I’m not sure why this came to my mind, but I was praying Daytime prayer and these lines struck me:
Come children and hear
me that I may teach you fear of the Lord.
Who is he who longs for life
and many days, to enjoy prosperity?
Then keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Turn aside from evil and do good
seek and strive after peace.
The Lord turns his face against the wicked
to destroy their remembrance from the earth.
The Lord turn his eyes to the just
and his ears to their appeal. (Ps 34: 12-18, Breviary)
I was struck because I recall a number of conversations I have concerning goodness. Whether it’s on the topic of gay marriage, ethical living, a good life, and so forth I get comments ranging from “I don’t know if you noticed, but people are very happy without God” (literal comment) and the more understandable “You don’t need to believe in God to be a good person.”
I’ll let it slide that I already believe they’re good by virtue of their being created and existing. Those who live according to justice, mercy, and charity are even better for they show their faith by their works. The psalm says, after all, “turn aside from evil and do good.” The psalmist has spoken that in order for a long life and prosperity one must do the good. The Bible never shies away from telling us to do good. Note that many days is a long life. The psalmist, however, tells us whoever longs for life itself–the first in the list of life–must do good. Length and prosperity are secondary to life itself which is precisely a life spent doing the good.
It’s no wonder that atheists and non-believers of many sorts are happy when they do good. That’s the very essence, if you will, to life itself.
The difference here is that the whole of this phrase begins with fear of the Lord. Scriptures say that it is the beginning of wisdom. Fear can take on many forms too. Some fear punishment and do good out of fear. Others do good out of recognition of what is good, loving it because it is life-giving. Some believe that those who believe in God only do the former and those who don’t believe only do the latter!
This is the section of Psalm 34 that brought me around to this reflection:
If men who believe in God sin they are doing what is wicked and deprive themselves of life. This is also a choice, but they choose sins because they are advantageous, opportune, or pleasurable despite the risks and (at times) the costs. We who sin do what seems good (or even evil) at the cost of what is truly good. How does the non-believer also not succumb to such temptation of doing what isn’t good in favor of his own good? The answer is that he succumbs like all the rest of us; he is not special and we are not special either.
If one were to take the mention of God out of the phrase above it would seem like a normal thing to say: the one who desires a long and happy life should do good and avoid evil. Yet those who truly know themselves know how often their will rebels against their reason–desire trumps reason far too many times.
This is why Sirach says “The knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom, nor is there prudence in the council of sinners. … there are those with little understanding who fear God, and those of great intelligence who violate the law” (Sir 19:18, 20).
Knowing the good is also not a love of the good and one who says he will simply love the good for its own sake knows in his heart if he speaks the truth or if he is a liar. “There is a shrewdness keen but dishonest, which by duplicity wins a judgment” (19:21).
Some, atheist and Christian, are more disciplined than me but few men will always love the good. Those who believe in God make an appeal to Christ for the helplessness of our dilemma but I do not know what appeal an atheist can make other than that of his own will. We have a tendency in general to glorify the will. The will is important in choosing the good but we are sorely mistaken if we think knowing what is good will make us choose it.
The Psalmist rightly recognizes this. He says that all of wisdom and a good life must come from a fear of the Lord, that is (1) a recognition of His supreme goodness, (2) a recognition that He will, in the end, enforce that Law, namely that goodness and righteousness will endure and wickedness and injustice fall away, and (3) it is He who calls us to do what is good.
(3) is so very important. Goodness as an idea is a concept, one to be apprehended and used. But God is a person and so goodness itself is a personal relationship–it is something experienced and grown. No one apprehends a person by simply knowing him but by being in a relationship, a loving one, with the other. Sin is betrayal. In fact it’s labeled as infidelity in marriage.
Those who say they will do good for its own sake may do good for the sake of someone else (society, human beings in need, loved ones) but I do not think the phrase is accurate: “I do good for its own sake.” No, they do good for the sake of something else.
It’s still good, but it’s not a relationship with good, merely knowledge. And the Christian who sins acts against both person and knowledge, something far worse. The one who does good for its own sake does it for He who is good.
An idea can be forgotten and remembered, and little changes.
A person may hurt another, but there is great power in reconciliation. There’s a great growth of love in forgiveness.