When I was in seminary, I supplemented by meager student pastor’s income (and I mean meager: $6,600 annually) by working on construction crews as an apprentice carpenter. I’ll never forget the summer I worked under a master carpenter named “Bob.” That’s right, I once worked for Bob the Builder! Bob was a cantankerous but godly 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 nearly three decades. “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, college degrees, 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 are living 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. And university degrees? Maybe that used to be prestigious but have you seen in the news headlines what people with Ph.D.’s are advocating? Just check a newscast from CNN or CNBC or really any of the mainstream media outlets. People with advanced degrees advocating the most offensive things and ridiculous ideologies (Randa Jarrar anyone?). No, in the long run most people realize that all awards and degrees are good for is lengthening your obituary.
So when we realize that neither awards nor academic achievements prove we’re “good” we naturally turn towards our grandiose acts of benevolence. Surely our philanthropic spirit reflects our inner goodness? We volunteer at hospitals, free clinics, the library, the church, 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 instant you use your sacrificial generosity to shine the light on your goodness you just cast a shadow on it. Oops.
So what’s left? It would seem 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 believed 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, degrees, acts of benevolence, and opinions. For Christians, the unequivocal answer to the question is: “I’m as good as I am allowing Christ to make 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 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 began with admonitions to “repent.” Whether you are talking about Jonah’s message to Nineveh (which was responsible for saving 120,000 people from the wrath of God) or Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (which precipitated the Great Awakening in America) 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 lead to. No sinner (including and especially myself) was ever helped by ignoring or even complimenting his sin.
I think when Bob would ask me that question on the job site those many years ago, he was inviting me to reflect on whether or not I was in the right line of work. Did I have the desire and dedication to become a master carpenter? As I mentioned, he never asked it with either disdain or sarcasm. He asked it like he really wanted an answer.
Wouldn’t it be something if we heard that question emanating from our pulpits? “What good are you? Why do you think you can live the way you are and eternal life will be the reward? What makes you think you are saved?” Instead, we’ve lavished praise and thanksgiving on people just for being born and attending our churches.
Don’t tell anyone they are heaven bound if you can’t deliver on it.
I came to Christ not because a lot of people told me how wonderful I was and how much God loved me. Rather, the road to salvation began for me the day I was bored with the preacher’s sermon and started reading the gospels for myself. I’ll never forget the cold and icy feeling that came on me when I read the following: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). Was I with Him? Why would I think that I was? I sure wasn’t gathering anything with Him.
What good are you?