Why be good when it gets us nowhere?

A recent appeal for abandoned children in Bulgaria received an amazing response. Money poured in. But the list of abandoned children never ends, begging the question, “Why be good when it’s getting us nowhere?” It’s like a never-ending oil leak. What we clean up soon fills in again. Get one group of abandoned children taken care of and another group surfaces somewhere else whose need is just as great. Why can’t we ever get the problem licked? It’s so frustrating. All that foreign aid and what has it accomplished? It’s like pouring water into a bottomless bucket.

Trying to be good hasn’t exactly had stellar results in my own experience, either. It became horribly disheartening actually, because I’ve donated to all kinds of charities and disaster relief funds, given myself in service to the needy, listened for hours to people who want to talk, and generally tried to be an all round good person. And what did it get me? A deep fatigue brought on by trying to meet people’s needs and expectations, mixed with guilt and frustration if I fell short, leading to emotional burnout and cynicism. I reached the point I couldn’t find it in me anymore to donate or listen to other people’s problems, because for all my goodness and all the world’s goodness, the horrible reality was – nothing really changes. The futility of it all really got to me.

But that’s what life is in this world. It IS utterly futile, Romans 8:20, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” God meant this world to be frustrating. He intended the futility of it all to get to us, to the point that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” verse 22. Why? Because the only solution to our problems is the “redemption of our bodies,” verse 23. And until our bodies are redeemed we’re stuck “in the bondage of decay,” verse 21.

So what is a body redeemed? One that is “led by the Spirit,” verse 14. And what a powerful force for good that is, because “a mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace,” verse 6. There’s hope, then. There is a solution to this futility, that one day we’ll all be led by the Spirit into “the glorious freedom of the children of God,” verse 21. But it’s by the Spirit, take note, not by our goodness, and that’s the lesson that obviously needs deeply imprinting in our heads as we try to be good on our own strength and it’s getting us nowhere.

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Can we be good without God?

It is a firm atheist belief that humans are perfectly capable of being good without God, and Humanist societies in several countries want it spelled out on buses and in subways, too – either as a question, “Can you be good without God?” or as an outright statement of fact, “You can be good without God.”

So, is it true that we can be good without God? It wasn’t in Paul’s experience. “I find this law at work,” he wrote, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me (Romans 7:21),” 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 (verse 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 (verse 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 efforts 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. If it was true, then, that we’re quite capable of doing good and creating peace and happiness for all people on Earth, it would’ve happened already, right? But it hasn’t.

And the reason it doesn’t happen is that all our desire to do good is “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 (verse 9). That, and that alone, is the source of “life and peace (verse 6).” Would an atheist accept that? Likely not. Why not? Because his sinful nature won’t let him, proving the point that there’s only way we can be good and that’s with God, not without him.