Who would you have become without God?
I know who I’d be. At this very moment I’d probably be sitting in a crack den, covered from head to toe in menacing tattoos and piercings. Having already sold my left kidney in order to support my insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances, I would have resorted by now to a life of petty crime destined to escalate one day to grand larceny and culminating inevitably in a prison cell on death row. Also, if it helps the accuracy of your mental picture, I would have a mohawk. It would be a crimson red, and it would be gnarly.
…At least, that’s the general picture we tend to paint for ourselves whenever the what-if scenario of “If God hadn’t called me…” comes up for discussion. Not every what-if is as morbid as the example I just gave, but there is a tendency to believe that without God’s calling, our lives would have boarded a train with a one-way ticket to Disasterland, USA. Sure, that can be the case. I’m confident there are many, many instances where God’s calling kept individuals from following one of life’s darker roads, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that the absence of that calling would have prompted an automatic descent into the dregs of humanity. Look around. If that were true, every atheist in the world would be a methamphetamine-riddled zombie, mugging the elderly in dark alleys.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Look how many people staunchly disavow God’s very existence and continue to leave comfortable lives. They can have nice houses, nice families, nice cars, nice jobs, and their every earthly possession might be shinier and bigger than yours. All the evidence available suggests that not following God doesn’t translate across the board into a life plagued with worst possible scenarios.
The humanist angle
In January of 2010, a book by a man named Greg M. Epstein appeared on a New York Times Bestsellers list. The book was entitled Good Without God, and a review by the Humanist Community at Harvard claims the book “highlights humanity’s potential for goodness and the ways in which Humanists lead lives of purpose and compassion.” The review goes on to explain, “Humanism teaches us that we can lead good and moral lives without supernaturalism, without higher powers…without God.”
You may also have noticed billboards sponsored by the United Coalition of Reason—billboards with statements like, “Are you good without God? Millions are,” or, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club!” The driving philosophy behind these billboards and books like Good Without God is that we as human beings possess within ourselves the ability to be good. God isn’t necessary in this process. Can you believe in Him? Sure, if you’d like. But do you need Him? Is that belief a necessity in being a good person?
According to the humanism movement, the answer is a resounding no.
A failed experiment
Is it true? Can a person be good without God? Is the capacity for goodness something we carry deep within ourselves, limited only by our desire to use it?
Humanism might say so, but I have a hard time understanding how, even from a non-Biblical perspective. If humanity on its own had the capacity for goodness, I can’t help but wonder why in six thousand years of recorded human history we’ve yet to get a handle on it. In living memory alone, we’ve had not one, but two World Wars and a Holocaust in between. Every attempt at engineering utopia has ultimately come to nothing. Most, if not all, technological breakthroughs are weaponized in some way or another. World news paints an increasingly grim view of international tensions, with global conflict seeming more likely each day.
If six millennia hasn’t been enough time to unlock the secrets of our own inner goodness, what makes us so sure we can succeed where entire civilizations failed? We haven’t figured it out yet and things are getting worse every day.
A different angle
The Bible takes a different approach to the topic of goodness: that is, we don’t have it. Jesus Christ famously replied to an inquisitive scribe, “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17). God is good, and goodness comes from Him. Sometimes I think the world thinks of good as “mostly not bad.” The Bible describes God as “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). Jesus likewise is described as “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Do you fit that description? Do I? Does anyone? God isn’t “mostly not bad.” He is a solid and steady foundation of goodness that cannot and will not change. He is a constant in an ever-changing universe. At any time of day, in any season, throughout every aeon of the universe’s existence, God is and has always been good in word, thought, and deed. Show me a humanist who claims that about himself and I’ll show you a liar. No human being will ever meet those standards because no human being is capable of meeting those standards.
There is no goodness buried deep within our human nature. There is a proclivity toward good actions, just as there is a proclivity toward evil actions. But what we are at the core of our being cannot be described as wholly good—not on our own. Jeremiah was inspired to write that the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9)—a far cry from any definition of good.
So far we’ve learned that some people think humanity has it in itself to be good, while in reality the heart of mankind is desperately wicked and should be described as anything but good. Okay, the end! Good luck with your miserable life!
…As you can see, it’s a depressing story if we just leave things there. Thankfully, there’s more to it. It’s long been understood in the Church of God that, upon genuine repentance and baptism, God provides us with His Holy Spirit during the laying on of hands. It’s that Spirit that enables us to overcome our own personal shortcomings while replacing them with Godly character—a completely impossible goal on our own. The apostle Paul was inspired to list aspects of that Godly fruit in his epistle to the Galatians, and you’ll notice that one of those aspects is “goodness” (Galatians 5:22). God’s Spirit gives us the ability to develop goodness. It won’t happen overnight (more like over a lifetime!) because of all the human nature that needs to be rooted out and replaced, but it does make what was once impossible…possible.
Humanity is capable of doing good things. It’s also capable of doing some very terrible things, and unfortunately there’s no way to just flip on the “good” switch and call it a day. We will always face the temptation to do what isn’t good because of our weak and imperfect human nature. But the closer we grow to God, and the more responsive we become to the guidance of His Spirit in us, the more the fruit of that Spirit produces God’s goodness in us.
Where you’d really be
I asked at the beginning of this Sabbath Thought who you would have become without God in your life. I want to go back to that, because we never really answered it. It’s not a given that you’d be slumming it in the worst way possible—in fact, it’s not even likely. But here’s what is absolutely, one hundred percent certain: without God in your life, you couldn’t have His Spirit working in you. Without that Spirit working in you, you couldn’t be developing His Godly character and pursuing His goodness.
And without that, you couldn’t have the faintest hope of becoming one of His sons or daughters. You couldn’t become an integral part of the Kingdom that will finally remove evil from this world and bring lasting peace to God’s creation. You couldn’t one day hear the joyful cry of your Father as He shouts, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord!”
Who would you be without God in your life?
I don’t know the answer to that. I only know it wouldn’t be good.
Until next time,