Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God
I OBJECT to the term, ‘good living’, as it is applied to Christian people, and for a number of reasons.
Firstly it creates a divide between good and bad that has no basis in reality. It encourages self-righteousness in that people who call themselves Christians are seen to be good, while everyone else is presumed to be either bad or not good.
To be fair, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone describe themselves as good living, but then again, neither have I heard a complaint from anyone who has just been so described.
To me, the real question is, does being a Christian make you good, or does being good make you a Christian?
Part of the answer to that one is that if you believe that being good makes you a Christian, then everybody in the world who is good is either Christian or are on their way to becoming a Christian.
But that cannot be, for it leads to the inevitable conclusion that all non-Christians are inherently evil and therefore not to be trusted.
The other half of the equation: being a Christian makes you good, is equally unreliable, for it carries with it the idea that all Christians are good – and we all know that is not the case.
So what does the Bible have to say about it? Plenty! Look at the first chapter of Isaiah for example: ‘I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.’
Now, the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘pious’ as: ‘...believing strongly in a religion and obeying all its rules or principles.’ Could Isaiah really have said that God ‘wants no more of your pious meetings?’
And he appears to go further when he says, ‘When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.’
What God appears here to be saying is that if you do all the things required, or expected of you by the religious community but miss the main ingredient, he will say, ‘I will not look, I will not listen, your religious rituals are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!’
So where do we go from here, and what is the missing ingredient? Let’s read on and see what Isaiah says... ‘Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.’ That injunction chimes with what the Prophet Micah wrote in much the same Old Testament era: ‘What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
Now that’s a bit of a conundrum, for while God is not impressed by our good works, he appears to require them. But James clears it up for us in his New Testament letter to the ‘twelve tribes’ scattered abroad, when he wrote, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds. I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”’
That’s the challenge for us as we face a New Year, isn’t it?