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I’m a good person, right?

| Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Sermon on the Mount is undoubtedly one of the most famous speeches of all time.  

Many of Jesus’ most popular teachings, like “[l]ove your enemies” and “turn the other cheek,” find their origins here. But the very first sentence of this great address is uniquely striking to me. “Blessed are the ____, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Without cheating, what do you think it says? Blessed are the righteous? The compassionate? The obedient? The humble? The faithful? None of the above. Instead, He says something utterly profound: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The poor in spirit, the spiritually destitute, not the spiritually self-sufficient, not the one who’s got it all together, will be received into the kingdom of heaven. It is this dependence on God’s grace, not on our own ability and good works, that is absolutely central and paramount for the Christian (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). This strips away all pretext “for,” in the words of one commentator, any “intellectual or spiritual pride” that might arise from even the last beatitude, which blesses “those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10). Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John, “… apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), is particularly relevant here.  

Our modern worldview chafes at such ideas. In a society so fixated on self-love and phrases like “you’re worth it” and “you do you,” we can’t possibly imagine someone having the nerve to tell us that there’s something deeply wrong with us, that we are sinners in need of God’s grace. Are you saying I’m not a good person? Yes actually. You are not a good person. And neither am I.

To those who think they are basically good, author Rebecca McLaughlin provides a useful preliminary question: “Think of everyone you spend time with and ask [to yourself], would I let them see a transcript of my thoughts?” If the searchlight were to shine with its blinding light on all you’ve done, all that you’ve said behind others’ backs, all that you’ve done alone and in secret and all that you’ve thought and expose it in front of everyone you have ever known, what do you think would happen?  We all know in our hearts that while there may some good, warm moments there, they would be no contest for our moral failings. Even the vast majority of things you did for what you thought were selfless reasons were really done to make you look or feel good, generous or moral. They were done for the pleasure of thinking yourself to be a good, decent and intelligent person, or because you knew the other person would (or would be more likely to) reciprocate the favor when you needed help, or because you feared punishment or being looked down upon by others, or because you found the other person’s physical appearance attractive. The depth of our self-absorption is so entrenched in our character that we begin to, interestingly, be repulsed by ourselves. And if we — who are bad — can be so repulsed at it, how much more does God — who is all good — despise these sins that are so deep within us? How can we hope to stand on the last day before a perfect and holy judge with such a record?  

But if humans are naturally bad, how do we fix it? What can I do? Every other religion apart from Christianity tells us we need to “find ourselves” or follow a list of rules that will, if we’re good enough, helps us earn our salvation. But if we are not basically good, then knowing what is good or being told what we should do will simply not do. This is why motivational speeches and self-help books and techniques can never make lasting change. As Dane Ortlund put it, “[a] pep talk can get me in the air for a little while. But a pep talk can only change what I do. It cannot change what I love.” What we need, then, is a transformation from the outside. Other people cannot transform me, for if they are anything like me, they need this transformation too. And if they have been transformed by an outside power, I must find what, or who, has changed them. Do you begin to see why Christian belief in the Holy Spirit makes sense? Do you also see why we are totally and completely in need of God’s love and grace? If it was up to us to save ourselves, we would all be lost. Coming to terms with this helps us understand exactly why we need to be saved. It fills us with the most amazing wonder and joy to know that “Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), the “ungodly” (Romans 5:6), the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). It is a love that seems too pure for us to even understand fully. Probably because it is. And accepting His love for us and trusting His promises is like nothing else. To do so is to admit that you can’t save yourself, that you can’t trust yourself with the destiny of your own soul and that Christ is the only one who can make you right with God and transform your heart.  

Don’t stall by saying you’re not good enough to come to God. You’re right; you’re not. But Christ doesn’t ask that of you.  “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6), not the godly. If you were godly, you wouldn’t need a savior. Yet with each day, we know we need saving all the more, and Christ’s words call out to us: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “Blessed are the poor in spirit” indeed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). 

Andrew Sveda is a sophomore at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science.  In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano.  He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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