Can a person be good without God?

A common theme among Christian writers is that God is the ultimate source of morality, often called “the moral argument”. Probably the pithiest expression of this idea is from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which one of the characters argues that “if God does not exist, … everything is permitted.” Many readers quickly see where this is going and consider the reverse; if morality is not just a matter of personal taste, then God must exist. Of course this is only a superficial treatment; a more thorough presentation of the moral argument, along with responses to some common objections, is found in the first chapters of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It’s available in a YouTube version here which I recommend highly.

However one puts it, claiming that morality comes from God is a good way to pick a fight. There is a widespread belief that atheists are less moral than believers in God, and people often express this belief in illogical ways (as in this study), or with a nasty subtext of “and that’s why I’m better than you” (contrary to Jesus’s admonitions against this kind of attitude, e.g. Matt 7:1-3). Understandably, nonbelievers find the implications of this quite insulting, and are inclined to push back.

One example can be found here, in an opinion piece by Jerry Coyne, an atheist and biology professor. It’s worth reflecting upon, as the ideas expressed there are increasingly common and many of the points he makes are legitimate. Versions of the moral argument that don’t take these concerns into account, with gentleness and respect, are unlikely to generate any genuine dialogue, so let’s take a closer look.

At the start, we find an anecdote

One cold Chicago day last February, I watched a Federal Express delivery man carry an armful of boxes to his truck. In the middle of the icy street, he slipped, scattering the boxes and exposing himself to traffic. Without thinking, I ran into the street, stopped cars, hoisted the man up and helped him recover his load. Pondering this afterward, I realized that my tiny act of altruism had been completely instinctive; there was no time for calculation.

This is a preview of Coyne’s central point – that morals are ultimately derived from biological, evolutionary sources rather than God. In my view, some aspects flow from the former source, and other aspects from the latter, and I will developing this view further in this post.

There are, however, a few other points Coyne makes that are worth comment. While acknowledging that the moral argument has its proponents, Coyne raises a dilemma that goes back to Plato

Do actions become moral simply because they’re dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral?

and seems awfully confident that he has the right answer to it

It doesn’t take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one. Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn’t automatically become OK. Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it’s clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.

With deeply controversial, ancient questions, I try to avoid phrases like “obviously”, “of course”, “it’s clear”, and “it doesn’t take much thought”. There are usually not only two sides to the story, but additional subtleties as well. If God’s moral law were written in our hearts, and if God’s commands were in accord with it, then it’s plausible that we would be unable to know whether God originated that law arbitrarily or for some other reason, and thus we would be unable to resolve dilemmas like this one.

Theists can have differing views on this point; Lewis himself seems to lean towards the idea that the moral law has some real force of its own, and that “God is good” is not just a tautology.  The main focus of the moral argument isn’t to resolve this dilemma but simply to argue against purely natural causes.

Moving on, while the main subject under discussion is a general debate between theistic and atheistic conceptions of morality, we find Coyne detouring to present a list of specific complaints against the morals of the Judeo-Christian God. This isn’t surprising, as I suspect his ultimate purpose (like mine, in the opposite direction) is to win hearts and minds, and many USA Today readers are unfamiliar with some of the biblical passages he cites. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find no defense from me of the worst passages of the Old Testament – I don’t hold to the inerrancy of scripture, for reasons I explore here, here, and here.

Where Jesus is concerned, I am more inclined to push back.  He famously put a stop to the stoning of a woman, but also resisted attempts to trap him into simplistic treatment of moral or political issues. Coyne’s claim that Jesus barred heaven to the wealthy is a single verse plucked out of context – had he just read two verses further, it actually says something different. As for approving the beating of slaves, this is also out of context, taken from a parable, not an instruction; again, we find the opposite elsewhere in the New Testament (more on slavery here, if you want further context). As for the torments of hell, this is the one complaint that has some force. I’ve done my best to address it at length here, but also have some fresh ideas on the matter that I will explore here in this post.

Coyne then returns to his main point, that morals arise from evolution.

Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That’s how natural selection can build morality.

Narratives about the evolutionary origins of morality seem to be all the rage these days. A steady drumbeat of scientific studies describe our morality in instinctive terms, much like Coyne did in his opening paragraph. That is, we have a deep-seated desire to do good and avoid harming people. Related work describes morality as an aid to popularity, also with an ultimate evolutionary basis. Often the headline – as in “Scientists Probe Human Nature–and Discover We Are Good, After All” – is misleadingly simplistic, while the body of the article gives a more nuanced presentation. Together, all of this work can seem to the casual reader like the evidence is piling up against the quaint old “moral argument”.

Look more closely, however, and the results are rarely anything that would shock common sense or have baffled ancient philosophers. Yes, people do have many good instincts. Almost everyone can relate to Coyne’s narrative about helping a fallen man in the street. It feels good to do simple acts of kindness. Similarly, the thought of killing or torturing a person fills most of us with natural disgust. Cooperation is often the path of least resistance and produces good results.

And of course, none of us wants to be perceived as lacking trustworthiness, generosity, or other moral virtues. That would be bad for popularity, or bad for business if that’s your thing. Look at all of the posturing (on both sides) around expressing one’s political preferences. How much of it do you think is really about a serious attempt to influence the outcome by reasoning one’s opponents towards one’s own position? Doesn’t it seem clear that most of it is about showing oneself to be on some sort of moral high ground, as a performance for an audience with whom one has or wants a connection?

In short, we don’t just have to trust all of these scientific results for the usual reasons (because it is evidence-based, comes from reputable institutions, etc.)  We have no reason at all to distrust these results in the first place.  Nevertheless, we should have a skeptical disposition to the interpretations that are often given to the results.  It would be wise to always ask two questions when processing these results.

First, if a pattern of human behavior has been documented, and an evolutionary explanation suggested, is it a good narrative? It’s one thing to say that many of our instincts have both a positive moral dimension and an evolutionary basis. It’s unlikely that all of these narratives are wrong; readers of this blog will be aware that I find no contradiction between evolution and Christianity.

However, most commentators that, like Coyne, look at the scientific evidence through an atheistic lens would admit that all of our immoral instincts also have evolutionary roots. The situations where many of us act immorally – lie, steal, take more than our fair share, knowingly hurt someone with overt or subtle insults, etc. – as well as the rarer cases of murder and such, all must, in this view, also trace back to our evolutionary nature. What evolution prods us to do is neither inherently good or bad, it’s just whatever promotes survival of one’s genes. Evolution, while admittedly an excellent paradigm for purely biological questions, is such a flexible theory in the realm of moral behavior that it doesn’t really explain much. If people were experimentally found to be more selfish, or less moral than previously assumed, an evolutionary paradigm would accommodate that result well. (Much better, at least it would seem to me.)

The second question one should ask frequently is this: what is the difference between simply good behavior and truly moral behavior? Rather than get caught up in semantics, let’s illustrate the issue at hand with some examples.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)

The above isn’t some obscure piece of ancient wisdom, it’s from one of the most famous of all biblical passages: Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Instinctive goodness is common to most of us – the stuff of evolutionary morality. Love towards those who love you back, simple courtesies and greetings, etc. Loving your enemies?  Not so common, and not so smart from an evolutionary perspective.  But that’s the kind of morality that’s behind the “moral argument”.  A healthy God-given conscience (whether its owner is religious or not) will recognize the second kind of morality as a higher kind than the first. Higher not just because it is good and beautiful, but also because it is difficult, and not instinctive.

In case the point is unclear, Jesus continues in the same vein.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:1-18

Not content to exclude merely instinctive behaviors from the list of things God rewards, we see above that Jesus is focusing on good behaviors with other kinds of social benefits, the kinds behind some of the evolutionary narratives about morals. Giving to the needy (showing oneself as generous), praying in public (showing oneself as spiritually mature), or fasting demonstratively (showing oneself to be disciplined and pious) are exactly the kinds of behaviors that critics of the “moral argument” would point to as not really God-inspired, but ultimately (if indirectly) an expression of a survival adaptation.

These practices are not bad in and of themselves – in fact, Jesus commends them all in other contexts – but they should not be done “as the hypocrites do”. God sees the heart, and ultimately cares about that.  Morality in a Christian context is not the same thing Coyne was describing. We can feel free agree with Coyne, where the interpretation fits, on the evolutionary origins of everyday morality. But Jesus is saying that not satisfied by our simply “following our instincts” in cases where there are psychological or practical benefits that come easily or naturally.

We find this sentiment all over the New Testament. Sometimes it is prefaced by some practical, down-to-earth advice (which often has a deeper meaning to it as well), which then gets the listener’s attention for something more challenging.

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Luke 14:7-14

Ever felt disgusted by holier-than-thou types who seem to be feeding their ego rather than making the world a better place [insert televangelist scandal here]? That’s what Jesus seems to encountered with “teachers of the law”.

Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.

Luke 20:46-47

The motivations of the mostly loudly religious types are often not pure. Regardless of what words they use, don’t mistake this kind of behavior for anything like true Christianity.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4

Above we find the famous story of the Widow’s Mite (the mite was an ancient a copper coin). Here again we find God being concerned with the heart. The generosity of the rich was likely noticed and admired, but the widow’s contribution, seen as modest by the world and not rewarded, was difficult and therefore of more moral worth.

To summarize, we see two types of moral behavior – one kind that many people do (the type we see in scientific discussion and anecdotes like Coyne’s), for which evolution provides a plausible explanation in terms of the albeit somewhat indirect benefits it confers, and another kind that is rare and precious and does not come naturally. This latter kind doesn’t sit well at all with evolutionary theory, yet it strikes most of us as nonetheless genuine. For these reasons, I think the “moral argument” (to which again I’d refer the reader to Lewis for a fuller exposition) holds up well against its critics.

At this point, especially if any atheists are still reading, one might ask two sets of very pointed questions.

First, is this kind of difficult moral behavior only open to Christians? Doesn’t anyone incline towards genuine, fully disinterested altruism. Did we really need the Sermon on the Mount to figure this out?

And second, if one does follow this “higher” form of morality just because of Christ’s say so, isn’t that actually self-interested in its own way? Isn’t it better to be “good for goodness sake”, as the noblest of atheists might, then to cynically do good to obtain reward or avoid punishment? Why would Christ even go there in appealing to those motives?

To the first point, I would say no, it’s open to anyone. As St. Paul argued, you don’t need to be familiar with the Bible or have religion to understand morality.

Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.

Romans 2:14-15

We all have a conscience and we are all responsible to it. Jesus didn’t come to reveal a higher morality we otherwise wouldn’t have known was there. The Good Samaritan parable is an illustrative example. Here Jesus is talking about one of these non-evolutionary types of morality, the kind that makes a truly “unsung” hero, that of helping an outsider when it is expensive or inconvenient. In the end, the moral of the story isn’t given by Jesus, instead it’s elicited from the listener.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Luke 10:25-37

So no, we don’t need the Sermon on the Mount to realize that there’s a moral law pressing down on us, and that it’s something quite different from “instinct”. I think the more one feels a moral impulse that seems to be in conflict with instinct, the more likely it is to be conscience.  In my opinion, Jesus came not to give us a moral law that conscience already revealed, but rather (a) to encourage us to listen to it (with reward and punishment if necessary), (b) to reveal Himself to be genuine by appealing to conscience, (c) to emphasize how high the bar is, morally speaking, so that we have no grounds to be judgmental towards one another, and (d) to lay out the good news of how we can be reconciled to Him through repentance and forgiveness, even if we’ve done a lousy job living out the high standards.

Okay, so about that reward and punishment. It’s clearly there, as a theme throughout Jesus’s teaching. But on the punishment side especially, I think it’s been improperly portrayed as cruel and infinite (see here), when the overall character to which it’s attached is clearly parental (as easier seen in passages like Luke 15).

Think of a young child, for example, and think of morality only in the practical, ultimately self-interested sense which evolutionary biology can potentially explain. Let’s call this Type A morality. A young child may have some of this morality already through good instincts, such as an aversion to biting the hand that feeds them. But sharing toys and generally “playing well with others” might not come so easily. A good parent will help a child along towards a fuller understanding of Type A morality through teaching. In the early going, reward and punishment may be the only way to get an unruly child’s attention, so that’s what’s used. Call this Stage 1 of Type A.

As the child matures a bit, that might not be necessary anymore, but the child is still not really ready to play nice “for its own sake”. So the parent may use praise rather than overt rewards, so that the child does things “to please the parent” rather than “to get the reward”. This is an improvement, because in addition to furthering moral development it builds the parent-child relationship. Call this Stage 2 of Type A.

The goal of most parents is for the child to reach Stage 3 of Type A, full blown moral development at least in the worldly sense. The child will play well with others, obey social norms, treat people with respect, and generally will enjoy a better life because of it. In Stage 3, the child does these things automatically; they flow out of the child’s own mature character even when the parent is not looking. The child is ready for adult life, and the parent is truly well-pleased.

Now consider the Type B morality we see in the Gospels. To many adults who are mature in the worldly sense of morality – kind, cooperative, helping people in the street, generous, honest, etc. – what Jesus is asking sounds silly at first blush. Love enemies? Forgive wrongs?  Avoid revenge? Don’t get credit for what you do that is good? Give until it really hurts? This can seem like weakness, foolishness, and/or naïveté. Most of us would find it too easy to silence the conscience when the instinct (or the voice of rational self-interest) speaks much more loudly. It is to this stage of moral development, let’s call it Stage 1 of Type B, that the rewards and punishments speak. It’s often the only way to get our attention.

But I don’t think motivation by reward and punishment is really what God wants. So if a person is to progress, they need to move beyond that. Usually, the next step involves building one’s relationship with God. This can be done in other traditions or on one’s own, but I believe Christianity to be the most direct route (and if it’s the only route, then in the sense in which all genuine piety relates to God through Jesus whether one knows him by name or not).  A Christian further along the path might gravitate towards passages like this, where praise is offered:

The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’

Matthew 25:23

or this one, where the relationship Jesus wants with us is illustrated vividly

I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.  I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!  This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.

John 15:1-5

These are illustrations of Stage 2 of Type B.  We do good out of love for Jesus and gratitude for what He did for us (more on that here), not out of a more crass motive of reward or punishment. This stage comes when one sees the parental love of God.  As St. John put it,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

1 John 4:7-21

So what then is the final stage?  Stage 3 of Type B morality?  Being good not out for evolutionary instincts, not even out of desire to be rewarded or praised by God?  Being truly “good for goodness sake” as the atheist billboard puts it?  (If anyone can get there on his/her own, more power to them.  But I’ll admit, I need God’s help.)  This is what I think we are ultimately called to be, true sons and daughters of God, with mature characters that are like God’s own.  Again turning to St. John,

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:1-2

I wonder if it’s in this state, where we don’t need laws and commandments, or even praise to motivate us, where our consciences will be enough, and where we really start to live out all those outlandish-sounding promises of the New Testament about the power of prayer.

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.

1 John 3:19-22

I, for one, don’t think I am there yet. If I am honest with myself, Type B morality still comes hard to me, and much of it is still motivated by praise (or even at times by reward and punishment). But I know this is where I want to go. I want to be a pure force of love, doing good out of the love that flows out of me, like St. Paul famously describes.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

So, to summarize, can a person be good without God? Yes. In the Type A sense, most people are good, and most adults have gone through Stages 1, 2, and 3 and deserve to be called good people. Parenting can play a critical role, but there are exceptions – people with a bad upbringing who turn into fine adults by following their good instincts and reason, and people with all the advantages who just seem to be “bad seeds”.

In the Type B sense, however, I suspect most people are bad. Most of our good actions have an instinct that makes them feel good to us, or reason or training that connects our good actions to some kind of social or familial benefits. Our consciences recognize that the kind of goodness Jesus is talking about – goodness towards those who can’t reward us (even those who hate us), goodness when no one is looking – is correct, but we find it very hard to practice. A relationship with Christ, whether based on reward/punishment at first, or a desire to please out of love later on, appears to be the road to travel to reach Stage 3 where we really become good like God is good. Can a person travel this road without God?

Not impossible I suppose, but unlikely. I think we all catch glimpses of it in ourselves, but to consistently display that kind of character is rare in this world and stands out. I can think of a few possible offhand examples (MLK, Gandhi, etc.), but no one known to me personally. And we can’t know anyone else’s heart, so who’s to say how the famous examples appeared to God? And how many truly unsung heroes are there in the world that are walking the walk that Jesus described? How many of those did it with help from engaging with Jesus through the Gospels, or some other way? We can’t know for sure, but for myself, I need His help with the journey, and I need forgiveness for the places I fall short.






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