Word reached me of the death of a member of one of my former churches. The homily preached at his memorial was entitled, “A Good Man,” and it extolled a life of generosity, virtue, community involvement, and leadership. The news made me both sad and angry. While everything shared in his tribute was true, it was incomplete. The good man in question was a heavy drinker at home, and abusive to his wife and three children. The good man was an unabashed bigot and told egregiously offensive ethnic jokes. The good man was an unscrupulous business negotiator, who proudly shared stories of ways he “screwed the morons.” He was in church every Sunday, served on the Board of Trustees, was one of the top givers, helped out at every church function, went on mission trips, and sang in the choir — but did this make him a good man?
Almost thirty-five years ago (YIKES, I’m old…) I met a middle-aged African man named Tommy who told the story of his family. His father married a woman who could give him many children. His plan, you see, was to raise healthy boys he could sell, so that he could save money to buy his own farm. Then, when he owned a farm, he would take a new young wife who would give him sons he would keep to run the farm and support him in his old age. Tommy shared with me that he once had two sisters, but both of them mysteriously disappeared at night, and the family was not allowed to talk about them after. Tommy and six brothers had been sold — all at around age eight. Tommy did not know what happened to his father, but throughout his story he would say, with admiration, “My fadda, he a good man.”
I also recall an argument I had with a girlfriend in college. I had worked in a parachurch organization for awhile, and had been asked to leave it by a smarmy, self-righteous guy who was obsessed with boundary issues. His whole calling in ministry was to sling mud, cast aspersions, raise doubts, and give people the idea that others were engaged in sexual misconduct. He would sow seeds of doubt and concern in parents minds, making life for the youth workers endlessly trying and difficult. I discovered that this guy himself had serious boundary issues — with his own step-daughter, with co-workers, with women at our church. The guy was a total horn-dog, and he projected his own dysfunction onto others. I criticized this man in front of my girlfriend once, and she launched into a defense of what a “good man” he was — laying out a laundry list of the good things he did for family, friends, and community. She ended by saying, “You should be HALF the man he is!” I hope and pray I am absolutely ZERO the man he was (and probably still is).
I served a church near a community where another young pastor was viewed as one of the finest citizens — a good man. I was crushed when it was discovered he molested a 15 year-old girl. My uncle was considered by many to be a “good man,” but he made millions of dollars by taking advantage of the poor. Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and others have been considered “good men ” by millions. And in fact, I am sure they are… to some degree.
The problem we have is one of absolutes. We want everything to be simple, neat, and tidy. We want our people to be good or evil (look at the way we treat politicians in the media), right or wrong, honest or dishonest, etc. Yet, how many people are one thing all the time? We are all “a, and not a” types, rather than “a, or b.” What I mean by this is we are all good — some of the time — and not good — some of the time. It is why we need grace. It is why we need redemption. It is why we need to be forgiven.
But goodness is more than the net sum of our actions, it is about our intentions as well — and this is where it gets tricky. The road to hell is paved, and all that. I have absolutely no desire to be a good man. My greatest hope and desire is to be a better man tomorrow than I am today. No matter how hard I try, I will not be perfect (though I am continuously being perfected by God’s loving grace), but there is no reason I cannot pursue personal improvement. My intentions may never be fully transparent and understood by others, but if my intention is to be better, I believe it will bear good fruit that others can see.
Our greatest sin is not in any one act we commit, but in our complacency about our sin. The day I no longer care about what I do, the day the impact my actions have on others no longer matters, that is the day my soul is lost. There is simply no way to be a “mindless” Christian. What we do matters. What we say counts. What we believe makes a difference. How we choose to move through this world is our loudest statement of faith. None of us will do it flawlessly. None of us is perfect. But all of us can do it well. And for that we need help.
Perhaps the most transformative moment I have ever witnessed in any church was in a Quaker meeting house in Nashville, Tennessee. A young man, recently released from prison for attempted murder and armed robbery, stood before the congregation where he had committed his crimes and apologized. With tears in his eyes he said how sorry he was to have hurt anyone, to have betrayed their trust, to have made them feel unsafe, and he begged them not to hate him. He kept sobbing, saying over and over, “I am so bad, I am so bad, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” As a body, thirty or so people got to their feet, including the woman he had tried to kill and the family from whom he had stolen, and they surrounded him, placing their hands on him, and saying together that they forgave him and loved him and welcomed him home. In that moment I realized that there are no such things as “good men” and “bad men,” but “broken men,” and “unfinished men,” and “flawed men,” and “lost men.” We may do many “bad” things, and we may do many “good” things, but they do not add up to make us one thing or the other. Our “goodness” or “badness” is much deeper and more complex than that.
I want to be better. I want to be more patient. I want to be more kind. I want to sow peace. I want to fight for justice. I want to be grace-filled, forgiving, and merciful. I want to be less judgmental and intolerant. I want to be generous — both materially and emotionally. I want to be more like Jesus, and less like myself. I really don’t want to be “good,” I just want to be faithful.
Categories: Christian discipleship, Core Values, Personal Reflection
We recently hosted an emergent church pastor and he told a story about his adopted son who responded to these lyrics from The Who when they came on the radio during a family vacation:
“No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man/ To be the sad man behind blue eyes.”
The teenage boy said “I know.”
Victimized by a mom who drank and did drugs when the boy was not yet born, and who had a quite unhappy early childhood full of foster homes, the son has had a hard time controlling his emotions and tempers. To the point where his mom and dad had to learn safety holds…
His mom cried out to him. “Yeah, buddy, that’s right. But that isn’t all you are.”
The line between good and bad is often deeply blurred.
I love it, Dan! Now, how do we practice love, forgiveness, and redemptive justice, in small ways and large, instead of rage, vengeance, and punitive justice?
ANOTHER on-point wordsmith creation. You are incredible!
And — being on the path to becoming a better person — seems to mirror one of JW’s guidelines to be moving on towards perfection?
I couldn’t help but think about Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s quote in The Gulag Archipelago that, “the line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”
Thank you! What a great quote.
My executive director and I were just having this conversation yesterday in light of a local news story about someone whose job is to protect the vulnerable, who was preying on them instead. My concern is that as a society we are, like you say, so fixed on people being either good or bad. This makes us less vigilant about recognizing the bad act in someone who has been labeled as good until much harm has been done.