How good are you? That is a question we all wrestle with in different ways and at different times. But we almost all answer it with the same methodology: comparison. But if the age of social media has taught us anything, hasn’t it taught us how destructive comparison is? Hasn’t it shown us that comparison reveals the basest version of ourselves? Hasn’t social media taught us how fragile and finicky the rubric of comparison is?
How then can we know how good we really are? Maybe the answer lies in some time-tested standard outside of ourselves and outside of our neighbor? Maybe there is a standard outside ourselves to evaluate ourselves by.
Katie Carr is searching for an answer for whether she is good or not in Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good. Katie is a general practice doctor who has an absolute loser of a husband: David. David is lazy, he doesn’t communicate, and he spews hate everywhere he goes. David makes Katie miserable. And yet, her self-perception of her own goodness is protected by the ever-present comparison of her vile husband.
Driven from her husband, Katie has a tepid affair with another man. David finds out about her affair and is nonplussed. But then David does something out of character. The man who doesn’t believe in anything supernatural goes to a spiritual healer, DJ Goodnews and experiences miraculous healing from a chronic back issue. This encounter with the supernatural flips a switch in David and he becomes a completely different man. The social malcontent becomes selfless, thoughtful, generous, and forgiving.
David’s transformation completely implodes Katie’s world. Until then, Katie has been able to justify her own faults. But the change in David forces Katie to realize that she has issues. And even worse, she has to reckon with God. The presence of her ogre of a husband had protected her from her Creator, but that protection is now gone.
Now that her first reference point of determining whether she is good has collapsed, Katie desperately searches for another reference point. In that search, she turns to God (a very thin version of God, but God nonetheless). She looks to the Ten Commandments: a standard held by the vast majority of the world, and yet this doesn’t give her solace, either.
“I don't wish to be melodramatic: I know I have not lived a bad life. But nor do I think that this crime sheet amounts to nothing: believe me, it amounts to something. Look at it. Adultery. The casual exploitation of friends. Disrespect for parents who have done nothing apart from attempt to stay close to me. I mean, that's two of the Ten Commandments broken already, and given that – what, three, four? - of the ten are all about Sunday working hours and graven images, stuff that no longer applies in early-twenty-first-century Holloway, I'm looking at a thirty-three percent strike rate, and that, to me, is too high...When I look at my sins (and if I think they're sins, then they are sins), I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it's not the Christianity that is so alluring; it's the rebirth. Because who wouldn't wish to start all over again?”
What I love about this reflection is that Katie completely misunderstands the most of the Ten Commandments (as most modern secularists do). She writes off the Sabbath and idol worship as irrelevant to her life (she’s wrong, but that’s fodder for another post). And yet, even with this whittled down version of the Ten Commandments, she still can’t measure up. Even the thinnest moral codes (don’t lie, steal, or cheat) are still codes we can’t live up to.
Every cultural force around us pares away at God’s standards. And yet, even when we whittle down what we think that God expects of us, we still fail. Even when we cast aside God’s standards, we still can’t measure up. We are not good. Every one of us falls woefully short. Am I really good? No, I’m not. Are you really good? No, you’re not.
It’s only when we can finally come to grips with this reality that we have any hope. It’s only when I stop comparing myself to my neighbor and think that somehow proves my goodness that I have a hope for change. It’s only when I stop expending effort whittling away at God’s law that I can face reality. It’s only when I stop justifying my wrongdoing with pitiful excuses that I can ask for help.
Katie’s condition is the human condition. Adam and Eve, upon rejecting God’s commandment, first hid themselves from God, then blamed one another and their circumstances, and even God himself. Folly! Damnable folly!
You are not good. I am not good. And it is only when we acknowledge the cold, hard truth of our sin that we have any hope to experience the transforming work of God. Hope begins in this simple tri-fold statement: “I am not good. I am a sinner. And I need a Savior.” Let’s stop trying to wiggle out from the first statement. Let’s acknowledge our lack of goodness and then look full in the face of our Savior and celebrate just how good it is that he has come for us: even though we are not good.