|Socrates - What is the good life?|
How can I be good person?
These were the questions that Socrates asked in Plato's dialogues, 300 years before Christ. Being good mattered to him. He wanted to know what being good looked like and how to become that kind of person.
His own conclusion was that the good life was to live virtuously -- that is, according to the ancient virtues of prudence [wisdom in action], justice, temperance [i.e. self-control] and courage. Not bad, I'd say. The world would no doubt be a much better place if we all lived by such standards.
You get similar lists in the Scriptures as well. Think of Paul's so-called 'theological virtues': faith, hope and charity (or love in the modern translations) from 1 Cor. 13:13. Or his list of things to focus on in Phil. 4:8, namely whatever is true, honorable, right (just), pure, lovely or of good repute. Excellent! And I honestly even know some people who could be described that way. And don't mean they just act that way. I think it emanates from the inside -- it's what we call 'character.'
These kind of lists actually abound in the New Testament. I think too of the 'Beatitudes' of Matt. 5:1-12, or the 'wisdom that comes from heaven,' at the end of James chapter 3, and of course the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. It's true, there's no shortage of opinions--even inspired opinions--about what constitutes the good and virtuous life.
Nor are such notions confined to Christianity. Prophets of the various world religions have espoused their own vision of the good life -- Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius all amassed followers in great part because they offered compelling visions of virtue ... the possibility that I could be 'good.' People want that.
As a fan of Alanis Morissette, I was intrigued by how wounded and bitter she could sound on her Jagged Little Pill album. But then after a significant spiritual awakening in India, she returns with a more contemplative tone. We hear someone who's reflecting on this theme of being good, even if ...
That I would be good even if I did nothing
That I would be good even if I got the thumbs down
That I would be good if I got and stayed sick
That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds
That I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
That I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
That I would be great if I was no longer queen
That I would be grand if I was not all knowing
That I would be loved even when I numb myself
That I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
That I would be loved even when I was fuming
That I would be good even if I was clingy
That I would be good even if I lost sanity
That I would be good whether with or without you
If we we were to compile our own favourite list of virtues, we might ask the same questions ... how could I become a good person (like, what's the process) and what if even if I try, I just can't be good? And what if 'trying' is part of the problem?
When we want to be good but somehow can't be -- when a community or culture or faith demands it of us -- the how of trying to produce, maintain and enforce goodness can get pretty ugly. We've tried it all, whether on one another or ourselves: manipulation and control, fear-mongering, punishments, badgering or belittling or berating. Self-loathing, self-hatred, self-pity. Oh, we can use these ways to imprison ourselves or others into a measure of 'decent' behaviour (for a time), but this approach never transforms people or societies for 'the good.' They might be sufficiently shut down to behave (for a time), but typically, repression and oppression create a pot of resentment that inevitably boils over in any number of vices, burning oneself and those around. Been there. Done that. For those who disparage a grace approach as unrealistic, I can show you the realism of these ugly alternatives.
But along comes the apostle Paul, not just offering the mercy of God's acceptance when we fail, but also a path to transformation through empowering grace. I've selected three passages as samples below. When you get to them, you'll not that I've highlighted in blue the actual change Paul is looking for -- as in day-to-day goodness, the virtues in action. These include good and virtuous practices like repentance, denial of ungodliness, resistance to worldly lusts, the ability to live sensibly, justly and god-like, freedom from lawlessness and zeal for good works.
So often we've been oppressed and crushed by the very expectation that we should be this way, that we need to be assured that God loves us and we belong even when we aren't this way. That we aren't saved by our virtues. We're saved by God, by grace, by Christ's finished work on the Cross. That's very good. But some go further to construct a grace theology that nearly says you shouldn't be this way, because if you are, you're just 'religious,' as if any response to God's grace of real-life goodness were a vice rather than a virtue.
Paul has a third way, a higher way, a Jesus Way that says, God is at work in you to bring about 'the fruits of repentance' in your real life, in your relationships, in your marriage, in your family, in your job, your community, in every facet of life. Notice that: God is at work ... and so maybe I'm not finished yet. Note too: becoming good isn't about getting religious or looking good at all. It's specific to helping us love, enabling our relationships to work well and bring life. I want that.
But the genius of Paul, or rather of God, is that goodness is not accomplished through verbal or physical canings or any kind of coercion -- defined as persuasion through force or threats. But it IS accomplished (even if it takes forever) ... how? Look at the red letters. They describe God's way of changing us:
Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).
What do you see? Whatever change God will enact in me, it will be through kindness, mercy and grace. And these, apparently, have appeared to us. How so? In Christ! He was the kindness, mercy and grace of God in person, incarnate. And he showed us how to really change someone ... by loving them beyond fear of punishment and gently leading them into the Father's welcoming arms.
And of course, the naysayers have always piped up, 'Shall we continue sinning that grace may abound?' (Rom. 6:1) And you know, if they don't feel the need to chime in, we haven't preached the gospel that Paul preached. But since they're asking ...
Here is the psychology of kindness. When we fail somehow, but finally have the courage to confess it to our family or our spiritual caregiver or a confidant, if they respond with grace and mercy and a reminder of the gospel, it brings us out of the very self-centeredness and shame that actually prevented us from taking responsibility for our wrongs and making our amends.
In other words, their kindness sets us free from the shame that was functioning to keep us in denial. In our shame, we get stuck, hiding our faces as a subconscious way to avoid facing our sh... our issues and making things right! The mercy shown doesn't merely let us off scot-free. Rather, the love of God through trusted grace-givers actually empowers us to rise up to do the right thing. This is not religion. This is real transformation, actual repentance and practiced goodness.
It happens why? Because the kindness of God appeared. If we'll continue to welcome God's kindness into our stuck places, our vices, even our denial, something 'good' is bound to happen.