Is it Still Good to be Good?

by Dan Schaeffer

Jesus said “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NIV) Allen Dershowitz begs to differ. He believes that most Christian’s good works have no real value whatsoever. It is the atheists and agnostics who are the truly moral people in our universe. (Being one himself, his conclusion shouldn’t be too surprising).

In his book, Letters to a Young Lawyer, a chapter of which recently appeared on a web site devoted to religion, entitled “Why be a good person?” the super lawyer argues that when Christians and other believers do good things, they are being given far more credit than they deserve.

He writes: “For most people, the question why be good—as distinguished from merely law abiding—is a simple one. Because God commands it, because the Bible requires it, because good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell.” For the moment let’s ignore his shabby theology of good works resulting in salvation.

He makes a valid point as to the motivation for many Christians doing good works. If you asked a number of Christians why they do good works, or acted morally, their response would be almost precisely what Dershowitz shares. We desire to be obedient to God, to obey His moral commands. But Dershowitz wasn’t finished. He went on to say “any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite...I have never quite understood why people who firmly believe they are doing God’s will are regarded as “good,” even “heroic.” For them the choice is a tactical one that serves their own best interests, a simple consequence of a cost-benefit analysis.”

Dershowitz makes the amazing claim that the only truly moral person is an atheist. His reasoning is quite simple. “The truly moral person is the one who does the right thing without any promise of reward or threat of punishment—without engaging in a cost-benefit analysis.”

This is the kind of logic that can knock a weak believer for a loop. After all, you can’t question his logic. Dershowitz is wrong, and I’ll show several reasons why, but his insights are nevertheless valuable. He brings up a very good question, why do we do our good works anyway? What are our true motivations?

I have pondered that very thing on several occasions, and it wasn’t a terribly comfortable exercise. It can be a frightening operation to begin to dissect your own motivations and lay bare your deepest ambitions. It is common knowledge that many people do good things for less than sterling motivations. Some people give to their church or favorite charity for the tax write off. Some do charitable work to polish their public image, or involve themselves in civic projects for the public accolades and good will it will garner them. While part of a person’s desire to give may be out of a genuine desire to help, or worship, in many instances there is also some financial, emotional, or social benefit that also motivates them.

A good example of this is my daughter’s involvement in their 4H-pig project. My two girls both raised pigs that were later sold at auction at the county fair. A local car dealer and a businessman in a nearby town bid on my daughter’s pigs and bought them at way above market rate. I couldn’t help ask myself why they would do this. Furthermore, these businessmen bought pigs all day long. There was no way anyone could eat that much pig, and they certainly weren’t buying them for pets. Curious, I began to ask questions. It was explained to me that the pigs were often resold to food chains at half what they were bought for and the purchase was a write-off.

But that didn’t explain the whole picture. After thinking more about it, I began to see the brilliance in this. We live in a small town and there are only several car dealerships. Would a parent forget the car dealer who bought his child’s pig? When it came time to buy a new $30,000 truck, where would they go? It may not “pay off” every time, but all it would take would be a few cars to be sold to make the philanthropy cost effective.

In other words, their “good works” could not be seen as entirely unselfish. They would get something in return for their “goodness,” such as good will, more business, better PR and advertising. It’s easy to see that kind of diluted goodness in others, but sometimes it’s harder to see it in my own life.

When I was a young man I had a desire to become a pastor. Why? In retrospect I believe it was for several reasons. First, I had recently given my life to Christ and was excited about my faith, but also because my own pastor was very impressive and was the recipient of a lot of attention and respect. I admired him a great deal. These were things that were in short supply in my own broken home existence. I wanted to have that kind of attention and admiration. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved God and also felt a genuine calling to serve Him full-time. It’s just that I would be lying if I told you that I responded purely from an unselfish desire to serve. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I see it now. Frequently even good motivations are not entirely pure; they are sometimes diluted with selfish ambition. The mixture might have been 70% good motivation and 30% bad, but any bad dilutes the good.

A desire to serve oneself is a constant temptation in any kind of ministry. It is so easy to serve when there will be a pay-off of some kind. When I would preach a particularly inspiring message on Sunday morning I would get a lot of “attaboys!” So I worked hard to make every message inspiring. Guess why. Now I was fully committed to the importance of God’s truth being proclaimed and I desperately wanted to lift my Lord up through my preaching. I wasn’t consciously trying to garner attention to myself. While I wasn’t conscious at the time that I was seeking attention to myself, I’m sure that to some extent, I was. How grateful I am for the grace of God who allows leaky vessels to serve Him.

But over the years I have experienced a kind of transformation. When I was younger in my faith I desperately wanted attention and accolades. I would never admit it, but they were terribly important to me. When I sang “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, learn to be the servant of all,” I was focusing on the first phrase, not the second.

But the more I looked into my desperately wicked heart and saw that even after years of walking with God I was still a wretched sinner (although polished on the outside) I became overwhelmed with God’s grace. An honest look at my own sinful motivations was one of the things that made me love God far deeper than I ever had. I could not deny His perfect righteousness, nor my utter sinfulness, and when I surveyed the work of Christ on the cross for me, I shook my head in disbelief. That’s when I began to change.

Nowadays I don’t care if I am the gatekeeper or the street sweeper in heaven. I am just ecstatic that I’ve been granted entrance into His eternal Kingdom. Understanding the depth of His love for me on the cross has changed my primary motivation for doing good deeds. Dershowitz was right about me for many years, but not anymore. I’ve already received citizenship in God’s kingdom, I don’t have to work to attain it, and I never ever deserved it. Not when I was first born again, and not now.

Dershowitz, however, is wrong on several accounts. First he makes the false assumption that man can be “good” or “moral” on his own apart from God. What utter nonsense! What one person calls understanding your station in life another calls slavery, what one person calls abuse, another calls good business. Romans 3:10-12 reminds us that there is “none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands.” Paul makes it clear that there is “none who does good.” If there is no absolute good revealed from above, then good is in the eyes of the beholder.

To do good you would have to know what good really was. Since definitions change from person to person, it would be impossible for anyone to know for sure that they were doing anything truly good. If good becomes indefinable, how can you pretend you are a person of good character?

Dershowitz defines good character as something someone does “simply because it was deemed by the actor to be good.” He admits it would be necessary to strike an appropriate balance among often competing interests, such as the interests of oneself and of others, (such as your tribe, race, gender, religion, nation, and so forth.) Yet how could Dershowitz ever condemn as evil those who felt that for the greater good in the eyes of the Third Reich it was necessary to eliminate Jews from the face of the earth? Sincerity, or the actor’s own feelings, are not reliable. Many Confederate troops did not even own slaves, and yet gave their life sacrificially in the Civil War for a principal and standard of life they sincerely thought was eminently true and right. Were they good or bad? It is quite possible to be sincere, and yet sincerely wrong.

The other reason that Dershowitz is wrong is because he is assuming that a person’s good works are his “ticket” into heaven. Buying into a works salvation, he sets up a straw man and then proceeds to tear it down. The Bible does not tell us that if we are good we will get to heaven, just the opposite. What Dershowitz cannot apparently understand is that Christians do their good deeds out of love, love for God, and for those around us. Were we still counting on our good works to get us to heaven, Dershowitz would have a point. But we’re not. We already have salvation granted to us by grace through faith. Now if the only reason we do our good works is to get greater standing in His kingdom, or to impress those around us with our piety, I think he would still have a point.

But maybe his heresy has some value to us Christians. Maybe we need to think a great deal harder about why we do the good things we do. The primary motivation for a believer doing good works is gratitude and love for what has been done for us by our God through Christ. The target audience for our good works should not be those watching them from below, but the One who watches from above. Doing good works is more a form of worship than anything else. In our feeble attempts to do good we agree with God that He alone is good, but that we want to try to be more like Him.

When my children were very young, we wanted to teach them how to clean up after themselves. After they played with their Playdough, for example, we would require them to put it all back in the can. They were very young and though they tried as hard as they could, there were always Playdough “crumbs” left on the table and their attempts to put the dough back into the can and put the lids back on were hilarious at best. In short, there was still a mess that needed to be cleaned up.

But after their immature attempt, they would proudly show me how they had done what I asked. Instead of pointing out their failure, I praised their hard work and good effort. Though their execution was lacking, their desire to please me was not. I made allowances for their age. Our heavenly Father knows we aren’t perfect, but our well-meaning, although less than perfect good works, still bless Him. Will we ever be able to do good deeds with a completely pure heart? Probably not, but don’t be discouraged.

Each good work we embark upon, whether it be teaching a Sunday school class, leading a Bible study, helping the poor, visiting a shut-in or some other worthy project must be done for the main purpose of glorifying our Lord. In doing this we most closely mirror His heart to those we serve.

This is really a transforming point in our Christian experience, one I think God waits very patiently for us to discover. We need to begin to examine our motivations for the good things we do under a much stronger spiritual microscope. This does not mean we stop doing good things, on the contrary, we need to do more, but for the right reason.

Is it still good to be good? Yes, Alan Dershowitz is wrong and Jesus of Nazareth is right. But let’s not be afraid to take a much closer look at our own motivations for the good that we do.