"Be good" is one of the most common commands a parent gives a child.
Growing up in an evangelical church, "being good" shifted. Think carefully about this - we teach our kids to be good, we talk to them about it, we ask them to do it, and then when we enter church-dom they hear this ample refrain:
It's not enough to be a good person.
What? The fabric of our childhood begins to shatter and tatter and tear and we are suddenly thrust into a light where we either become Pharisees and hit the righteousness lottery (which we either do by luck or by obsessive control) or we cobble together a form of faith that minimizes guilt and public profile at the same time.
The "not enough" mentality is bent around the concept of going to heaven when we die (i.e. You can't get to heaven by being a good person). Classic theology says that no one can do good on their own, it is only by God's grace that we are capable of doing good. All of our works are "filthy rags" or "rubbish" apart from the grace of God.
I understand that, but those are questions of justification. They are questions of us "apart from God" and "us with God." This is good and necessary, regardless of how we interpret it or believe it happens.
But then something strange happens:
People who are justified don't always become good people.
Then unjustified people outdo the justified folks in goodness.
Justified people aren't the ones typically leading the way in civil public discourse, peacemaking, generosity, love, grace, hope and restoration in the real world.
Unjustified people act in justified ways and it causes a disconnect. We've been taught being a good person isn't enough for heaven, so we land on justification and settle the heaven question but then we discontinue the search to be a good person at all.
Living this way requires heaven because our lack of goodness creates hell. We end up escaping ourselves.
But justification is a legal term. It's about being set right, let off the hook, acquitted, declared not guilty. It is a glorious gift of grace.
However, when you exit the courtroom into the new blinding light of freedom you are faced with a wilderness of choices and circumstances all beginning you to be a good person, only now you do it with God's help.
In his life, Dallas Willard rarely shied away from saying difficult things. Once he was asked what someone should do in their discipleship, their process of following Jesus & becoming like Him. He said one simple phrase:
"Do the next good thing."
I believe Dallas hit it all in five words. I believe he opened up a new vista of what it could be to live in line with God. Being a good person might be the most Christian thing we can accomplish in any one day. Honestly. That might be the best we have.
What if we are called to do the next good thing? What is the next good thing for you?
What if doing the next good thing brings us closer to the Gospel, the Kingdom of God at hand in the real world?
What if being a good person brings us and others close enough to the holy kitchen to whiff the aromas of grace and beauty that we find in Jesus Christ?
Sometimes our theology - justification included - distances us from reality by making things final.
"We can't be a good person because we are ruined by sin. Permanently."
However at some point that must change because of the calling we have to move forward, to love as Christ has loved us and to be complete as God is complete. We are broken - we do have a potential to completely sabotage our lives - but we are also much more than that, aren't we?
You were once darkness, but now...
You used to live in these ways, but now...
Do. The. Next. Good. Thing.
We need justification, to be set right with God, but that does not change our driving mandate to be good. To do good by following Jesus into good. To taste the Gospel not simply by constant attentiveness to the sin that required justification, but to also be attentive to the new goodness we can walk in because we are justified.
God, what is the next good thing for me? What do I look like as the good person You desire? Help me to patiently, contentedly, and simply step into the goodness you have in mind.