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Why are good people tempted to do wrong?

Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, Matthew 5.21-37
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong.
We tell ourselves that there are some people whose motives are totally wicked or self-regarding: criminals, liars, cheats, two-timers, fraudsters, and so on, but we are not that kind of person. We’re basically good people who just indulge in an occasional misdemeanour.
So, for example, there’s Noble Cause Corruption, a phrase first coined apparently in 1992 to explain why police officers, judges, politicians, managers, teachers, social workers and so on sometimes get sucked into justifying actions which are really totally wrong, but on the grounds that they are doing them for a very good reason.
A famous instance of noble cause corruption is the statement, by the late Lord Denning, then the Master of the Rolls and a very senior judge, that it would be better for innocent people to stay in gaol than for the rest of the world to start believing that the English legal system makes mistakes. Of course, we all want to believe that we have a legal system which is the envy of the world. But keeping innocent people in gaol just so that we can pretend we never make mistakes is only a good idea if, like Lord Denning, you happen to think that you and the people you love are never going to get arrested, taken before a court and put in prison for something that you haven’t done.
More ordinary examples of noble cause corruption would be ‘fitting someone  up’ for a crime - inventing evidence against them because you’re pretty sure they’re committing crimes but you can’t actually prove it; or sacking a worker for a bogus reason because you can’t get on with them or you think they’re bad for your organisation and you would be better off without them; or punishing a child at random to make the whole class behave better; or finding an excuse to take a child away from their family because you instinctively know that they’re in danger even though you can’t explain your reasons. The people who do these things feel they’re good people, and if they’re doing something a little bit wrong it is for a good cause. They feel that the end justifies the means.
Then, of course, there are good people who end up doing wrong things because of tunnel vision - like the bank managers who told their staff that they would only get all of their wages if they sold enough insurance policies and payment protection products. Inevitably this meant that staff felt pressured into recommending products hen they weren’t right for the customer. The whole policy was wrong, but the bank managers couldn’t see it. They felt they were doing a good job.
Another way that good people fall into error is when they change the name of something to make it sound less bad. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds regrettable but justifiable, whereas ‘killing innocent civilians’ sounds like something good people would never do.
Clock-watching is an ordinary, everyday reason why good people are tempted to do the wrong thing, and the obvious example is breaking the speed limit on the way to a hospital appointment or a job interview. However, as if that weren’t proof enough that clock-watching can turn good people bad, someone shut a group of theological students in a room, asked them to write an exam answer about the story of the Good Samaritan, then told them that it had to be handed in at another building. Half the class were allowed to leave in good time. On the way they encountered someone who apparently needed help and most of them stopped to see what they could do to assist, because they still had time to hand in their work to be marked. The other half of the class were deliberately held back on some pretext or other, so that they only just had enough time to meet the deadline if they hurried to the other building. Predictably, when they saw someone who needed help, most of them passed by on the other side. But they still felt okay about themselves, because they had something more important to do.
Good people also feel, of course, that teeny-tiny wrongs are not so very bad, whereas big wrongs ought to be punished. If they take home a few pens from work, or a memory stick, or the odd toilet roll even, that’s not really stealing, whereas taking a thousand pounds is a crime and should be punished.
And then there are people who think they’re so good that breaking the ordinary rules about bad behaviour can’t really take the shine off their goodness: people like Martin Luther King, who felt that he led such a hectic life doing good, and putting his life on the line, that a little bit of adultery and fornication was a perk of the job which he needed to help him unwind and stay focused.
MPs were prone to a similar temptation as well, weren’t they? Some of them convinced themselves that because they do a difficult job, for not very high reward, it was all right to employ their own children as researchers, even if the children didn’t actually do very much, or to claim for a duck house on expenses. And all ministers of religion, not just famous people like Martin Luther King, can easily fall into the same sort of trap. We convince ourselves that we’re basically good people, who do the Lord’s work, so if we also do a little bit of wrong on the side, so to speak, it doesn’t change our good opinion of ourselves.
Perhaps we persuade ourselves that we’ve got some ‘ethical credit’ - that we’ve stored up enough good deeds to cancel out the odd slip here and there. But anyone in a position of leadership, or authority is liable to set higher standards for other people than they apply to themselves. In their own case they can always see a good reason for bending the rules a bit, but when it comes to other people they want to see the rules applied.
Unfortunately, we’re all influenced by our environment as well. In a selfish environment, where everyone is looking out for themselves, we tend to become more selfish too. In a greedy environment, where everyone is trying to make as much money as they can, we tend to be infected by the same values even if we don’t really believe that greed is good. When people think they’re living in a jungle, they behave like they’re in the jungle.
And, of course, there’s the famous experiment - by someone called Stanley Milgram - where men in white coats asked a variety of people to inflict pain on a middle aged man as part of a scientific experiment, and they willingly did so even when the man begged them to stop. Milgram went on to argue from this that it helped to explain the behaviour of SS guards in concentration camps, but other people objected because they pointed out that the scientists in the experiment seemed like good people, whereas no one could imagine that the Nazis were good. Perhaps the SS guards just wanted to seem like team-players, which is another reason why good people sometimes do things they otherwise would feel were wrong.
But the biggest problem for good people is something which the experts call ‘cognitive dissonance’, which is a fancy way of saying that when we’re doing something that we know is wrong we start trying to convince ourselves that it isn’t so bad after all. We play down our bad behaviour and we rewrite the rules. And the longer it goes on, the more we try to explain the problem away.
Of course, when we’re found out we have to confront the fact that although we think we’re basically good we’re also capable of doing wrong. But perversely, sometimes, that’s when we begin to feel less bad about ourselves. ‘Okay,’ we might say, ‘So now everyone knows that I’m a bit more greedy, or sleazy or selfish than I seemed, but at least it’s out in the open so now I needn’t feel so bad about myself.’ I guess that’s how Chris Huhne justifies continuing to give us the benefit of his opinions in newspaper articles and so on. He got someone else to take his speeding points, but he’s admitted it now so he can put it behind him and get on with lecturing everyone else.
And we all do it, don’t we? if we’re honest! ‘We all tell ourselves that we’re better than we deserve to feel.
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray…,’ says the prophet Moses, ‘I declare to you today that you shall perish.’ In other words, good people who allow themselves to be deflected from goodness will not flourish in the long run.
‘Happy are those who keep the Lord’s decrees, who seek him with their whole heart,who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways,’ says the Psalmist. ‘O that my ways may be steadfast!’
St Paul points out to the Christians at Corinth that they’re not even half as good as they think they are. They’re not ‘spiritual people’ but ‘people of the flesh’. They’re not angels, they’re ‘merely human’.
Of course, there’s no escaping human nature. We’re never so much in danger of falling as when we think we’re above reproach. We’ll always have mixed motives and Freudian psychology has demonstrated that some of our behaviour is dictated by our sub-conscious, so that we’re not even aware of what is really motivating us. That’s why, in the end, we’re dependent on the grace of God, revealed in Jesus who died to reveal God’s love for us and who sends us the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what St Paul calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. But God in his mercy is prepared to accept us despite our imperfections. In Jesus he offers himself as a solution to our predicament. He shows us that his love can always overcome the bad things that good people end up doing. And through his Spirit working in us we can at least grow towards perfection.
Jesus sets out in the Sermon on the Mount a charter for Christian perfection. He offers a commentary on the Ten Commandments which takes them and sharpens them so that even good people will be able to see that, in order to live up to God’s demands, we not only have to appear to be good, or even do good, we have to be good through and through, deep down to the core of our being, in a way that challenges even our most deeply hidden and unconscious motivations and distractions.
Of course, Jesus is exaggerating. He doesn’t really want his followers to chop off their hands or pluck out their eyes in an admission of our unconscious inadequacies and failings. But he wants us to recognise that this is what we ought to do if we’re to become radically pure and truly good. And, short of that, we therefore have to trust in his love and mercy and be merciful to others. ‘Judge not that you be not judged,’ is the sub-text of this passage.
Whether or not we should really swear oaths in court is also, I think, beside the point. What Jesus means is that good people are known, and recognised as such, by their integrity. Their ‘Yes’ really means ‘Yes’ and their ‘No’ really means ‘No’. They’re not like dodgy politicians, constantly ducking and diving around the straightforward meaning of words to avoid revealing what they actually mean.
Whether or not divorce is permitted for Christians is a matter of debate, even in the New Testament. Matthew says that you can divorce your wife, but only for ‘unchastity’. whatever that means, whereas Luke says you can never divorce her. And the divorce of husbands isn’t even mentioned. But probing into that sort of detail is to miss the point. The underlying meaning here, once again, is that good people must mean what they say. When they promise to love and obey there are no excuses for stopping.
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. But the Bible reminds us that we can only be truly good if we’re radically good. There’s no such thing as pretty good. And if we’re falling short of radical goodness, as we surely must, that simply emphasises our reliance on God’s grace, for the truly good are those who know their need of God’s great goodness.


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