Don’t Be Good

The problem with being good is that you think that’s good enough. But being good is not good enough. Jesus Christ looked at the Scribes and Pharisees–who were very good and nice and respectable people and he said to his disciples, “You see them? You’ve got to be better than them.” In other words, their goodness wasn’t good enough.

If you think being good is good enough, you’re not good enough. The problem with being good is that it is putting the cart before the horse. We see people who are holy like Mother Teresa and we notice that she does good. She feeds hungry people and rescues babies from the trash heap. So we are inspired and we decide to be good too. So we get involved in the local soup kitchen and we busy ourselves helping the needy and that’s all well and good, but we forget that before Mother Teresa went out on the streets she spent an hour in contemplative prayer. She was more than good. She was holy.

Her goodness and compassion was of a different order than mere human virtue. When we put being good first instead of being holy first we are replacing sanctification–the process by which God makes us holy from the inside out–with mere human virtue. The problem with mere human virtue is that it is—well, merely human virtue. It doesn’t change us on the inside. “Jes ’cause ya wear a ten gallon hat  don’t mean you’re a Texan…” Just because you do good doesn’t mean you’re being transformed into the image of Christ Jesus.

The next problem with being good (and only being good) is that you are proving the atheists’ point. They like to observe that you don’t need to be a Christian and go to church in order to be good. They’re right of course. People are dumb. When we as Catholics stress good works  and brag about all we’re doing to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, they conclude that the main thing about Christianity is helping poor people. But are they dumb? We’ve told them that this is the main thing. We’ve skewed the priorities. In fact they’re not dumb. They’re smart. They’ve drawn the conclusion from what we’ve told them. They think the main thing about being a Christian is to feed poor people, and they then conclude that you don’t need to go to church to do that.

Then we wonder why no one goes to Mass anymore.

The idea that being good is enough is the most persistent and pernicious heresy within Catholicism. The ghost of Pelagius still haunts our hallowed halls, and we need to hear again and again that we shouldn’t just be good, we should be better, and not just better, but best.

This is what the church calls the “universal call to holiness”–that each one of us are called first and foremost to be holy. To be holy is not to be extra pious and prudish and prayerful, but to become who God truly intended us to be. Through prayer and sacrifice and devotion we draw nearer to God, and as we draw nearer we become more like the One we worship. This is the primary work of the Christian, and as that work is done we are driven out to do the good works that are the mark of our calling.

  • Eric

    I really appreciate this article. I was raised under the belief that as long as you’re a good person, that was all you needed to worry about. This is a common trap ensnaring many of my “Catholic” family and friends.

  • Manny

    Now that is an excellent homily, Father. Everyone, not just Catholics, should read this.

  • Joanne

    A timely article, Father. A neighbor of mine, ex-Catholic turned Universalist, said all the religions are pretty much the same, it’s about “becoming a better person”. I know she was truly missing the mark, but me being a new convert (and not very articulate in defending the faith…yet) and she being a new neighbor, I just politely smiled. But now, thanks to this post, I will be able to address this topic with her. I’ve even printed it to put into my, “How to Respond to Tough Topics” binder ;o)

  • Sherry

    But the how of becoming holy, that is the crux of the matter. People remember the phrase, “Faith without works is dead.” but also forget that works are not faith, anymore than doing little things without great love is the same as doing little things with great love.

  • Samuel Crow

    Father, you hit the perverbial nail on the head about why Catholics do not attend Mass anymore. I took think that if I am good then I am saved. But it is in loving God and being with God in all we do, say and think.

  • Andrew Joe Nelson

    The church of nice and be good is not saving souls.

  • Pam

    A few years ago I was training for door to door evangelization with a wonderful nun in full habit. We were invited in to a home and the woman told us that she no longer goes to mass but she told us not to worry because she is still good. This wonderful nun lowered her glasses and looked the woman right in the eye and said “If all it took to get to heaven was to be good, why would God have sent His only Son to die on a cross for us. What kind of a sadistic god do you think we have?

    Thank you Father for reminding me of that story.

  • Jambe d’Argent

    Amen to that, amen, amen, amen!

  • frances

    What many people fail to realize is that receiving Holy Communion helps us to become holy because we are receiving the precious Body and Blood of Jesus. We can pray to God anywhere in the universe but we can only receive the Body and Blood of Jesus at Mass. Many people could not follow that teaching of Jesus and they left Him. When we do not believe we are receiving His Body and Blood we are like those who left Him.

  • Tom Mulcahy

    It is correct thinking for Catholics to believe that they have to do good to go to Heaven. What would be worse is if they thought they didn’t have to do good to go to Heaven. A Catholic who is in sanctifying grace should be trying to perform supernaturally good acts – meritorious acts of virtue – all day long. That’s what the saints did!! Goodness is, in fact, a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Good works – done in sanctifying grace – are highly valued in the New Testament. See Ephesians 2:10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
    The mistake made by some Catholics is to think that good works proceeding from their own fallen nature – rather than from sanctifying grace – are of value for salvation. But we would never want to discourage good works, but merely to explain that good works, done for the love of God and neighbor, and flowing from God’s own grace in our souls, is a true sign of our justification and sanctification.
    We humans are called by God to be good, in fact, to very good, by means of the strength of grace given to us freely by God. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Do good, avoid evil, in grace.

    • Joanne


  • Denton

    Luther would smile and rejoice at this>

    • Maureen Tomaino

      yes I agree….Denton

  • Jerry Rhino

    Faith is a gift of God which is not given to all. Those without the gift often lead a life based upon some of God’s attributes such as truth, justice, and mercy. And some without the gift of faith are good at loving their neighbors as themselves. Would your analysis conclude that if such a one dies without changing, that salvation is not possible? I would differ with that, after all God desires the salvation of all so there must be a way for all. Of course for those who have been given the gift of faith, more is expected.
    Pope Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical 2007 Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”), “The atheism of the 19th and 20th centuries is — in its origins and aims — a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history” (No. 42). To which one writer added, “This claim is a million miles away from the common cheap dismissal of atheism as “godless immorality” or the supposition that rejection of belief in God cuts the atheist off from any commonality with Catholic teaching. On the contrary, the pope understands that atheism is typically intensely moralistic: full of rage against injustice, oppression and wrong that both Old Testament prophets and saints of the Church have felt. It approaches the problem of evil with deep seriousness and a burning sense of anger — an anger that cannot be accounted for in the purely materialist world of the atheist.”

  • Marty

    With all due respect, I think this article misses the mark. We follow the Master who said, “Call no one good but God.” None of us are good. Not one of us. All you have to do to see how little “good” we are is turn the pressure up a bit: Think 1941 Warsaw or Berlin. I’ve seen people buckle under far less pressure. Our “good” acts are straws, but we perform them nonetheless. To think they “earn” us anything is profoundly delusional.

    • AugustineThomas

      I think you misunderstood. He means the same, that goodness alone is not enough precisely because God is the source of all goodness.
      It would be an illusion to think you can have the fruits of creation but reject the Creator.

  • William

    Some distinctions are in order, Father. “The problem with being good is that you think that’s good enough.” No, that’s not right. There is no problem with being good. This may be an unreconciled left-over from your Protestant past, and that’s understandable, but the fact is — being good, is indeed, salvation. If it were possible for a person to “be the thing we call ‘the good’” – that person would be divinized.

    “Pharisees–who were very good and nice” — it seems like misreading the Bible here. The Pharisees were not good. They were hypocrites and full of pride. They weren’t very nice either.
    Your paraphrase: “You see them? You’ve got to be better than them.”
    This contradicts your point. Our Lord is saying that you have to be good. You cannot be good without being Holy. The standard for goodness is not humanitarian acts — it’s God Himself. He is Being, which is Good.

    “They like to observe that you don’t need to be a Christian and go to church in order to be good. They’re right of course.”

    The atheists are wrong. You cannot find any basis for good or evil within an atheistic context. Atheists are using a theistic concept of good to support atheism. That’s hypocricy. As Christians, we know we cannot truly be good at all without going to church and obeying God’s laws.

    My concern here is the use of the word “good” as if it’s a synonym for “nice”. That is damaging the word “good” — which is a word which refers to the nature of God. The good is the pinnacle of the scale of values that we all must seek.

    • AugustineThomas

      I think you’re wrong. An atheist can most certainly be good but not saved until he partakes in Holy Communion and believes as the Lord commands.

      • William

        “An atheist can most certainly be good but not saved”
        An atheist can be good but condemned to Hell? This is a confusion in terms. Receiving communion and doing as the Lord commands are not just “extras” — they’re essentials in the path to full goodness. We can be saved without achieving the fullness of good – (thus, Purgatory). And of course, all created beings are good. But when we talk about the fullness of good — truly “being good”, this means we are “like God” — which we all should be. We have to work at that, through grace and our own actions. Regarding atheism, when an atheist says that he can “be good”, that’s using the word good in a theistic sense. There can be no real good or evil in the atheistic framework. Good is measured by its origin and end. For atheism, the origin is nothing and the end is nothing. Any act that occurs between those two points can’t be considered good or evil, because there is no real purpose to anything. So, we can say that an atheist is “a good person” but only because we measure that by God’s standards. The atheist has to discover a way to measure goodness — and with that, there is the evidence of God, as the maximum value of Good at the very top of the scale.

    • Johannes

      Perhaps, but you’re glossing over the distinction between doing good things and being—in an ontological sense—good. Fr. Longenecker is clearly using “being good” here in the former sense: to “be good” is to “do good things.” Or rather, you think you “are good” because of the things that you do.

      You can try and split hairs saying something like, “Well, what I mean to say is that one cannot do a good thing without that thing being oriented towards the glory of God,” but of course we know that’s an error. An evil man can do a good thing, and not have that good thing not reflect on his own being or character.

      You can, in fact, find good in an atheistic context. I believe our Pope just recently addressed this in one of his Sunday audiences. Keep in mind that goodness—even if it only contingently exists in a theistic paradigm—can be done by someone who operates outside of that paradigm. To say otherwise would be akin to claiming that atheism “doesn’t exist.”

      The Pharisees did do good things. They adhered to the Jewish law (which is good.) But they were also hypocrites (which is bad.) What’s more, they didn’t understand the true meaning of the law, because they didn’t understand that Christ was the fulfillment of it. That’s to say, though they might have been somewhat good, they were not wholly good. And, because Christ requires perfection of us, we must look to Him in order to be wholly good.

    • Ericdijon

      Jesus skillfully made clear that the pharisees were hypocrites. Caesar claimed that he was a god. The hypocrites felt that they had led
      Jesus into the perfect trap to decide between God and Caesar. The Jews
      would tithe with the Hebrew currency because it was ritually unclean to
      possess Roman money. The moneychangers thrived in converting Roman
      currency to Hebrew currency and back to Roman currency to pay taxes.
      The hypocrites asked Jesus about paying the census tax that Caesar
      required. The hypocrites felt that Jesus would fall into their trap if
      he denied the lawfulness of paying Caesar’s tax because that would be
      denying Caesar of being a god. The other alternative they felt would
      trap Him would be that Jesus would break the law by standing behind the
      first three Commandments. The Roman tax was to be paid with Roman
      currency. A Jew carrying Roman currency was considered a ritually
      unclean Jew. The irony is that Jesus asked
      the hypocrites (Jewish Authorities) for a coin and they just so happened to handily have
      one. The funny part is the trap that Jesus laid for them. Jesus not
      only did not know whose image and inscription was on the coin, but
      forced the hypocrites into blithely confessing their knowledge of who it
      was and their tacit complicity with Caesar. Brilliant.

  • TomD

    I’m puzzled by some of the reactions to this article.

    Don’t we as Catholics believe that we cannot earn our salvation by being good . . . salvation comes from grace and belief in Jesus Christ. But . . . but . . . faith without works is dead (James). So while we cannot earn salvation by works, our works, our doing good if you will, is the direct result of our having faith. We do good because we have faith. But that does not mean that doing good earns us salvation. Isn’t this Catholicism 101?

    • Buster

      Works is doing the will of God. If you have faith, but do not do the will of God, your faith is dead. Yes, this is somewhat different than doing “good” as in morally good things. Of course, doing morally “good” things is the will of God, this is not necessarily the extent of works, or doing the will of God.

  • Ben Dunlap

    “The problem with mere human virtue is that it is—well, merely human virtue. It doesn’t change us on the inside.”

    I am wondering what Fr. means by “change us on the inside”.

    Here’s CCC 1804: “Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith… the moral virtues are acquired by human effort … [and] dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.”

    Certainly it’s possible to appear virtuous without actually being virtuous. But that’s a different point.

    The man who actually possesses “mere human virtue” is a happy man indeed. His virtue cannot save him but it clears away a lot of roadblocks.

    • AugustineThomas

      The point is that without the Triune God, his virtue is meaningless.

      • Ben Dunlap

        But what do you mean exactly by “meaningless”? (no pun intended)

        Human virtue is the natural perfection of the human soul. It’s a very, very good thing, even in a man who has not been baptized. In fact it’s difficult to imagine how an unbaptized man could be *genuinely* virtuous — prudent, just, brave, and temperate — and at the same time not desire baptism, at least implicitly.

        Conversely, a baptized Christian who utterly lacks human virtue — a man who is foolish, unjust, cowardly, and immoderate — is very far from sanctity.

        This is not to say that human virtue and sanctity are identical (which would be something like the Pelagianism that Fr. is warning against) — but they certainly go hand-in-hand. And saying that does not deny that both of the men described above need God’s grace to be saved.

        I do suspect that there’s a profound spiritual truth that the original post is groping for. But the post seems to me to denigrate human virtue, which is one of the most beautiful things in creation. I don’t think that’s helpful.

        Let’s instead encourage human virtue, since it’s an essential part of Christian holiness.

  • Robbie J

    Fr. Dwight, Thank you for another great write. I will forward it to my friends. However, I think the title should have been, “Don’t (just) be good” instead of “Don’t be good”. Don’tcha think?

    • AugustineThomas

      I think the idea is “don’t be good (be holy)”.

  • guest

    No we can not be “good enough” but we can Love, and “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His Love is made complete in us”… and so His Goodness flows too. Those who Love much, gain so much more. What a wonderful God we have!!

    1 Corinthians 13:1If I speak in the tongues
    of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
    I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all
    knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not
    have love, I am nothing.
    3If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,
    but do not have love, I gain nothing.

    1 John 4:7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
    8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
    9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
    10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
    11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
    12No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

  • profling

    This is a point that Meister Eckhart makes in his sermons. Some would say it is also a Taoist concept. Another religious paradox!

  • bj

    I grew up cradle catholic and went to catholic schools and I didn’t learncomprehend this until I was 21 on a retreat weekend. What a breath of fresh air it was to learn this! Life after that felt like Easter Sunday to me!

    I’ve spent a lot of time trying to instruct other Catholics about this since,(because there is so much joy and peace that comes in knowing it) and a lot of them think I’ve been protestant-tainted. LOL

  • DeirdreMundy

    I see this tendency in how many confirmation programs work. They focus on completing hours of community service. There’s a retreat in there somewhere, but the main thrust, and what the kids pick up on, is that by feeding the hungry, helping at spaghetti dinners, and going on mission trips, they earn ‘adulthood’ in the church through their confirmation.

    Instead, we need to emphasize grace as a GIFT from God. Confirmation classes need to be more about prayer, asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and uniting oneself to Gods will then about canned food drives.

    Again, is it any wonder young people leave the church? If it’s just a giant community service club, why not join the Moose Lodge instead? They have better beer….

  • Morrie C

    This is a great reminder. A common sin among those “doing good” is gossip. We fool ourselves into thinking we are doing God’s will then quickly point out the faults of others.

  • Peregrinus

    The blog article’s main argument, namely, that mankind is
    called to be holy (as distinct from “good,” which the article
    contrasts with holiness), and that no one can be holy without God’s grace, is
    true, notwithstanding that the article makes the argument in an equivocating
    and invalid manner, as several have noted in their comments above. The
    argument’s final conclusion, however, viz., that “good works” are
    only an effect of becoming holy (i.e., our progress in growing in holiness
    “drives” us to do them) and are only a “mark of our [progression
    in this] calling” to holiness, is erroneous. Correction is warranted, given the importance of the topic.

    The blog article is intent on avoiding the Scylla of Pelagianism, so to speak, but steers so hard away from it that the article ends of being caught in the eddies of the Charybdis of Protestantism. One need not conclude, as the article does, that good works have no real role in growing in holiness and being saved (the ultimate topic of the article), except as signs or indicators of this growth and progress toward salvation, from the fact that “just because you do good doesn’t mean [that] you’re being transformed into the image of Christ.” To deny that a man can save himself through his good works, which is certainly true, does not necessarily mean that a man’s good works do not play any real role in his salvation. The latter claim need not follow from the former and is false.

    It is, to be sure, God who transforms and saves us by His grace (see Eph 2:8); but He transforms and saves us only with our cooperation. “God created us without us; but He will not save us without us,” St. Augustine, the greatest anti-Pelagian, explained (see CCC, Para. 2002). How do we cooperate? We cooperate by responding to the gifts of faith and grace with acts of love or charity, which is normally what is meant by “good works” (see Matt. 5: 48, John 15: 10,
    James 1: 22-25 & 2: 21-24). These works of charity or love are our very small yet important part in our growth in holiness or “sanctification”, as the Catechism puts it (see Paras. 2001 & 2013). We do not become holy and are not saved without them (see I Cor 13: 1-3 & Matt.25: 31-46).

    Now this cooperation is little more than our not obstructing God’s grace; and we have no reason, therefore, to boast about our role in our own salvation (see Eph 2: 8 and CCC, Paras. 2007 & 2010f.). Our role is, nonetheless, essential, as noted above; and to deny that role or to limit it to faith alone is the great and pernicious error of Protestantism.

  • Sue Korlan

    My personal experience was that I couldn’t be good without God. I tried and failed and came back to the Church as a result. I have met others who have similar experiences.

  • St_Donatus

    Excellent Article: I belong to a parish that, as a whole, is very holy. (It is a more Traditional Parish.) This article reminds me of a large family of Mom, Dad and eight kids. This family is especially holy. You can see it not only in their very reverent actions at church but also in their attitudes. Every week there is a breakfast and lunch for all in the congregation that choose to come. I was eating this lunch while talking to this large family who, by the way, all suffer from moderate to severe health problems and are very poor. After a while they excused themselves. I asked why they had to leave and they said because they needed to wash dishes and clean up. It turns out that they supplied the whole lunch for the congregation. These folks can’t even afford a reliable car to get to Church and they are feeding all of us out of the goodness of their hearts.

    I am a returning Catholic after 30 years. I always admired good deeds and kindness, even when I fell into an atheistic mindset. But there were certain bad behaviors I just could not overcome. It wasn’t until I returned to the Catholic Church and realized that I need to pursue Holiness, that I was able to overcome these bad behaviors. Oddly enough, overcoming them was not even hard. I hope some day that I can achieve Holiness. At least I have been able to see what it looks like in this simple family. As a child I remember seeing holiness much more in the Church than I see today. My own relatives, too poor to have indoor plumbing, but everyday at mass, doing the rosary, helping their neighbors, showing holiness.

    It seems that for the last 50 years or so we have been emphasizing goodness and de-emphasizing holiness and the products of that have left us with fewer priests, nuns, and holy people. The days of men and women religious educating our children for almost free are over. Too few of us Catholics are even willing to deprive ourselves of basic desires to achieve even true goodness, let alone pursue holiness. Instead we pursue nice large homes, nice cars, and exotic vacations.

    It is through holiness that we can achieve true goodness.

  • Becky

    Good grief, we all know what Father is saying, instead of analyzing how he said it, with which words he said it, can’t we just take the message and use it? I thought the post was very good and well said! For the “learned” people to analyze and pick these posts apart remind me how the Pharisees were always trying to find a flaw in Jesus’s sermons. (Which they often thought that they did but it was due to their own arrogance that they misunderstood.) His point here is very clear–I for one, learned something from it. Well said, Father! It was good!