Good and evil are both words that seem easy to define, but upon reflection the definitions are elusive. It is easy to identify extreme examples of good and evil, but when seen in subtle degrees they are hard to grasp. When is evil, evil? When is good, good? How good must good be to be good? And conversely how evil must the evil be to be evil? What, exactly, is good? What, exactly, is evil anyway?
There are certain people that the world identifies as being good, and others as being evil, but we must be very careful when accepting the world’s definition of anything. It is my experience that when the world says that this or that person is evil that they have that pretty much right, but as to good, the world doesn’t really understand what good is at all.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. (Jesus Christ, NIV)
This passage has always been a bit of a puzzle to me. It is clear that Jesus is the physical incarnation of the invisible God in human form, but here he says that God is good and he is not. I don’t doubt this passage, and I don’t doubt that Jesus is God in the flesh, but how is this reconciled?
After reflecting on good and evil I have come to understand that good is more than anything is an outward motivation and evil is an inward motivation. What I mean, is that when you are doing good, you are not doing it for yourself, that is to say, that what you are doing is not for your benefit but rather for the benefit of others. It isn’t what you do, but why you do it. Look at these examples:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (NIV)
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (NIV)
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (NIV)
It is good to pray and to give and to fast, but only if done in a manner that is not seen by other people. If you do these things to bring focus upon yourself then you are doing evil. How can doing good be evil, you might be wondering. It isn’t what you do, but why and how you do it. Evil is not an action, but rather is a motivation of the heart. Good too is not an action, but rather is also a motivation of the heart.
So then what is your motivation to pray? Is it to talk with God or is it to be seen as a prayerful man or woman? The first reason requires faith and humility, and the second is a matter of pride and is faithless. If you give money to others, do so in a way that others are completely and forever unaware of what you have done; your motives are evil if you give to show yourself a superior. These are subtle things and only you, with deep reflection, can answer these for yourself. Be careful that you don’t do your good works so that your spouse can see. Do all that you do so that only God can see, and know that God sees everything that you do.
Good deeds are those that are directed outward from yourself. Only the outward persons will benefit. You will receive nothing for what you have done; accept whatever God chooses to do for you in his own good time. Doing good is an act of self-sacrifice that goes unnoticed and unrewarded. Doing good is done as an act of faith in humble obedience. Jesus said not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. This means that you don’t even let yourself revel in your own good deed. Do you really imagine that Jesus sat there reveling in his own good deeds? Do you think that that was what was going on when he sacrificed himself on the cross? Were those the thoughts that ran through his mind on the night of his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane? He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” [Matthew 26:42] That was a prayer of love and was done for good.
I have said in my writings many times that obedience is not doing what you want to do, but rather doing what you don’t want to do but must do because it is right. Obedience is done in secret and in private, for the most part, or at least your motivation is complete yielding of your will to God and with no thought to yourself.
Now, remember that Scripture above that I said puzzled me so, the one about Jesus not being good? Well, it seems to me that it is impossible for a man to be truly and fully good so long as he lives in a body of flesh. That body has selfish demands that must be met. That body forces us to do things that have nothing to do with God. We must eat and we must sleep and so on and so on. God never has to do these things. He never acts selfishly. Never. He and the angels can do this, but we cannot. The angels can act selfishly but only the fallen ones have done so. It was a selfish act that brought about the fall of Satan and acts of selfishness that brought down his angels with him. We are told to do good works and to do them selflessly. We are to do these, but all the while we cannot be perfect. We are to strive for perfection but without the possibility of attaining it. This reminds me of an alcoholic who after drinking one drink falls off the wagon and drinks himself into total intoxication. Such a person is still an alcoholic even if they haven’t drunk in 30 years. But we like all sinners must not be “sinoholics”. We must drink a little every day of sin, but we must not be overpowered by it. We must remain diligent in our efforts to lead obedient lives. Every moment of every day is one of intentional obedience. It seems to me that it is easier to completely abstain from something than to control it and yet we must control sin.
Do you remember that before Jesus started his ministry that he went into the desert and fasted for 40 days? He was resisting the basic needs of the body. In this way he was purifying himself, that is, he was preparing himself for his ministry. This is the purpose of self-denial. The world is about comfort, pleasure, satisfaction, gratification, and pride, but we are about holiness, purity, obedience, and humility. Goodness leads to the latter and evil leads to the former. Goodness is about love, faith, and hope while evil is about getting what you want in the world. Goodness is outward and evil is inward.