When Whitney Houston died, many of us were shocked and deeply saddened. She was, after all, one of the greatest singers to have ever lived. At her funeral, Kevin Costner, her co-star in the early 90s classic, The Bodyguard, recalled the time when she did her screen test. Everyone on set was so excited to be in her presence, yet when it came time to do her test, she was nowhere to be found. Kevin began to frantically search for her, and he finally found her, staring intently at the mirror, with a sad expression. Kevin told her it was time for her to do her test, and Whitney, peering deeply into the mirror wondered aloud, “Do you think people will like me? Do you think I’m good enough? Do you think I’m good enough?” Wow. Here you have one of the greatest singers ever, in a film that would feature her stunning voice, wondering if she was good enough. You know, in our own way we all look into the mirror from time to time and wonder, “Am I good enough?” We wonder if our performance really measures up. Goodness seems to be so elusive.
A “Good” Culture
Here’s the irony of goodness: Most people in our culture would consider themselves to be fundamentally good at the end of the day. You know, as I’ve entered into spiritual conversations with people who aren’t followers of Jesus, I’ve found that just about everyone acknowledges sin. Everyone would agree they’ve thought, said and done things they should not. We all pretty much co-sign on sin. But the real barrier comes when people conclude, that while they’ve sinned, they’re still fundamentally good. The reason they arrive at this conclusion is because we are looking to other people as our standard for goodness. So, yeh, sure I’ve lied, but I’m not a pedophile. Okay, I’ve gossiped, but I’m no murderer. Yeh, I’ve indulged some in porn, but I give generously to that philanthropic cause. Look at the balance sheet at the end of the day and I end up in the black. I’m pretty much good, as the argument goes.
The problem here of course is the Christian worldview says we’re using the wrong standard. Goodness, in the Bible is not ultimately a matter of your neighbor’s behavior, but the character of a holy, sinless God. Now that changes the game. It’s sort of like when I was in grade school and failed a test I would always conduct my own Gallup poll, asking my students what they got. Now you know why I did that, right? I knew if everyone failed the teacher would have to grade on a curve. But inevitably there’d be some know it all kid I’d want to lay hands on and not for prayer, why? Because they broke my curve. Fundamentally, this kid’s perfection changed the standard. That’s why Jesus was rejected. He lived the life we could never live. He was that kid who aced life, and through his actions created an impossible standard of goodness we have no hope of living up to outside of Christ. The Christian worldview says we cannot be good on our own, because God, not our neighbor, is the standard.
But on the other hand, while we may think we’re good, our attempts at white knuckled morality, at striving, says that we don’t really think we’re good. And so to convince ourselves we’re good, many of us go down the path of performance. In fact it was the social psychologist, Leon Festinger who put forward the social comparison theory in the 1950’s. He said we all have two questions, Why Am I here, and How am I doing? In other words, we tend to judge our worth based on how we stack up against others. We live in a performance oriented culture that seeks to feel better about themselves through their achievement. A recent NYT article points to this. In this article they investigated a growing trend among elite schools- a steady increase in depression and suicide. Interesting. Here you have environments filled with the top performers, and there’s suicide and depression? Kathryn DeWitt, a student at the University of Penn had this to say, “As the elder child of a civil engineer and preschool teacher in San Mateo, CA, Ms. DeWitt, now 20, has understood since kindergarten that she was expected to attend an elite college. [Once there] She awoke daily at 7:30 a.m. and often attended club meetings until as late as 10p.m. She worked 10 hours a week as part of her financial aid package, and studied furiously, especially for her multivariable calculus class. Would she never measure up? Was she doing enough? Was she taking full advantage of all the opportunities? Then came a crushing blow: a score in the low 60s on her calculus midterm. The class was graded on a curve, but surely she would fail it, she thought, dooming her plan to major in math and to teach. ‘I had a picture of my future, and as that future deteriorated,’ she said, ‘I stopped imagining another future.’ The pain of being less than what she thought to be was unbearable. The only way out, she reasoned with the twisted logic of depression, was death.’”
The Christian Ethic of Goodness
Stanford University has coined a term to describe students like Kathryn, who seemingly have it together but are falling a part on the inside- duck syndrome. Just like a duck appears to be gliding across the water, but is furiously paddling, performing, struggling to keep afloat, that’s so many people in our culture. Our InstaGram and social media posts may depict good people living the good life, but if we could look beneath the surface of our lives we’d see us furiously paddling, trying to perform, wondering how much longer we can keep this up.
Friends, the Bible offers a completely different vantage point on what it means to be good. The Bible defines goodness as holiness in action. Goodness begins with our hearts, and seeps out into our action. The Bible makes it clear that goodness can only be attained as we walk in relationship with God, and not in our efforts to perform. In fact, Isaiah would tell us that our righteousness, that is our self manufactured attempts at goodness still isn’t good, they’re as filthy rags. Romans 5 would tell us that all of our lives have been touched by sin because of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. But now here’s the hope- we can be good, but that goodness does not come from our performance, but for what Christ did for us on the cross: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”- Romans 5:18-19. Goodness awaits us friend, but it does not come through our performance, but stands in the person of Christ who lived the life we could not live. But what does this mean for us practically? And how do we express goodness to others?
Goodness is Performance-Free- 22-23
If God is truly the only good One, and that any hope of goodness I may have can only be found in relationship to him, then if I want to know what goodness is, I should look at God as the model for what it means to be good. To help us with this I want us to go the book of Lamentations, but I warn you, this is an extremely dark book. Reading through the book of Lamentations feels like sitting in a really long funeral, of a person who it’s hard to say anything good about. In fact, I had the same feeling reading Lamentations as I did reading Elie Wiesel’s book, Night. The reason why the book is so dark is because God’s people had sinned greatly, and after years of warnings, God finally allows his people to be sent into exile, with the holy city of Jerusalem being under siege. In fact, the name of Lamentations in Hebrew is the word “How,” taken from the first word in the book, and it’s a book about How Jerusalem has suffered.
And yet in the middle of all this darkness and night in the book, our passage offers great light and hope in the context of despair. And it also gives us a view to what it practically means to display the fruit of goodness in our lives. Look with me at verses 22-23. Jeremiah, the author, begins by telling these wayward, sinful people that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. The Hebrew word translated as “steadfast love” is hesed, and this is a powerful word. Hesed speaks of God’s covenantal love for his people. It speaks of a love that never gives up, gives out or gives in. It’s a performance free love. How do we know God is good? Because God doesn’t love us with a quid pro quo kind of love. He loves us period.
We see this performance free love all throughout the bible. One day God shows up to the prophet Hosea and tells him I want to use you as a visual aid to depict my performance free love to my wayward people who have broken faith. Go and marry a woman of ill repute, Gomer. She will break your heart, and when she tries to leave, go get her and take her back, because that’s how I am with my people. Or take Jesus, God’s Son. On the day of his baptism in Matthew 3, the clouds part and God speaks saying of Jesus, this is my beloved Son in whom I’m well pleased. Now mind you, this is before Jesus ever performed a miracle or healed or preached. He simply said I’m proud of you (good word for we parents). Performance free. The apostle Paul would hint at this when he told Timothy that even when we are faithless, God remains faithful. Performance free love, this is a huge part of what it means to be and do good in our society.
Tony Campolo, a follower of Jesus and sociologist’s, tells of the time when he had flown from his home in Philadelphia to Honolulu. Jet lagged and unable to sleep he wanders in a diner in the middle of the night only to encounter a couple of prostitutes in the middle of a crude conversation. The one, a woman named Agnes, let it slip that her birthday was the next day, and how she had never had a birthday party in her life. Tony knew exactly what to do. He got the word out on the street through some friends, and decided to throw a surprise birthday party that absolutely stunned Agnes. When Agnes leaves, Tony prayed a prayer of blessing over this young prostitute, a little odd I know. Harry, the guy who ran the diner, at the end of the prayer said, “Hey, what kind of church do you belong to?” Tony said, “I belong to a church that throws party’s for prostitutes at 330 in the morning”. Harry said, “No you don’t. No such church exists, if there was I’d join it”. Oh the power of goodness, a performance free love to shock and welcome the world!
Goodness Inspires Hope- 24-26
As we journey onward in our text we see the goodness of God in his performance free love, and because of this, Jeremiah points out, his people have hope. What happens when a person receives performance free love? What happens when a person gets goodness they don’t even deserve? I tell you what happens, they get hope, because this person realizes they are not their performance. In fact, this passage teaches us that God never views you and I through yesterday’s failures, but through today’s mercies. Wow, now that’s shouting stuff right there!
In Robertson McQuilken’s book, A Promise Kept, he chronicles his love affair of 40 plus years with his bride Muriel. For years, Robertson was the president of a university, but when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s he resigned to care for her full time. In the early days of caring for her, they would travel together and Muriel had the habit of being so overwhelmed with her surroundings she would take off and run. On one such trip in the Atlanta airport Muriel took of running yet again and her husband Robertson ran after her, caught up to her, placed his arm around her and said, “It’s okay sweetheart. It’s okay”. Right then, Robertson noticed a young woman off to the side sitting down who mumbled something. When he asked her to repeat what she said, the young woman said, “Oh dear sir, I was just saying, I hope I find a man to love me like that”. His running after his wandering bride inspired hope in a watching world.
Oh friends, that’s what God does to us, and what he calls us to do to others. Goodness is not just seen in how we treat the loveable and the upright, it’s in how we relate to those who are different and seemingly unloveable. When we refuse to give up on one another, but keep pursuing each other, even when there’s sin and mess, this is goodness, and this is when the church is at its finest. If you want a picture of goodness real time look to the great AA scholar and preacher, Robert Smith, Jr, whose son was brutally murdered. His killer was captured and is serving time in jail. While in jail Robert reached out to his son’s killer, and showed him astounding goodness, a performance free love, by forgiving them and the two are now friends. In fact, his son’s killer is a believer and wants to attend seminary when he gets out. Robert Smith, Jr. Has started a scholarship at the seminary he teaches in memory of his slain son, and has every intention to award his sons killer the scholarship. Why? Because he’s received the goodness of God, and is passing it along. And this goodness is inspiring hope in his son’s killer, and to the watching world.
Goodness is Fixated on Others Well-Being, Not Their Happiness- 31-33
As our text comes to a close, look at what Jeremiah says in the last several verses. He talks about God casting off and causing grief, watch this now, all under the heading of God’s goodness. This is shocking, but it shouldn’t be, because it teaches us a valuable lesson about goodness. Goodness is not always concerned with happiness. Instead, what we learn about goodness is that it is fixated on the other person’s well being, not ultimately their happiness. God is more than comfortable either causing or allowing short term pain for long term shalom or well being, and sometimes the way he gets to this is through discomfort and even pain. What’s good does not always feel good.
Prosperity can be an awful teacher. The poet Robert Browning Hamilton understood this when he wrote, “I walked a mile with Pleasure/She chattered all the way/But left me none the wiser/For all she had to say. I walked a mile with Sorrow/And ne’er a word said she/But, oh, the things I learned from her/When Sorrow walked with me”- Robert Browning Hamilton. What’s good does not always feel good. There was a recent article in the Atlantic entitled, “Let Kids Play With Fire, And Other Rules for Good Parenting”. In this article the author points out the lack of resiliency he’s seeing among today’s younger generation. He says the reason why kids are growing up so weak is because of helicopter, hovering parents, whose biggest concern in life is the happiness of their kids. They want them to feel good. He argues that doing what feels good for your kids is not what’s ultimately good for them.
Goodness does not always equate into happiness, and this changes the ballgame as it relates to our perspective of God and how he parents us. See, I think one of the main reasons we get so upset at the problem of God and evil, is because in our hearts we think God is ultimately for my happiness. But when I see that God is more for my wholeness than my happiness, now I understand that sometimes this means God either doing or allowing some rough things in my life, because he has the long view on my development. And this perspective also changes the ballgame when it comes to how I husband, parent and friend. Goodness is not just giving money, or spending time, but goodness is also having a hard conversation, risking the friendship because I’m concerned about their shalom. Goodness is also making my sons read books when they’d be more happy playing video games all day long. Goodness is saying no to that person’s repeated requests for money because you’re realizing your enabling and not empowering. This is goodness too, because I’m concerned for their wholeness, and not just their happiness.
So as we prepare our hearts for communion, this different perspective on communion helps us to better understand the horrors of crucifixion and a good God. God was good to, as Isaiah said, crush Jesus on the cross. Why? Because that was the only way we could be adopted into the family. And as you take communion, some of you maybe going through difficult times right now. Hard times. This is God’s goodness. What’s good for you, doesn’t always feel good to you. Thank him for his goodness.