Sunday, April 06, 2014

Why Are Good People Tempted to Do Wrong? [4]

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8.1-11
Ezekiel offers a different metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in. People who think they are better than they really are resemble dry bones piled on a battlefield. That’s how things will end up for us unless something changes radically!

The nation of Israel thought they were good but on the day when they encountered a determined and ruthless foe they discovered how hollow their self belief had been. Their army was overrun at the Battle Of Megiddo and their king, Josiah - who had a reputation for being a jolly good king, was shot full of arrows. And each one of us risks the same sort of fate when we come up against the moral dilemmas of daily life. When it comes to the crunch, our goodness can turn out to be skin deep and in no time at all we can end up morally shredded, as worthless as dry bones. But all is not lost. The Psalmist is mistaken. God’s patience is never exhausted. Our hope is never lost and we are never completely cut off from his loving kindness. God can make even dry bones live again and he says, ‘I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’ Putting this in Christian terms, no matter how many battles we may have lost with the sinful side of our human nature, we can still be justified by faith in Jesus' death for us upon the Cross, and God's love can still be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Like Ezekiel, Paul also seeks to reassure us that even good people gone wrong are not condemned if we put our faith in Jesus. For the Spirit of life promised to us by Jesus sets us free from the cognitive dissonance with which we struggle. We are not dependent on what human nature can do any more. We can depend on the Holy Spirit, which offers us new life and peace in him.

Paul observes that people like us who want to do good find that we simply can’t please God all of the time. Our minds constantly revert to the hundred-and-one temptations which quickly overcome good people and subvert our best intentions. But the God who raised Jesus to new life after he died for us can offer a kind kind of life to us too, if we only allow the Spirit of Jesus to dwell within us.

Why Are Good People Tempted to Do Wrong (3)


Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. The Psalmist's view is that God is so creative and so wonderfully loving that we shouldn't allow anything to separate us from him.
We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. He cares personally for each one of us and you'd think that would make us grateful and determined to be good.
My grandfather had a herd of sheep. To look at them, scattered around the field eating grass and watching over their lambs, they seemed like free agents who could do whatever they liked. But not a bit of it. The flock had a leader, whom my grandfather had kindly nicknamed Granny. When he came to the gate with a sack of feed she would walk to meet him and then she would follow him all the way to the feed trough. She never hurried, and she was never pushed or jostled by the rest of the flock, because she was the acknowledged leader of the flock and they all fell into line obediently behind her. I don't know how she enforced her priority in the pecking order, but she did! So those were good sheep. but not all sheep are as docile and well behaved.
When I was a child we used to go sometimes to sheepdog trials. They were supposed to be a test of which shepherd and dog had the best working relationship, but actually they were often a test of which competitor was unlucky enough to get the most stubborn set of sheep. The sheep would be divided into fours and each competitor worked with just four of them. But some sheep were good and would do just what the dog wanted, and some were determined to do their own thing. Once a dog got so frustrated that it tried to bite a sheep, but it wasn't entirely the dog's fault. Those sheep were spoiling for a fight!
The Psalmist warns that, although God is the good shepherd, we are not necessarily obedient sheep. Too often, even those of us who think that we're good find ourselves hardening our hearts to what is right. Like the sheep in the sheepdog trials we test the shepherd and put him to the proof, even though we have seen his goodness to us, and that's often because we convince ourselves that we're not so bad - that it's not our fault if we get bitten. And God gets frustrated, like the shepherd and the dog who were unlucky enough to draw the stubborn set of sheep. In fact, the Psalmist says an extraordinary thing; that God came to loathe the generation of people whom he rescued from Egypt so much for going astray that he swore - in his frustration - that they should not enter his rest in the Promised Land.
There is an implicit threat in the way the Psalmist recounts this story. 'O that today you would listen to his voice!' he tells the worshippers. 'Do not harden your hearts; do not go astray and disregard God's ways, or else you too shall not enter his rest just like the cursed generation who were condemned to wander in the wilderness without respite.'
But, of course, we know this isn't necessarily true. Our situation isn't as hopeless as the Psalmist implies.We can still obtain access to God's peace and grace, says Paul, even though we don't manage to be as good as we might like to imagine; and that's because God's patience isn't exhausted after all. We can still be justified by faith  in Jesus' death for us upon the Cross, and God's love can still be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Although we are still struggling and failing to be good enough, God has died for the ungodly. 'Perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die,' says Paul, 'But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.'
Notice the almost casual way in which Paul moves from talking about God to talking about Jesus Christ, as if they were almost one and the same. God is not Jesus. He is more than Jesus. But we can say that Jesus is God. So if Jesus was willing to die for us, even though we are so shot full of imperfections, that proves the Psalmist was mistaken. We do, as the Psalmist says, make God angry by our disobedience. We do make God feeling loathing for the way we justify our behaviour. Paul actually talks in even strongly language than the Psalmist; he says that we incur God's wrath. But it is not true that we are condemned to wander for ever in the wilderness, cast out from God's love. We can find our rest in him. Despite our weakness we can be reconciled to God by Jesus' death for us and the Spirit of the risen Jesus can help us to become better people.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what Paul elsewhere calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. No wonder then that another Psalmist says, 'Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven.' 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.
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.

Why Are Good People Tempted to Do Wrong? (2)

John 3.1-17, Romans 4:1-5 &13-17
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. Nicodemus recognises that God is present in Jesus and yet he only dares to visit him at night. Is he reluctant to give Jesus the recognition he deserves as a fellow rabbi, or is he afraid of declaring his own allegiance to Jesus? Either way, Jesus feels there may be some cognitive dissonance at work here. Like other rabbis who have come to Jesus seeking answers, Nicodemus is reluctant to acknowledge the truth of what he's hearing so he convinces himself that part of the jigsaw puzzle is still missing. 'How can these things be?' he asks.
'And how can you call yourself a teacher,' Jesus counters, 'And yet claim not to understand these things? I'm telling it how it is, but you're not listening.' How often that happens, doesn't it? Otherwise good people, including ourselves of course, sometimes blank out inconvenient truths or things which challenge our preconceptions.
A little later on Jesus talks about Moses, and only a few weeks ago we heard in the lectionary how Moses once said ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray…, I declare to you today that you shall perish.’ In other words, good people who allow themselves to be deflected from what is true will not flourish in the long run.
However, unlike Moses, Jesus doesn't talk about condemnation; instead, he offers salvation. He has come so that good people might not perish but have everlasting life. And the key to turning things around is trust. If we trust in Jesus, and see in his uncompromising love the antidote to all the ways that good people so easily go wrong, then we too might be saved.
Paul says that Abraham didn't earn God's favour by doing the right thing all of the time. He wasn't good enough to become God's friend and the ancestor of a great faith. Instead, he simply put his trust in God.
The Law of Moses brings wrath or condemnation to those who try to be good by keeping it, not because it is a bad thing in itself but because being good enough to keep the Law is impossible. There’s no escaping human nature and 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 subconscious, 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 was lifted up to die for us in order 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 Paul elsewhere calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. No wonder then that the Psalmist says, 'Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven.' 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.
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.