What Does “Good” Even Mean?

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” — Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV

I once did a video on the importance of not letting good things become evil things. The post was geared toward our tendency to let good things (devotion to our country, family, community, career, etc.) turn into evil things by allowing them to prevent us from loving our neighbor. In response to this video, a friend proposed a question that I’d like to address today. “What does ‘good’ mean?”

The question is definitely fair. In our world today, moral relativism is all the rage, with everybody thinking different things qualify as “good,” usually when those things align with their emotional perceptions of reality. The problem with this is clear: without a defined standard of what is “good,” potentially anything goes. As humans, we can rationalize anything, no matter how disastrous, so I think it is important that we as a nation learn to embrace some sort of standard that helps us figure out what actions and policies should be considered “good” for us.

Some would point to our laws, but this is no guarantee. After all, it used to be illegal to eat, go to school, or have relationships with those of a different (viewed as inferior) race. Even today, “Stand Your Ground” laws are wildly unethical, encouraging violent responses to a broader array of situations as long as a threat is perceived. If history has taught us anything, “legal” doesn’t always mean “good.”

So what do we do? I cannot pretend to have formulated a universal standard of goodness that will prove practical and make everyone happy. I do, however, believe that the Christian faith does have a standard for its followers, and it’s one that everyone can appreciate or apply at least to some degree.

Take a look at the text that kicked off this article. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses issues a final sermon that centers on the Law which God gave the people at Mount Sinai. The people of Israel are about to cross the Jordan River into the land promised to their ancestors, and Moses takes one last opportunity to let them know what God considers “good.” Israel is to be “a people holy to the LORD,” chosen “out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). This means they need to have a clear understanding of what is “good.”

After twenty-nine previous chapters, chapter 30 summarizes the entire point as  a decision between “life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). What does God recommend? “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”

Life. That’s it. That is the standard.

It seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? Think about it, though. It’s all there. No matter what decision you are making, measure what you think, say, and do by how life-giving it is.

In a world where we selfishly make decisions based on what will benefit us the most, no matter how it affects others, how refreshing would it be if we as Christians (or even just as people) modeled Jesus Christ’s mission, to live that “they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10)? Deuteronomy’s call for us to choose things that tend toward life is communal. Israel’s people are not encouraged to think solely as individuals, doing what’s seems best for themselves. Instead, they are to seek abundant life for their entire nation!

Israel is called to be generous, devoted to God alone, and willing to root out injustice. In short, they are to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” and also to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:37-40). For Jesus, to follow these two commandments is to fulfill all that is “good” for God and for others. Even for those of us who are not necessarily Christian, any standard that emphasizes communal generosity, love, and justice should definitely qualify as “good!”

So how do we practice this? Well, you can start right now. Examine your thoughts, words, and actions. Are they life-giving? Do you operate according to what you and yours want, everyone else be damned? Many of us do, and look where it’s gotten us. Don’t get down on yourself, though, as there is always room and time to change! After all, the purpose of God’s commands is that of remembrance. We need reminders, so take this one for what it is and join me in repenting!

Whatever the topic, issue, or decision, let’s try something different. Instead of doing “whatever we want,” as long as it doesn’t actively cause harm, let’s function according to a standard of self-giving love, rooted in a desire for our communities to experience abundant life. Let’s allow our political, religious, economic, and social decisions to take on a communally life-giving character, for when we truly love and desire “good” for others, we can expect a blessed return that truly benefits us as well.

This is probably not a satisfying answer for anyone who desires an objective truth that let’s us know what is “good,” but perhaps the truth is that we are all free to decide what our standard will be. The next step, then, would be to communally make an effort to discern what will allow for abundant life for all in our midst. This task is not accomplished by shouting, name-calling, and “sticking to our guns,” but instead requires that we all be willing to give of our comfort that others may be blessed. It is a difficult work that takes time and effort, but I believe, if we dare to try it, the results will be well worth it.

Peace be with you!

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