Don’t Be a Do-Gooder: Pastoral Reflections on Goodness
The word “good” is nearly meaningless today. The cook will take it as a criticism when you tell him dinner was simply good. He’ll think if you really liked the meal, you’d have said it was terrific, fantastic, or awesome. Compared to adjectives like these, “good” is average at best.
This deflated understanding of good makes it harder for us to appreciate the Bible. For example, when Paul lists “goodness” as a piece of the fruit of the Spirit, we’re unimpressed. We know goodness matters, but it’s no longer vibrant and colorful. “Good” is like a white towel that’s been washed so many times it’s now a dull gray.
It’s time to recover the meaning of good.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Who cares? Why is this a big deal? What’s really at stake? Maybe a story will help set the stage.
Dave entered the ministry at 22. He aspired to make the world a better place. He had thought about other vocations: medicine, politics, and law. All good choices, but none dealt with the nitty-gritty details of the soul—which Dave cared about more than anything. He went to seminary, and eventually took the pastorate of a small, urban church.
Dave’s weeks were full. Every Tuesday night he gathered a small group to pray for the church and the city. He spent Wednesdays teaching at the vocational rehab center. On Thursdays he volunteered at an after-school program. Dave labored Friday to prepare Sunday’s message. Mondays he packed his schedule with meetings, and then prepared to do it all over again. Dave wanted to serve others. He strove to make a difference. He longed to do good.
As the years went by, Dave didn’t just grow tired, he grew bitter. People weren’t as thankful as he expected them to be for the investments he made. Kids on the street rarely responded to his message. He began to wonder if his work really mattered. Dave cycled through bouts of depression. He tried to make the world a better place, but ministry felt like sopping up the ocean with a sponge.
What went wrong? Somewhere along the way, Dave neglected his own heart. He devoted himself to good works, but failed to pursue the internal, spiritual fruit of goodness. Dave was a do-gooder who boiled ministry down to a list of tasks to be accomplished. He did good, but he wasn’t full of goodness (Rom. 15:14). Dave spent so much time inspecting his good works, he for forgot his need for God “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Before we can help Dave, we must hit reset on the meaning of good.
RECOVERING THE MEANING OF GOOD
One of Jesus’s most memorable encounters started with a man who asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19)? We’d expect Jesus to disclose the secrets of the kingdom of God, or perhaps to exhort him to be born again. But instead Jesus rejects the question itself: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”
Let that sink in. “No one is good except God alone.”
Clearly, the man tried to be respectful. He sought to honor Jesus as a wise rabbi, a teacher worth listening to. But this honorific greeting betrayed a low view of the word good and, consequently, a low view of God.
All theological and moral failures stem from the refusal to come to terms with the nature of God. We too easily neglect the scope and significance of God’s holiness, power, love, and justice. God is so pure we can’t even comprehend him. King David sang of God’s goodness: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psa. 145:3). Trying to exhaust the goodness of God is like giving a toddler a pick and asking him to empty a gold mine; he may start, but he’ll never finish.
Thankfully, the Bible is full of individuals who tasted and saw that the LORD is good (Psa. 34:8).
Jethro filled his bucket with gold when Moses explained how God saved Israel: “And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Ex. 18:9). Aware of the Exodus, Jethro realized there is none like God. God alone saves. No one else can be truly trusted. No one else can be truly adored.
When Job questioned God’s goodness, the LORD shut him down, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right” (Job 40:8)? God revealed his character to Job, and Job responded appropriately: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6).
To say God is good is to assert he is without fault, without an ounce of error, without a speck of deceit. God never makes a bad decision, never thinks a spiteful thought, and never leads anyone astray. He is a Father who only serves and blesses his children. Human fathers discipline out of anger and spoil out of laziness. God does neither. He is the perfect mixture of tough and tender, firm and affectionate.
Imagine a sea that stretches for eternity without a single wave—infinitely long and wide but as smooth as glass. God is as holy as that water is still. He is as merciful as this sea is deep. It’s no wonder after reflecting on God’s grace Paul exclaimed, “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways (Rom. 12:33)!”
“Good” is that quality of God that encompasses his divine character—every attribute of our Triune God summarized in one simple word. Modern day English speakers might say God is awesome. But in the words of Jesus, God is good.
With that in mind, consider how every Christian is to be filled with the spiritual fruit of goodness. We aren’t just to do good works; our spiritual veins are to flow with the very goodness of God.
ARE YOU A DO-GOODER?
A lot of us are a lot like that pastor, Dave. I know I am! I want to please people. I try to preach helpful messages. I hope to make a difference in the lives of others. You might be like this, too. You may work hard to encourage your friends—an unsolicited phone call, an encouraging text, an invitation to dinner. Maybe you pour into your kids—changing diapers, helping with homework, shopping for a dress. Perhaps you labor to build the church—teaching Sunday school, discipling a new believer, serving in the nursery. Each of these actions is a very worthy endeavor.
And yet none of these actions bridge the gap between you and God. As “good” as they may be, they are not good the way God is good. You are not good the way God is good. The moment you weigh your merit by your productivity, the instant you compute your value by the number of good deeds done, you miss the most basic Christian truth: the goodness of God is not a mountain to be climbed but a gift to be received. “The fruit of the Spirit is . . . goodness” (Gal. 5:22).
The better we know God is good, the less likely we are to be impressed with our good works. That doesn’t mean we should stop working. By no means! It does mean our works can only be good if they are the outgrowth of a good God working through us (Eph. 2:10).
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Earlier generations of Christians carefully explained how good works could, in fact, be good. Their statements sound a little strange to modern ears, but the truths they summarized are jewels of divine wisdom.
The authors of the Second London Confession, an old statement of faith, said good works are only good if they spring from a faithful and sincere heart. Good works “are the fruits, and evidences of a true, and lively faith; and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brothers, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God.” Good works are both a necessary and valuable component of every believer’s life.
However, as the authors clarified, good works have their limitations; they can’t earn one a seat at the table of salvation. Our good works won’t cause us to merit eternal life because no matter how good they are, they pale in comparison to God. The more you understand how good God is, the sillier it will be to think your good works can impress him. “The infinite distance that is between us and God” cannot be bridged by a million faithful sermons or a trillion service projects. This is why we need the cross of Christ. His good death, not our good works, secures forgiveness.
Does that mean our good works are worthless? Not at all! The Second London Confession rightly asserts we can truly please God. When our good works are performed rightly, from hearts full of faith, God looks “upon them in his Son [and] is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere.” In other words, by God’s grace, our works really can be good—pleasing and acceptable to God.
And this leads to a crucial question; How can we know our good works stem from a sincere heart? This takes us back to the spiritual fruit of goodness.
HEARTS OVERFLOWING WITH GOODNESS
For your works to be sincere, the Spirit has to be at work in you. For your works to be truly good, your heart has to be full of goodness (Gal. 5:22)—and this is God’s gift. Of all the pieces of the fruit of the Spirit, none is as foundational as this one.
We need God to change us from the inside out. We need him to not only give us new life, but to sanctify our heart. Sincerity isn’t the result of willpower. It won’t be found by showing up early at the office, going another week without blowing up at the kids, or another month without looking at porn. Sincerity is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Only those whose hearts are filled with goodness are sincere.
We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:9). We do good works because the Spirit fills us with goodness. And when this happens, little by little, God makes us more like him.
When you understand this, it puts all of your good works in perspective. Instead of being discouraged by your minimal impact on the world around you, you can be encouraged by the maximum impact of the Spirit in you. The sincerity that makes our good works valuable comes from a heart overflowing with the goodness of God.
And where do we see the goodness of God most clearly? In the person and work of Jesus Christ. A heart filled with goodness desires to know and experience more of him. Before we lift our finger to perform a single good work, we should pray for the Spirit to wrap our heart around the cross of Christ. Let this from The Valley of Vision be our prayer for goodness:
Help me to find in his death the reality and immensity of his love. Open for me the wondrous volumes of truth in his, ‘It is finished.’ Increase my faith in the clear knowledge of atonement achieved, expiation completed, satisfaction made, guilt done away, my debt paid, my sins forgiven, my person redeemed, my soul saved, hell vanquished, heaven opened, eternity made mine. O Holy Spirit, deepen in me these saving lessons.
Jethro rejoiced in the goodness of God who saved Israel. How much more can we rejoice in the goodness of a God who saved us and now lovingly works his goodness within us?
HOW CAN I GROW IN THIS?
Even as you read this article, there’s other work you need to do. You may have a husband or wife to serve, a family to care for, a friend to encourage. How can we keep from being overwhelmed at the job ahead of us? How can we keep from growing bitter when the task seems so large and our efforts so small?
We need to grow not only in doing good, but in being good. We need the spiritual fruit of goodness. How can you grow in this?
- Devote yourself to soul work. If you’re a Christian, hit pause on the good works you have to do, and meditate upon Christ as the atoning sacrifice for your sin. This could mean recommitting yourself to daily, personal devotions. It may mean taking a day to reassess the state of your spiritual life. We live in a hectic, connected world that does not lend itself well to soul work. Find a way to pull away from the crowds, like Jesus did, and do business with your heavenly Father. This takes time. A careful reading of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines is a good way to start.
- Meditate on God’s character. This is a much-neglected practice. We are quick to thank God for his work and slow to marvel at his nature. A heart filled with goodness understands, as much as is humanly possible, what it means to say God alone is good. If you pray through the acronym A-C-T-S, try extending the time you focus on A, “adoration.”
- Deflect praise. A heart full of goodness knows God alone is good and he alone, therefore, deserves praise. It’s easier than you think to get addicted to affirmation. We all want to be recognized. The wise Christian can both receive encouragement and praise God at the same time. The failure to deflect praise will eventually lead to bitterness when the praise doesn’t come.
- Plead with God for a deeper understanding of the cross. Those who most appreciate what Jesus did for them will pour out their lives in good works for others. They will do so expecting nothing in return but the eventual affirmation from him who matters most: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23) Those with hearts full of goodness are blown away to know their good God suffered and died for them.
- Don’t forget to get to work. If the Spirit has deposited goodness in you, your life must show it (Eph. 2:10). You will crush the darkness with the light God gave you. Make a difference. Serve your neighbor. Share the gospel. Be there for a widow. Care for an orphan. Just don’t do any of it to get right with God. Do it because God made you right with him.