Last week I shared the details of one of the most unnerving experiences Alean and I have endured in almost a decade, that glorious moment when my old beater car broke down in the middle lane of the 405 South bypass around Seattle during rush hour. But the bad news turned upward and became good news as one person after another poured themselves into our circumstance, doing everything they could to calm us, cheer us up, and make our rather unpleasant afternoon at least bearable.
How do we reconcile what Alean and I experienced with the common teaching that “nothing good dwells within man?” What we experienced was more than people simply doing their jobs. These people went well beyond what was required, seeing a couple in distress and denying their own best interests to alleviate our discomfort. We were prime targets, ripe for picking, easily taken advantage of, yet not one person did so. Every one of them put their own interests aside to serve us!
I have been taught since my youth that humanity is totally depraved, wicked, evil, incapable of doing anything good. Yet, when given a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the reality and depth of that depraved character, not one of these people did so.
The Puzzling Passages
The concept of humanity’s fallen nature is found strewn throughout the Bible. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that man’s heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). The apostle Paul described us as “dead in our trespasses and sins,” saying we followed the devil and the passions of our flesh (Ephesians 2:1-5). John teaches that humanity loves darkness rather than light, specifically because our deeds are evil (John 3:19), and later describes us as “slaves to sin” (John 8:34).
The apostle Paul, again, says none seek God, not one does what is good (Romans 3:10-12), and no one accepts or understands the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). We suppress the truth of God in our unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
All of that paints a depressingly gloomy picture, and presents humanity outside of Christ as the antithesis of godliness and holiness.
What Then of Doing Good?
Scripture is clear that humanity is sinful and capable of unspeakable evil. Even the most cursory read through human history confirms this. Yet scripture also teaches us that humanity can do good.
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. – Psalm 37:3, ESV
… and later in that same Psalm …
Turn away from evil and do good;
so shall you dwell forever. – Psalm 37:27, ESV
If we are commanded by God to do good, then it must be possible for us to do so. The prophet Isaiah makes a similar call for good in the opening of his prophetic work.
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. – Isaiah 1:17, ESV
Jesus calls us to do good, even when people behave badly toward us.
But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. – Luke 6:17, ESV
Elsewhere, Jesus says that the Father, “…makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, ESV), unmistakably distinguishing between good and evil people, as well as just and unjust, thus demonstrating that it is possible for humanity to “do good” despite the sinful inclination of our flesh.
Again, Jesus teaches,
The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. – Matthew 12:35, ESV (see also Luke 6:45)
If there is a good treasure within humanity, and Jesus says there is, then it must be possible to find those qualities of goodness, honesty, love, generosity, within each of us. We are created in the image of a God who self-identifies as Love, so love must be somewhere within each of us.
From the beginning, humanity was created with the capacity to choose, and in the realm of good and evil, that capacity has to include the ability to choose either option.
Consider this exhortation from John, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 John 1:11, ESV). And the apostle Peter taught us,
‘Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it’ – 1 Peter 3:10-11, ESV
As of this writing, the way I harmonize this puzzle is by distinguishing being good from doing good. My understanding of scripture grows and morphs over time, and that may hold true for this issue as well, but for now, this is where I land.
Our standard of goodness is none other than God Himself. Even Jesus responded to those who questioned him as “Good teacher…” by saying, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
In no context, can I look at myself apart from Christ and say that I am intrinsically good. But even in my sinfulness, I am created in the image of God and can do good works. These works do not improve or hinder my unrighteous/righteous standing before God, but they may prove beneficial to others, just as the good done toward Alean and me was “angelic” in our time of great need (and it may well be that we entertained angels unaware, Hebrews 13:2).
In our fallen state, the vastness of humanity is capable of profound acts of evil, just as we are capable of astonishing acts goodness. Alean and I were recipients of that goodness and we give glory to God for it.