The Goodness Conundrum

The Goodness Conundrum August 1, 2023

Jesus sums up his counsel about relationships with this command: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48). This perfection, Ludolph explains, is “the perfection of grace,” and it enables us to “be perfect in the way we can be” (not in the way we can’t be, thankfully). It’s a perfection of charity, a perfection of courage and humility, a perfection of patience and blessing.

But Jesus is wise, so so wise, and he knows that those who seek to attain such perfection are the exact same ones who will get caught in what I call “the goodness conundrum.” As a PK, I cut my teeth on the goodness conundrum. Goodness, after all, is meant to be recognized. [Remember the whole light shining before others part of the Sermon (5.16)? This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…] A PK is supposed to be oh-so-good and thus a living demonstration of her parents’ godly virtues. You, whoever you are, you too are supposed to have that little light of yours—a light of goodness, of patience, of fidelity, of honesty—shining bright so that the world may know you are the Lord’s.

The minute, however, we carefully cultivate that bright light so that the praise and the applause for that perfection of grace, that goodness, become the goal, then we have “lost our reward.” (I am remembering those little stickers in my Pioneer Girls handbook; I am remembering the kudos for the National EV Free Bible Quiz team memorization; I am remembering standing beside my father after a church service as he shook hands with parishioners and relishing the comments on my adorableness. Sigh. Excuse my moments of confession here. My brother and sister, both far more honest PKs, must have wanted to puke.]

“Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mt 6.1). It seems we’re being asked to thread the needle here: do good, be good, but don’t even think about liking any positive response. And yet we all need affirmation; we need encouragement in our good deeds; we need to be appreciated. Hmm. A conundrum.

So is Jesus just making things difficult? Is he asking the impossible?

In the first half of Matthew 6, Jesus addresses three “acts of righteousness”: almsgiving (which might be understood today as material support for any variety of services and ministries among the poor, the unhoused, immigrants, etc.); prayer; and fasting. These are true acts of righteousness—that is, they are behaviors that demonstrate genuine relationship with God. They’re not the only true acts of righteousness, but they are considered normative ones: live generously, with an open hand and a compassionate heart; live in face-to-face dependence on your Father; live with a spirit of self-denial.

We may truly wish to live “for an audience of One,” but it’s very, very hard not to play to the crowds. We want to write for the One, but we also want to be renowned writers with solid sales and great recommendations by famous writers on the back covers. Because I dabble in writing, I take special heed to warnings such as I read in Clare Coffey’s article, “Selling Friends”:

The best way to make money as a writer is not to sell words. It is to sell enough words in prestigious and fashionable spaces, to cultivate enough of a persona, that you are invited to give talks and lead workshops and finally, one day, secure a post at a creative-writing program. There, you will mentor the next generation of aspiring professional writers. More for your downline.

We want to be public speakers and circuit teachers and sages on stages…for the One…but we need slick websites and professional headshots and glowing reviews and steady bookings. We want to sing for the One, write music for the One, perform for the One, but, ahem, we need an audience of many. Trust me, if you don’t have a solid platform, a large media presence, and a meaningful network of followers, not many will see that little light of yours as you let it shine. Marketing rules.

Ludolph turns to Boethius for guidance here: “Wise people measure their good not by popular repute but by the truth of inner conviction.” He actually inserts that citation twice in this chapter as he encourages us to “flee from human praise.” We are to let our little light shine for the love of God and obedience to his command.

And that command, remember, was our perfection. God “rewards not our works, but the purpose for our works.” And insofar as we give and pray and fast; or write and speak and sing; or cook and teach and care for small children; or clean and serve and work for the love of the One, “the snare has been broken, and we have escaped” (Ps 124.7).

It is no surprise that the three acts of righteousness that Jesus discusses are the very acts that can help us the most in our search for the audience of One. And these acts—hidden and secret, acts done in loneliness and darkness—purify and perfect our hearts.

Note: For a brief introduction to Ludolph of Saxony, a medieval “best-selling author,” read this.


Image courtesy of Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay.

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