was a saintly old man who always brought his Bible with him to work and read it during lunch. Throughout the day he would talk about it and quote it often.
When Bob got perturbed he wouldn’t lose his religion, so to speak, and let loose a string of profane words or otherwise mean-spirited verbal barbs. No, when Bob got mad because you didn’t do something up to his standards he would ask a simple question: “Well, what good are you?” You never really knew if he was being serious or not because he always said it in this truly deadpan voice. No emotion. Just, “Well, what good are you?”
Bob’s question has stuck in my mind for the better part of a quarter century. “What good are you?” Asking that question is easy. Try answering it.
The first tendency is to react defensively and conjure up all the awards, recognitions, and certificates/letters of appreciation you have garnered through the years. Looks like quite a few people seemed to think you were good at something. Unfortunately, if you are honest with yourself you realize you were raised in a generation that gives out awards just for participation. Everybody gets a trophy or a plaque so that nobody’s feelings will be hurt. Unless you’ve been awarded something analogous to the Heisman Trophy or an Oscar…it’s just not that big a deal. Besides that, awards don’t carry much weight beyond the day they were given. Anyone remember Heisman winners Eric Crouch, Gino Torretta, Gary Beban, or Joe Bellino? How about Oscar winners Adrien Brody or Mira Sorvino? Their statuettes really proved they were good right? No, in the long run most people realize that all awards are good for is lengthening your obituary.
So when we realize awards don’t really prove we’re “good” we naturally tend towards our supposed benevolence through acts of magnanimity. Our volunteerism ought to prove to everybody how good we are, right? We volunteer at hospitals, free clinics, the library, the church, etc., etc. But don’t you think it is true that the moment you “cash in” on your altruism you have just undone all the spiritual work? The moment you use your sacrificial generosity to shine the light on your goodness you just cast a shadow on the intent of it all. Oops.
So what’s left? It would seem to me there isn’t much left other than opinions (others and your own). “I’m good because my friends say I’m good and I feel like a good person.” That’s it? But surely you realize that every notorious person in history did the same thing? Emperors, dictators, war-lords, etc. all believed their circle of friends when they were told how good they were. Don’t you think most politicians feel pretty good about themselves because of all their friends’ hype?
There has to be something more to figuring out “what good are you?” than awards, acts of benevolence, and opinions. For Christians, the unequivocal answer to the question is: “I’m as good as Christ is making me.” In other words, a Christian’s goodness is intrinsically related to the goodness of God and his/her willingness to be renewed by it (which often hurts).
Here is what I mean. The beginning point on a quest for goodness is the realization that despite how I feel or what so many others are telling me…I have none! Jesus said, “There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:17). Guess what? I know it’s not me and I’m just as convinced it’s not you either. I’m pretty sure He was talking about the Godhead. Now, if only God is good (according to Jesus) how can anyone ever stake a claim to goodness?
Atonement. That’s the word. At-one-ment. We come under the umbrella of “goodness” when we align ourselves with God through the Cross of Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is how one can be right and good. It can only take place at the foot of the Cross. And it only begins there. Once we stand beneath the Cross in repentance we walk forth saying as David did in Psalm 51:10: “Create in me a clean heart O God…”
“Save it for the pulpit on Sunday” I hear many saying. To which I say, “Apparently, that’s the problem in America.” We’ve got racial issues, immigration issues, marriage and lifestyle issues, and government issues all threatening to undo the American dream throwing every single household in the country into angst and turmoil. For the most part the American pulpit has decided to preach to the choir about how Jesus saves. The world is going mad as everyone screams about their “rights” which is just another way of saying “I’m good and I demand you acknowledge my goodness!”
As far as I can tell all the great revivals (biblical and extra-biblical) began with admonitions to “repent.” Whether you are talking about Jonah’s message to Ninevah (that was responsible for saving 120,000 people from the wrath of God) or Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (that precipitated the Great Awakening which changed the course of American history) you are talking about beginning with the message that no one is good in the eyes of God.
What I am saying to our Christian pastors is in addition to laying out the plan of salvation to those in your pews it would really help if you would speak to sinners in society about original sin. Start asking the homosexuals, the illegal immigrants, the adulterers, the politicians, AND the choir “what good are you?” You’d be surprised at the amount of soul-searching that would ensue if the initial question had to do with explaining one’s goodness rather than defending their sinfulness (repentance assumes something about inherent goodness doesn’t it?).
Twenty some odd years later I still hear Bob’s question ringing in my ears from time to time. And when I do, I know I have strayed from the Cross. What good are you?