In listening to the minister talk about the difference between good and godly, especially given his apparent valedictory mood, I was struck by the immense importance of the difference between good and godly, and its serious implications. As my pastor heads towards retirement, it was not surprising that his mind would turn to places like 2 Timothy, where he finds encouragement in the foundational advice given to a young evangelist by an older mentor who wanted to make sure that he was equipped for the task. A major part of that task is recognizing who is in charge, and it is not us. The sooner we realize that we are not given the legitimate authority to decide right and wrong for ourselves, the sooner we can go along the path to godliness if we so choose. Otherwise, we are left to demonstrate goodness, sometimes by relative and sometimes by absolute standards, only to realize that the point of existence is not being good, but becoming like God so that we may enjoy eternal life.
It is fairly common in my own particular religious tradition to tie a lot of matters back to the two trees, where the choice is to be made between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In few areas of life is the parallel more just than the difference between goodness, in our own eyes, and godliness. If we choose to decide the standards of right and wrong for ourselves, and to arrogate the privilege of defining our own personal standard of goodness, we make the same choice Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden so long ago. It is pointless to say that it is unfair that none of us got to be in the Garden of Eden; we are given choices regularly and must decide if we will do what is right in God’s eyes, according to His commandments, or if we will choose what is right in our own eyes. In a way, we are still going over the same ground over and over again, both because we struggle to get it right and because we are given second chances to make the right decision, to accept Gods will and not insist on or own, to recognize we are not in charge here, and that our goal is not a few decades of drama-filled autonomy, but an eternity of happiness if we accept the offer of grace and are committed to developing godly character through a consistent practice of obedience in love to God’s ways, as a loving child seeks to obey the commands of his or her father and mother in the hopes of becoming a godly and well-respected adult.
In Romans 2:14-16, Paul makes a curious but relevant statement about the law as it relates to those who would have been ignorant of special revelation but were obedient to the general revelation that is available to all mankind: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” It is not knowledge that makes one godly, but rather we show the content of our hearts by our conduct, and even those ignorant of formal instruction of God’s ways are to be praised for their obedience to the ways of God that they know. There are many people who in their blessed ignorance are often far more good than I am, far less critical of others, far more kindhearted and understanding, and certainly far more gracious in their ordinary dealings. And it is entirely proper that such goodness will be recognized, even if it will not lead to salvation.
For we do not come to God in the position to make demands. Eternal life is not something we can claim by right, nor is it something that we could possibly ever deserve. It is a gift given by God of a value impossible to determine, and a gift given on God’s terms. God does not want good people, if by good people we mean nice people or good drinking buddies. God and Jesus Christ want a family. Jesus Christ is waiting for His marriage (and He, like some people, has waited a long time and wants to get it right). God is looking for children in His own image and likeness and has family on His mind. These are certainly longings many of us can relate to and understand. We have to decide, at some point, what is it that we really want out of life. Do we want to be good in our own eyes, or do we want to become like our Father above, so that we may enter as adopted sons and daughters for an eternity of glory. For none of us were created of our own plans and designs, but according to the will of others. How is it that we get to be so arrogant when it is so patently obvious that we do not direct the course of our lives, but rather seek the best that we can in all of the storms and troubles that we face, in the hope that everything will be right in the end.