Am I a good person?

In today’s Guardian, Andrew Brown attempted to answer a commonly googled question – am I a good person? You can read his answer here.

The problem, as Brown rightly notes, is ‘there is no agreement on what constitutes a good person’. Compare the answers of all faith and none, different philosophers and variant cultures and you will find as many different definitions as there are potential answers. He also correctly points out that ‘there is a basic difficulty with our inquiry: if we ask ourselves, the answer we get will probably be tainted with lies. Even when we know we have done wrong, our minds set at work to scrub the knowledge out’. So to ask the question of ourselves is to ask the most biased of biased witnesses. Am I a good person? Naturally, we all want to answer yes.

Rather than answer the objective statement, Brown shifts the ground slightly to ask whether we can know we are good enough. Good enough for what is entirely unclear but, once again, he lands on the central problem: there are competing ideas on measuring goodness. A secondary problem, which he does not note, is that there is equally no universal sufficient standard. So not only is there no consensus on how we measure goodness itself, there is no agreed level at which we can consider ourselves sufficiently good (or, good enough).

Brown argues there are three broad views on measuring goodness: (1) keeping the right rules; (2) developing the right virtues; (3) making the right impact on the world. He goes on to claim that any judgement of goodness ought to have elements of all three, though one is likely to be predominant. Brown suggests consequentialism – the belief that your goodness is equal to your impact on the world – is the prevailing view in our culture. Though I am not entirely convinced this is true, he rightly goes on to establish two problems with this view. First, goodness involves good fortune i.e. those born into power and money can have a greater impact on the world. Thus, on this view, the powerful are of necessity better people simply because of their ability to impact the world due to fortune of birth. Conversely, the powerless – babies, the severely disabled, etc – cannot be good simply because of their inability to impact the world the same way. Second, how does one determine ‘good impact’. As Brown notes: ‘Socrates thought that it was part of virtue to harm your enemies and other bad people. Jesus disagreed. Which scale do you want to measure yourself against?’

Though developing the right virtues gets around the first issue of fortune – the poor and powerless can develop virtue as well as the rich and powerful – there is no agreement on which virtues are truly virtuous. Leaving aside the latter issue, Brown argues virtue ethics is ‘a gain in realism rather than cheerfulness’. He turns to Job to make the point: ‘in the Old Testament, Job was a good man and look what happened to him. Satan got to take away his health, his family and everything he owned’. The issue, as Brown puts it, is not so much whether you win or lose but ‘how you play the game’.

The problem, however, is that Brown’s assessment of Job is wrong. He states:

Job, however, is not held up as a virtuous man, who cultivated courage, or temperance, or justice, so much as one who followed the rules. He did what God commanded, and what society expected. Leaving, if you like, God out of it, that’s how most people most of the time have always lived, and had to do. You do what’s expected and expect the reward of good behaviour. Then you die, and never realise that in a couple of hundred years, society will have moved on, and some of the things you took for granted are regarded as monstrous crimes.

This is a theologically weak assessment of Job. First, Job is very much held up as a virtuous man. The very purpose of God in allowing the Devil to attack Job – which Job himself never actually learns but we do – is to prove to Satan, those around Job and even Job himself that he exhibits the one virtue that truly matters, to love God before all others. This was the very heart of the Devil’s accusation which God refuted with such confidence that he permitted Satan to do his worst. He said:

Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11)

It was not Job’s behaviour or rule keeping that made him good, it was his love for the Lord himself. This was the challenge of the Devil. Not I will make Job sin, but I will make him curse God to his face. I will prove he does not love God above all else, he merely loves what God gives him. In his affliction, he will curse the Lord. And, as we know, Job never does.

Despite Brown’s claim, Job is held up as a virtuous man. Though he is called blameless and upright, he is only so because he fears the Lord. The Devil was not interested in making him sin per se, specifically proving that Job does not love God was his aim. God was not pleased with Job because he kept the rules, he was pleased with him because Job loved God just for who he is – the highest virtue of all.

This rather leads back to our initial question: how can I know I am a good person? Brown ends his piece with the rather disappointing ‘The only certain thing about this question is that if you’ve never thought to ask it, the answer has to be “no”’.The Bible gives us a much better, clearer answer.

Whether we have thought about it or not, the Bible is categorical on whether you and I are good people. Ecclesiastes 7:20, Psalm 14:3 and Romans 3:10 give a fairly comprehensive answer. Nobody is good. Not you, not me, not even Job. Even Jesus says ‘why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’ (Luke 18:19). Whilst Brown is quite right that, if you’ve never asked yourself if you’re a good person the answer must be “no”, the same applies if you have wrestled with the question. By God’s objective standard, none of us are good.

And there is an objective measure of goodness. Contrary to Brown’s three categories, it is neither keeping the right rules, developing the right virtues or making the right impact. Goodness is determined by God himself. Our goodness as people is not based upon how well we keep his rules or put on his virtues, our goodness is dependent on how far we reflect the glory of God. The Bible says ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). We haven’t fallen short of God’s rules, we have fallen short of his glory. As the Westminister Shorter Catechism says:

Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

God himself is the objective standard of goodness. We are good people inasmuch as we reflect the glory of God. And the Bible tells us clearly that we have all fallen short. The one objective measure of goodness is the very measure none of us have attained.

The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that, however we care to measure goodness, salvation does not rest upon it. My standing before God is not determined by my performance or my efforts. Whilst I am not a good person, nor am I good enough, the relevant question is whether Jesus Christ is good enough. The gospel tells me that though I am unable to get myself right with God, though I cannot legitimately call myself “good”, Jesus Christ can. He is the only one who fully reflects the glory of God so much so that he could say ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).

The question of whether we are good people rather distracts from the reality of our situation. It is only when we grasp that we are not good people that we may come humbly to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. Jesus said ‘those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:31-32). The question is not so much whether we are good enough for God but whether we consider ourselves bad enough for him. The good news rests not on our goodness, but on the goodness of God himself.

As the Shorter Catechism puts it:

Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a redeemer.

Q. 21. Who is the redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.

Q. 22. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A. Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

God ‘made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Just as Romans 4:1-8 says, God credits Jesus’ righteousness to our account by faith. If we are counted righteous by faith in Christ – if our sin is imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to us – the fundamental question is not am I good enough? but rather is he good enough? As the only sinless man, the perfect image of God, the one who reveals and manifests God to mankind, the answer must be a resounding “yes”. And that means there is hope for all of us, especially those of us who see we are not really good people at all.