Is it wrong to believe that good begets good?
Children are rewarded for doing the right thing and punished for doing the wrong. Right and wrong may vary in size and scope dependent upon the age of the child, culture, home, social context, and familial context. However, regardless of what the right or wrong might be, we are conditioned, and condition one another, to believe that by doing right—doing good—we will bring good and right upon ourselves. Good will be rewarded with good.
As adults, now conditioned to do good and do right, we constantly live in the fear that we are not doing enough. The good we are doing isn’t resulting in the good we hoped for. This lack of reward, lack of positive return, creates a creeping shame and guilt and so we jump back to work, back to life, with a renewed want to do more good (because clearly we were not doing enough). Now, I will allow that perhaps the result for some is not to want to do more good, but to decide that wrongdoing might be just as easy since the rewards seem to be the same. In either case, the shared disappointment in outcome results in the continuous need to prove oneself.
Maybe this is why in contemporary culture you might hear someone refer to their life as a “hamster wheel,” “the daily grind,” or “a treadmill.” All of these descriptions allude to the idea that life is hard, repetitive, and unrewarding; all of these metaphors for life have no end, no beginning, and most importantly, no telos—no end goal which gives life purpose. This last part, the lack of end goal should give each of us a pause. What is my end goal? What is the goal of my life, my purpose for living? These are hard questions. Questions that perhaps in a world less culturally individualistic, might have had easier answers.
Today, in a world where each person chooses their own unquestionable truth, end goals are not something that each person feels they need to share with others. As a Christian, however, I want to poke some holes in the idea that all “truths” are “true.” I don’t want to boil this down to a discussion of every action and reaction in a Kant-ian fashion, but I would put forth the challenge that our end goal, if we claim to be Christians, is to serve God. To love and be loved by the Creator and Savior of the whole world. If we begin to make this the end goal, the good and right stops looking for worldly rewards.
Instead of living in an ungrounded way which is striving constantly to prove good, I wonder if it might be better to consider how good and right have been rewarded historically. Mostly, consider that good and right have not always been rewarded with like good and right, if they’ve been rewarded at all.
In reading through the Bible stories of Job and of David this week, it is glaringly obvious that they were not rewarded in the ways they believed their actions garnered. Often, their faithful, good, right, and true actions only resulted in more hardship—a need to run, a loss of everything held dear.
Learning from David
In a fashion similar to what I might expect myself to do—while pleading his case before God in Psalm 26, David despairs that he has done right, that he has believed and trusted in God’s plan and it is clear by his tone and plea that the outcome in his life is not what he expected. His right faith was not rewarded with good. He cries out to not be left with the evildoers and hypocrites, to not let his soul be sent with the sinners.
David despairs, he cries out—he does not like that the end result of his hard work, his good and right faith, are not the good results he hoped for. He’s not happy. But friends, he does not feel ashamed, he is not weighed down by guilt at having not tried different tactics, and he does not indicate that he feels the need to do more to prove his worthiness. Instead he calls to the Lord to “examine his heart and mind”(Psalm 26:2), and throughout the psalm continually circles back to his love of God, his trust in God, and in the end, when the monologue closes, David holds his ground. Literally, the psalm ends “My feet stand on level ground; in the great assembly I will praise the Lord”(Psalm 26:12).
David finds his strength, his courage, and his resilience in his constant and unshakeable trust in the good of God, in the love of the Lord, of his wonderful deeds—even when those deeds aren’t immediately apparent. David knows that in all his broken humanity, his faith is the truest thing in the world and its foundation will create level footing for God’s plans, not David’s.
What if, instead of continually conditioning ourselves to expect reward when we’ve done right, we lived our lives with David’s mindset? A willingness to lament when we are disappointed, sure, but to ultimately recognize that God’s love is bigger than just our life, that by trusting and loving God in everything we do, good is following us—a trail left in a wandering wood.
The good we do and the right we choose is a leaning into God’s love and letting it continually shape the story we live. Whether or not we see the benefit of the trail and feel its good results, if we live into this love, the guilt and shame and need to show proof of our worthiness will dissipate in the humility of knowing that this story continues. In the end – the telos, drawing strength from strength and love from love, all we can do (along with David) is to join the great assembly and continue to praise the Lord.