Why Being a “Good Person” is Selfish

In Christian RealTalk, Tough Questions by Antwuan Malone

I am apparently enamored, and highly frustrated, with Moral Theology. I’ve already written about it here and here, and there’s a video of me talking about it here, and a video of a sermon I gave that touches on it here.

Nonetheless, let’s talk about once again today, but from what I think is a rather unique perspective.

Reading the title, you’re probably wondering how I could ever call a good person selfish. I could tell you where such audacity comes from, but that’s too long a tale. Instead, let’s just get to it.

Moral Theology

Moral Theology is the idea that God (if there is one) simply wants us to be good people. Good people, by the definition of those holding to this view, refers to the sort of people who seek the good of others. It refers to contributors to society. It refers to respect of people, charity, hospitality and good etiquette. And the greatest of good people, the heroes among us, contribute so much that it hurts them. Firemen, soldiers, icons of civil rights movements, and other such people are universally considered heroes for their great acts of selflessness for the common good. No religion is needed to accept these notions, and no religion really stands against them. Not even Satanism. (In fact, many Satanist are the most polite, agreeable, and charitable sort of people you’ll ever meet).

The argument is furthered by the notion that,

if God waiting to judge us when we die, he’d be quite happy with a good person, and would grant him access to eternal bliss (whatever that may be). After all, good people deserve good things. That’s justice.

On the surface, that sounds more than harmless. And in the face of so many religions vying for our attention, it sounds refreshingly simple and indisputable.

Selfish vs. Selfless

I believe we can dispute this sort of thinking in several ways. We could talk about how works-based this sort of thinking is, and how that’s a bad thing.

But most Moral Theologians (if I may) would agree it is works based, and that’s why it makes sense to them. Only Christians are persistent about this grace concept that frees us from earning eternity. The rest of the world, religious and irreligious, seem to agree with the general premise of a God whose currency is good deeds.

The Moral Theologians holding on to “just being a good person” have often heard the Christian sales pitch, and for them grace did not compute. Thus pounding in “being saved through faith and grace” does little to help us over the stumbling block in the way of their accepting Jesus. In fact, it may only serve to reinforce it.

But as it turns out, Moral Theology betrays itself. And it does so when it matters the most.

Most of us would agree the ultimate definition of goodness involves a fair amount of selflessness. As mentioned already, the heroes of our community are not those who risked their lives to save themselves, but those who risked their lives to save others. To go further, an even better than good person is someone who performs goodness purely for the sake of others, with no expectation of return.

But everything goes topsy-turvy once we’re standing before God. Because, should God ask us why we should get into Heaven, I think we’d all be quick to offer all of our “good” works. We’d be ready to remind God that we, in essence, deserve heaven because we were good and selfless in our lives.

But wouldn’t it be true that, by the very definition of selfless, no reward is deserved at all? Isn’t it true that the moment we seek to cash in on our goodness, it becomes self-serving instead of selfless?

There is a difference between someone who goes above and beyond at work because they believe in what the company is about, and another who goes above and beyond in order to be considered for the promotion. The difference is motivation.

What the judgment of God will reveal to us is the true motive behind our actions. And if goodness, at its very core, is about us in any way, then, by our very own definition, it’s not goodness. The only true goodness is sacrifice. True goodness often goes unpaid, unrecognized because the goal of goodness is not to receive anything, but to give freely. So when we stand before God and he asks us why he’d let us into heaven, our goodness cannot be our answer. Because the moment we utter goodness for our benefit, it ceases to be goodness and becomes selfishness.

Quite the quandary.

This is one of the reasons the Bible says our righteousness is as filthy rags. It’s a reason Jesus gives us his righteousness to claim as our own. And it’s one reason we cannot bank on a Moral Theology that earns us salvation by trying to place God in debt to us by our deeds. God will never owe us anything.

We can overcome this situation with a few simple admissions. First, since our good deeds do not qualify us in God’s eyes, we should not feel the pressure to measure up. Second, we are objects of God’s affection, and vessels to be used to spread His desire for relationship with all those around us.

In the end, it’s not that God will let us into his heaven because we’ve earned it. It will be because we love him, and have proven that love through a life of selfless deeds for which He gets the credit, not us.

“There is none good but the Father…” Jesus said. He’s right again.

 Do you believe all good people go to Heaven? How would you define “good”?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.