Trying Hard to Pretend We're Good People

Benjamin Franklin wanted to be a better man. He settled on 13 virtues he wanted to work on in his own life. Things like silence, frugality, industry, tranquility.

But we can’t just leave these matters to chance, now can we? Ben wanted to keep track of his moral improvement. So in a little book, he wrote down each virtue on a blank page, along with a column to record his defects.

Every week he concentrated on a new virtue. If he messed up, he recorded it in the “Defects” column. And every 13 weeks, he would cycle back to virtue #1 and start the process of moral improvement over again.

For decades Ben toted this little book around. Working hard at being good. Keeping track of his errors. And he actually saw progress in his life. He seemed gradually to become a better person. More virtue, less vice. It was working!

But he also noticed something else: the better a person he became, the more proud he was of his ethical accomplishments. And try as he might, he couldn’t seem to kick it. @@Pride is the ultimate Whack-a-Mole vice.@@ Strike it down here and it pops up there.

But it’s even worse, because Ben knew that pride is not some surface blemish, a peccadillo that causes no real harm. As C. S. Lewis was later to observe, “The essential vice, the utmost evil is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness and all that are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

So, about the time Ben thought he might win the ethical race, he found himself back at the starting line. With a broken leg. And a bruised ego. And a little book, filled with scribbles of victory, that signaled his inevitable defeat.

Again, to quote, Lewis, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”

This is not to say that we should just give up living moral lives. We should strive with all our might to live upright, virtuous lives. We should endeavor to be kind and truthful, patient and forgiving, listening more and talking less. Lord knows we could use much more of that in society today. Two minutes on Facebook will adequately demonstrate that dire need.

Ben’s little book seemed like a good idea. But he was missing one thing. A big thing. One of those epiphanies that changes our whole perspective.

He needed to realize that, no matter how we might improve and refine our outward behavior, we can never un-evil ourselves within. A man with a nasty temper might work really hard to refrain from kicking someone’s face in, but he will never rid that desire from his heart. A man who struggles with lust may successfully avoid the bed of women to whom he is not married, but in his heart he still commits adultery.

So what’s a person to do? Give up. That’s what. Give up on delusions of perfection. Give up on dreams of becoming so good, so ethical, so holy in this life that you can conquer every vice that attacks you.

You might not even realize what you’re really going for in the quest for self-improvement. You might think you’re just out to be a better person. No, you’re not.

You’re looking for peace. You’re looking for a way to silence the accusing voice within. The one that points out your errors. The one that makes you feel inadequate. The voice that keeps close track of the “Defects” on every page.

While you’re pretending to be good, you’re actually wishing that it were true.

It can be. There is a way to be good, inside and out, in your actions and in your heart. There is a way to find peace. To sew shut the accusing lips. To be more than adequate; to be just the person you were created to be.

It’s actually what Christianity is all about. This is an old way—the way of substitution. You be someone else and they be you. Jesus becomes who you are and you become who he is. His kindness and patience and courage are given to you, and your lust and meanness and impatience are reckoned to him.

It’s like you two are swapping closets. You wear Jesus’s clothing and he wears yours. Jesus puts his heart inside you and puts yours inside him. And his Father sees this. He is pleased with—of all people—you!

And you receive peace. The peace of knowing that, if the Creator of heaven and earth, the most powerful being in the universe, thinks that you are not only okay but righteous, then everything is fine. You don’t need to make yourself better to get in God’s good graces. You’re already in.

We can never un-evil ourselves. But God can take care of that for us. He already has. He’s removed our vices and placed them on his Son. And he’s taken his Son’s goodness and placed it on us.

@@We wouldn’t recognize ourselves if we saw ourselves through the Father’s eyes, because we look just like Jesus.@@

I wish I could have told old Ben that. Maybe he’d have spared himself that little book. So I’m telling you. Be at peace, my friend. God loves and likes you. Jesus is enough. And he is all yours.

My new book, Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places, is now available. You can order copies from Christian Book DistributorsAmazonBarnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookstore.

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