An editorial from The Wall Street Journal some years ago still comes to mind as I occasionally watch the news. The writer was describing host Larry King’s unsettling interview of a father whose wife drowned each of their five children. Peering restlessly at the television before him, the writer believed he saw not only a disturbing interview, but a rare glimpse into the culture at large. As the father spoke of his unwavering support for his wife on national television, the mother who committed the crimes sat in a courtroom thousands of miles away receiving her sentence for the murders of their five children at that very moment. When asked how he thought his wife would do in prison, he replied that she’d do just fine, adding, “She’s a good woman.”
But the writer’s angst went deeper than his discomfort over the descriptor of the mother as good, a term to which many predictably objected the following day. He noted, rather, his discomfort over the fact that the interview itself was conducted with the same work principle of any another day in the life of modern television reporting: “Interview anyone, ask anything.” To him, that the father was even there, that Larry asked, and that we looked on, bordered a sick voyeurism. How could we call any of it good? He concluded powerfully, “There are moments when one wants to go out to the street, stare up at the stars in the dark sky and admit, I don’t get it anymore… People keep looking for reasons inside this case. I keep wondering what’s happening to all the rest of us, soaking up these recurring, weird events from our living rooms.”(1)
The writer makes an observation many of us are afraid to make when it comes to delving out goodness around us: Is there not something unsettling about our misuse of the definition of good? Indeed, what does it mean to be good? Who decides if a person is actually good? The courts? A television audience? Larry King? And when do those of us watching move from sincere concern to shameless curiosity?
Is there an inherent determiner for naming something good? Can it really arise from nowhere? And if we use it broadly enough will we get to the point when the word itself is void of meaning? Perhaps we already have.
A strikingly similar question was voiced thousands of years ago in a conversation between two men—one, a rich young person; the other, a rabbi from Nazareth known for his strange stories and gossip-worthy surprises. The young man approached Jesus with a pressing question, unthinkingly addressing him as “Good teacher” before muttering out the inquiry. But Jesus didn’t get past the title. “Why do you call me good?” he asked. “Isn’t no one good but God alone?”(2)
Perhaps as unthinkingly as the rich young ruler, countless minds have observed for years that Jesus was a good man. We would in fact be hard-pressed to find people today who would be comfortable calling Jesus a bad man or anything less than a good person. But indeed, what do we mean by good?
In a world where ideas creep slowly, making subtle changes that go unnoticed until havoc has been wreaked and we are left like this author wondering what is happening, we do well to ask ourselves what we mean and where it comes from. G.K. Chesterton warned us several decades ago that we were tearing fences down before inquiring as to why they were up in the first place. And Jesus more than two thousand years ago inquired as to our very use of the word good: If this world is little more than a happy accident, why do you call me good? Why do you call anything good? No one is good except God alone. His statement was not meant to make us all feel like bad people. In fact it is interesting that we so strongly desire to call people good and believe that a generic, groundless goodness will suffice. But Jesus powerfully probes the worldview that assigns goodness without a foundation. What does it mean to be good? Who decides? And does a worldview without a moral God have any basis for speaking of goodness in the first place? Jesus suggests it does not. For God gives us the very meaning of goodness. God alone is the cause and source of all that is good.
(1) Daniel Henninger, “She Got Life, He Was Live,” Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2002.
(2) See Mark 10:13-23.
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