Earlier this week I reread the novel How to be Good by Nick Hornby. I read it to study Hornby’s craft, but quickly got so caught up in the story I forgot to do so. This novel is not written from a Christian perspective (consider yourself warned), but is strikingly profound.
The novel’s protagonist, Katie Carr, has always prided herself on being a good person. But something happens in her life that makes her realize her goodness was actually just trying to be a little better than the next guy. Hornby uses humor and an entertaining story to make us squirm. Do we ever do good things for purely selfless reasons? Are any of our good deeds not tainted by self-righteousness?
If you’re a Christian, I hope you realize the answer is no. (Jeremiah 17:9) In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul says only the Lord can judge our true motives. And even at that, we still need the grace of God to cover our selfishness. (Tim Keller deals with this in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness)
But we still do it, don’t we? We still try to tell ourselves we’re not that bad. We still look at other people and accuse them of self-righteousness, even when we know better.
We tend to spot it in others more than ourselves
Like all manifestations of pride, it’s something that we can spot so clearly in other people, but are often blind to it in ourselves. The truth is, we can never see into another’s heart, and they can’t see into ours. And truthfully, we don’t want people to see into our hearts, because we’re more wicked than we realize anyway.
We’re never really free from it
Ever. Because the few times we do something selfless that nobody else can see, we end up patting ourselves on the back privately. If only people could see what a good person I am.
God blesses our selfish good deeds anyway
And it’s a good thing, too. It may be puzzling to watch lots of fruit come from a person whom we think is behaving self-righteously, but if God doesn’t bless their works, how could we ever expect him to bless ours?