How can good people do terrible things?

After a ghastly shooting the shooter’s mother or friends will often say, “But he was such a good person.” They sound genuinely surprised that he was capable of such horror, because in other ways he wasn’t a bad person at all. He cared for animals, got on well with older people, and he was generous to his friends. 

So here’s a good person doing horrible things. How is that possible? Paul explains in Romans 7:21, and from his own experience too, that “I find this law at work. When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” And the more he tried to do good, the worse it got too. He eventually concluded that “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (18).

So, what was his problem? It was what he called his “sinful nature.” It was so powerful it wouldn’t let him do the good he so desperately wanted to do, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work…waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.” (23). Even when he wanted to do something as good as keeping God’s law, he still couldn’t do it.

And what is our experience as humanity in general? Well, for those who want to be good people and want this Earth to be a happy, peaceful place, it must be terribly disappointing, because for all our desire and effort to do good, multiple millions of people are still suffering from acute poverty, endless wars and terrible diseases. The facts speak for themselves, that our experience today is exactly the same as Paul’s. In our inner beings we’d love to make this world a better place for everyone, but we still can’t do it. At our heart and core we want to do good and be good people, but we’re stuck with a nature that makes us do horrible things too. 

The answer Paul gives, then, to “How can good people do terrible things?” is that our desire to do good is constantly being “weakened by the sinful nature,” Romans 8:3. And there’s only one way, according to Paul, for dealing with that, and that’s having the Spirit of God living in us (9). That, and that alone, is the source of “life and peace,” verse 6. We need a another nature in us warring constantly against the evil we’re so easily capable of too, so that, verse 9, we “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit.” 

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