Saturday, May 3, 2014

When Villains Do Good Things

Why do bad things happen to good people? That's a cliché. I've seen the equally ubiquitous answer, “that happened... once.” The answer refers to the fact that Jesus Christ was the only good person to live (after Adam fell from grace), and suffered (which was bad). Golf clap for cleverness.

We all know that the meaning isn't actual goodness, but rather, generally accepted behavior and kindness or a well-mannered person. We wonder why a mother who cuts up food for her youngest while her own food turns cold, or pampers her husband when he's sick, or volunteers at a homeless shelter would also be visited by cancer. It bothers us that a man who passes up career opportunities so he can provide for ailing parents or adopts unwanted children would also be killed by a drunk driver.

This speaks to our built in sense that right is right and that justice demands that good things should follow goodness. Everyone believes this, whether they call it Karma or something else.

But how about if a wicked person does something good? Boy does that rock our world! Suppose Don Sterling, the villain of the moment, turns around and makes some sacrifice for the downtrodden of the world. Or some politician (take your pick) is found to have done some amazing thing for downtrodden people. Or when we learn of some kind things a serial killer did for his neighbors and they have a hard time reconciling the two personas that exist.

How do we handle that? Our first instinct is to head straight for the motives. The villain will only do good because he/she wants to deceive others into thinking well of them. Or, they do good things because they hope to atone for all the bad stuff they've done.

Both assumptions are probably fairly accurate, but they can apply to any of us and point to a deeper truth. After all, if we believe that justice demands goodness follows good behavior, we have a selfish motive to do good deeds. Basically, we want benefits for our works. This is no different than person who has done bad things hoping to erase them with charity.

I think this goes deeper, though. Yes, it indicates we believe in morals. True, it speaks to the fact that we value a true concept of justice. But the fact that we also find it repulsive that a wicked person would think to absolve themselves with a few acts of kindness tells us something else about the human condition: We understand that we're all unable to achieve true goodness or atone for our sins.

How did you get from selfish good deeds to total depravity? I'm glad you asked that question. If everyone agrees that a wicked person, say a racist, adulterer, philanderer, drug addict, child abuser, etc., cannot erase those things with a few moral actions, we have to admit that our own evil actions, if placed on a scale, would have to be outweighed by greater goodness. And if we despise the evil person's attempt at atonement as yet another indication of their selfishness, what about our own moral acts? Are they just attempts to look good and outweigh the wrong we've done? And if so, isn't that just as evil as a bribe to a judge during trial?

The other thing is that humans universally applaud those who appear to do good for the sake of goodness, with no thought to repayment. We call those people 'saints.' This acknowledges something far deeper about morality: It exists apart from scales of good vs. bad. Morality is pure goodness which every human knows in part. We instinctively know it without instruction.

The reason we know it is because we are created differently than all other creatures. For animals, it is survival of the fittest and their instinct dictates their actions. For us, we will often do things that would never be considered by an animal. We care for those who offer back no benefit for ourselves. We train other creatures to do things and reward them, making their lives better than they would be in the wild. Those are just a few simple examples.

The reason is that we're created in God's image. And God's character is moral and pure. When Adam chose to disobey, he broke that character and became twisted with a mix of good and evil. Today we see the consequences: we all recognize morality, but we don't live moral lives. We have the knowledge of good, but we are more prone to evil. So much so that even our good deeds are actually evil, done for our own benefit. In other words, we're all villains doing good things, never able to erase the bad things we've done.

Which brings me back to the one good person who suffered: Jesus Christ. Since we cannot ever do enough moral things to outweigh the bad things we've done, and since we know the justice demands that good only fall to good people, and bad follows bad people, we have no hope but mercy. And grace. Mercy is when God doesn't give us what we deserve. Our wickedness, even if only in thought, deserves swift judgment. Rejecting God, our actual, ultimate moral failure, demands we be eliminated. Yet, God's mercy is shown by Jesus who pleaded for God to hold back His justice, “Father forgive them.” God's grace is to give us what we don't deserve: Righteousness.

We can't earn goodness or righteousness. No matter how many good things we do, we won't ever be able to claim a moral character like God's. But God offers to clothe us with that moral character when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and only Savior.

Then, through that godly character, our good deeds will become increasingly less about appearing good to others and more about being in harmony with God's character. Then, we stop being villains doing good things and start being good people doing less bad things. But it all starts with God's mercy and then his grace. It's the only way.

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