I’m not a bad person – why do I need to do anything more?
If you sometimes think this then you are definitely not alone.
When someone says this to me, I am often tempted to try and find fault: “If only I could try and make this person feel bad!” But frequently, as I listen to their story, I find that they are a genuinely good person, hard working, often sacrificial for their parents or their family, dutiful, and conscientious.
Yet this objection to “doing any more” can be a terrible blockage to drawing close to God. Sometimes it springs from “scripts” buried deep inside us, rather than in true response to the message God wants us to hear. We say it when we are tired from fulfilling all the ‘oughts’ in our lives, and we’re looking for encouragement from God. If you are asking this question, then I hope that the answer given below will eventually give you the encouragement you deserve.
But first, I must point out three traps that this question will lead you into if you persist with it.
Trap 1: The question focuses on self-justification as the way to being right with God.
It is as if we have to prove ourselves before Him, and this of course is based in the truth that each of us will be called to account. However, what God revealed in Christ was that self- justification will never be the way to get right with God, for it is Christ who justifies us.
Jesus told a story of two people who went to pray. The first person began by telling God all the good things he had done; he thought there was nothing left he had not covered. The second person simply said, “God have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Jesus said it was the second, rather than the first, who went away right with God: He received his justification thanks to God’s grace and mercy.
We may have done many, many good things – and God is well aware of them – but in the teaching of Jesus God revealed that we are put right with him solely through his mercy. Justification given through Christ, rather than self-justification, is the way to get in a right relationship with God.
Trap 2: The question focuses on earning salvation rather than on receiving it.
We all have a part of us which thinks we ought to be able to earn God’s favour, and there is much about every person which causes him great delight. But St. Paul was gripped by life-changing insight when he wrote, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ultimately, none of us can ‘earn’ the right to be accepted by God. Every good thing we do is merely the product of how he has made us. Acceptance by God, or eternal life, is nothing less than a freely given gift.
Think about it: where would you draw the line? Is it a matter of just tipping the balance so that the good in your life just outweighed the bad? That sounds like it might be fair. But then where is the parity between those whose good far outweighs the bad, and those whose good only just outweighs the bad.
Saint Paul lived the first part of his life as a strict Pharisee. He did everything in his power to fulfil God’s law. Yet later, as he considered this issue of salvation, he recalled the ancient words of Isaiah: “There is none who is righteous – no not one,” and thus came to the sobering conclusion that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Why is it that the most holy people are always more aware of their sin than they are of their goodness?
The fact is that salvation is never something we can earn. On the contrary, salvation, or acceptance by God, is a gift that we can only receive.
Trap 3: The question does not take into account our blind spots.
Jesus met a rich man who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus replied, “You know the commandments.” The rich man said, “Of course! I have kept them since I was a boy.” And he reeled them off. However, what the rich man didn’t realise was that he missed out the command against covetousness: he had a blind spot which affected his attitude to money. Jesus told him to go and sell all he had and give to the poor. And the man left, very unhappy, because he was very rich.
All of us have blind spots – not the bad things we are aware of, but those we are totally unaware of. And if God were really to point them all out we would be utterly mortified. Some may be perspectives on life we totally ignorant of; some may be the ways we are caught in webs of economic exploitation that we do little or nothing about; some may be deeply ingrained attitudes or prejudices. Blind spots are, by definition, almost impossible to spot.
People often say, “I’m not a bad person and I never try to hurt anyone, so why do I need to do any more?” But when we do so we frequently fall into the trap of forgetting that we still have many, many blind spots that we know nothing of.
And now the Good News!
God does want to accept you – and he doesn’t want you to ‘do’ anything else first, except to receive him as Lord and God. His first word, therefore, is “Welcome.” He is well aware of all the good things you’ve done, and he’s delighted with them. But he’s even more interested in you – simply you – as a person.
What God really wants for us to receive his salvation is that we come to him laying down all the good things, all the bad, along with all the unknown, at his feet. “This is my stuff, Lord: the good, the bad, and the unknown. Now I stand before you – just me. I believe the words of Jesus, that you want to receive me just as I am, if I receive you just as you are. Me: human being (most of the time); You: God.
The Apostle John was fascinated by relationships. As he reflected on what we have to do in order to please God he wrote, “this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another.” In the end, you see, what God actually wants us to do is first of all to relate to him as God – to receive the gift from him of being received by him. This gift is freely ours through the grace, the mercy, the cleansing and the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Part of the material contained within this page is copyright © 2003 Richard Dormandy