What does it mean to do the right thing? How do I know?
I choose to be kind and good in my relationships with others.
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good (lit. “the good”) for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:15, NIV)
Today we are looking at two virtues of the Christian life – goodness & kindness. These are often seen as a bit bland and perhaps they are so obviously part of the Christian life that one could think they hardly warrant a message. On the surface, I agree. To use an idea from Paul, among the virtues these seem like “elementary teachings” or “milk, not solid food” — but I think the deeper we delve into these ideas, the more we see that simple ideas can sometimes be easy to ignore.
When you look up the word “goodness” or “good” in the standard theological dictionary of Greek words (NIDNTT) you notice right away that there are three words grouped together under the general idea of “good”.
- The first refers to what is “good and moral”
- the second to what is “good and pleasing” and
- the third refers to what is “good and kind”
I’m simplifying, of course, human language is rarely consistent and often used ironically or in some symbolic manner. But it is important for us to see that it is a big idea and that the concepts of what is good and what is kind are connected.
Sometimes in a translation, you find that an original saying is explained more than translated because the two languages don’t line up very well. I find the text of 1Thess 5:15 is like that. Literally the text reads: “pursue the good for each other and for all”. Most translators will say the phrase “the good” is awkward and change it to “what is good” and then they add a verb “to do” to make it more clear “seek or strive to do what is good” even though the Greek text is actually more powerful when it says: “pursue the good”. I want to leave the idea of “the good” alone and not make it “what is good” or “things that are good” — I want to leave it as it stands “the good” because I think it helps us look at our actions from 20000ft up above the ground. The view is clear in a broad way and I think it helps us understand the big picture. I am a firm believer that understanding the big picture of what God wants is the best help available in getting the details right in our lives.
And from our passage what is clear right away is. . .
“The good” exists…
It’s a strange thing to say really, but I think sometimes we forget it. There is a moral category called the “the good” and it does exist and we need to be aware of its existence as we make life-choices. As we look to the text Paul doesn’t hesitate in declaring we need to look for it. It’s there in every circumstance. Sometimes it is hard to see. Other times we may wonder if it is worth the effort to find, but we must never deceive ourselves into thinking it doesn’t exist. In every circumstance and on every occasion, there is “the good” and we are told to look for it.
The very first line of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life says: “it’s not about you”. While that may seem ho-hum in a christian context, in a world that defines “#1” as “self” — it’s an important reminder. And we need to be reminded regularly that life is not primarily about us and achieving all the things we set out to do. Primarily, life is about God and bringing God glory. We do that primarily by believing in his Son, Jesus Christ and in an on-going focus on looking for what God is doing or wants us to do. The thing that God would have us do we would call “the good”. The good exists because God exists and “The Good” is primarily about God and his purposes, not about what I want. Paul makes this clear in the passage when he says that for the Christian, it is the good of others and everyone that we are to be concerned. We are part of that “everyone else” he refers to, but we are not at the center.
Even so, I know that we often struggle with figuring out “the good” in real-time. The fact is that
“The good” can get complicated
- It is often hard
The decision making is difficult in the best of times. Usually there are many factors involved. When you add the idea of the “the good” and then compound that with “for each other and everyone” — our thinking slows down. Now we have to think about how our decisions affect others outside our immediate group — our spouse, our kids. Now we look at our extended family, our church, our friends & neighbours. The reach grows immediately from something simple to something hard.
But you know as well as I do that what is most difficult is actually doing this. Sometimes it is obvious what “the good” is but doing it will require something from us that is difficult.
- Others may disagree
Another reason pursuing the good is complicated is that it conflicts with our desire to promote ourselves. Sometimes doing “the good” will get us criticized. Sometimes people will misunderstand and sometimes people will just simply disagree with our understanding of what “the good” is. These are the risks we run when we break free of a self-focused existence.
I know that the bible teaches to give a portion of my income to the church. Traditionally, that is 10% – a tithe. The NT teaches that all my possessions belong to God, but we like to give the first 10% of our income to our local congregation to support our common spiritual life. If you come from a non-christian family, the first thing people will say if they find out is that you are crazy. Maybe brain-washed. I mean, who does that right. Particularly if you are trying to get yourself out of debt or save for retirement or pay off a mortgage. In a world acclimatized to “the easy” or “the self” — pursuing “the good” is a strange and often disagreeable thing.
- We must decide
Finally, pursuing “the good” gets complicated by the simple fact that we need to make a decision and act on it. It goes beyond a mental exercise. There may be 10 possible choices, be we must discern which one represents “the good”. It may be that half of our options ‘good’ and so we need to look for what is best — the most good of our good options. In either case, being frozen in indecision is not the same as pursuing “the good”.
We are called to actively pursue “the good”
To say that we are ‘called’ to actively pursue the good is a bit of a euphemism. Yes, it is true that we are called, but more accurately the Bible tells us to do this. It is not a suggestion, or some ‘big over-arching’ idea about meaningful living — it is a command. The command ultimately is rooted in another command — Love one another. We cannot love one another and not seek the good for each other. We cannot love one another and only choose what is good for me. More importantly, Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians that “the good” stands as the opposite of evil. Do not repay evil for evil but pursue the good for each other. You see when you read the whole thing, it becomes clear that the “one another” part is not just people who are treating you well. In this case, it is someone who may be treating your in an evil manner. Someone who you may be tempted to get revenge on or at a minimum totally ignore. But Paul says we must seek the good for each other — even if the ‘other’ is doing something hurtful to us. This is ultimately the way of Christ.
Richard Hays wrote a massive book a decade ago and it is now consider a standard among scholars who teach NT ethics at the university level. I’ve used it for courses I’ve taught at Crandall, but even more significantly, I use it as a pastor navigating the many life issues that come our way.
Hays doesn’t give all the answers, but what he does do is give three lenses to look through as we try to figure out what “the good” is in any circumstance. I want to share those three ideas because — obviously — being able to know what is good is essential if we are to live for Christ in this world. The first lens is the cross. The cross has great significance to the Christian faith — it is the place where sin was beaten and our collective debt to God was paid in full. As an example though. . .
- The Cross teaches us to sacrifice
We need to be reminded again and again that personal sacrifice is the norm for the Christian life. If we are to seek the good for each other, that means that we all sacrifice and we all benefit from each other’s sacrifice. We are actually strengthened by that sacrifice rather than weakened by it. And I’m not just talking spiritually — though that also is true — I’m referring to strength of character. It is as we learn to put others before ourselves that we learn what real strength is. Anybody can be a bully or self-centered person. It’s actually really easy to just focus on self — what is hard is putting that aside. The cross teaches us that this is God’s way. It’s not something for us to boast about. It’s not something that makes us better than others. Sacrifice is the way of God. It’s what the Father did when he sent his Son; it’s what Jesus did when he gave his life, it’s what the Holy Spirit within us is doing as we grieve and quench His holy presence in us because of sinful choices. God sacrifices. If we are to pursue the good, we must be ready to sacrifice. It’s not always necessary, but we must always be ready.
The second lens Hays gives us the church — but not the building or institution — the community of people who profess faith in Jesus Christ and have experienced spiritual rebirth in Christ.
- God’s community discerns and expresses the good together.
It is in spiritual community that we understand what “the good” is. We discern it together. We pray for understanding and we discuss God’s word together. We declare “the good” as it is clearly stated in Scripture and we learn from each other how to apply God’s truth with humility and grace in our modern world.
In John 17, Jesus makes it very clear that it is in the community of his followers that the world will see hope. It is Christians unified in Christ, worshipping him and living for him — following his ways in all things — that will show the world that Jesus is God’s son. That’s an amazing privilege and responsibility.
At the human level, our first connection must with others who seek to follow Jesus. People who can help us and correct us. People who see things we don’t see and who may not see what we see. There is a mutuality to it and in this mutual love and friendship we find the good together. None of us lives in a vacuum. We need each other, not just for emotional health but to truly understand the ways of God.
Finally, Hays’ third lens to help us find “the good” is to accept and cooperate with His Spirit in us.
- God gives us power to demonstrate goodness and kindness
Even though we are prone to make selfish choices. We are prone to deceive ourselves about what “the good” actually is. God has placed his Spirit in us to give us the power to change and to live for him — to pursue “the good” for each other and everyone else.
In Galatians 5, we see that goodness and kindness are among the qualities that are produced by the Spirit living inside of those who believe in Jesus Christ. God is doing that inside of us. The seeds are planted and power to grow is in us. We have no excuses when we are angry and hurtful to each other. Choosing “the good” is always an option.
Sometimes pursuing what is good for others will mean hardship for ourselves. People may criticize us. People may find fault in us. Yet at the end of the day, we are a people called to follow Christ and to seek the good for others and everyone else.
That is the way of the cross.
That is the way of spiritual community.
That is the way of the Spirit of God, at work in us, giving us the power to Seek the Good.