Where Do You Draw the Line?
People think in terms of categories. We can’t help it; it’s part of human nature. Categories help us to organize the world in a way that makes sense and allows us to (hopefully) make useful decisions within that framework. Because our minds tend to work this way, we categorize not only things or events but also people. One of the primary ways we categorize people is morally, along some kind of good-bad spectrum.
Put simply, we tend to think that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Most people, I think, would likely place the majority of the human population into the “good” category and leave the “bad” label for individuals who seem particularly deserving: murderers, rapists, extortioners, racists, and the like. I think it is also true that the average person would tend to put themselves in the “good” person category. This good-bad spectrum probably places someone like Mother Theresa on one end and Adolph Hitler on the other. Everyone else falls somewhere in between. Yet even on this ranging spectrum, in our heads we still put a line somewhere that crosses over from the good side to the bad side. There might be a handful of people we’re not sure which side they belong on, but most everyone else we can deduce pretty quickly. The million dollar question is: where do you draw the line? How can you know if someone is a good person or a bad person, objectively?
It may not be exact, but this basic structure exists in the mind of every person because every person has a worldview. It doesn’t matter what your worldview is, you apply it to the people around you, knowingly or not. All of us have some sort of concept of what traits are ideal in human beings, and then we assess other people based on how they line up to those ideals. This is true for both secular people and religious people.
Try not to overthink it. If someone were to ask you, “Do you consider yourself a good person?” immediately your mind would develop some kind of idea of what a good person would be like (either something you’ve hashed out before or here on the spot) and then you’d evaluate to see if you meet those qualifications. What I am asking you to ponder is, how do you know where to place the line? What qualities would make someone good or bad? How you answer these questions changes a lot about how you interact with others and orient yourself in the world.
I raise this issue not only because it is fundamental to how we live our lives, but also because I think most of us think about this issue in completely the wrong way. Most of us place the line somewhere in the middle of humanity and either put most people on the bad side (if you’re more cynical about the human condition) or most people on the good side (if you’re the average person living in the 21st century). And unless you have some serious regrets about your past, you probably consider yourself to be a good person.
But what if you’re completely wrong? What if this whole way of thinking about morality is off-base? Here’s the thing—from a Christian perspective, this way of thinking is wrong by a country mile.
According to the Bible, the line between good people and bad people is placed directly in between morally perfect and morally imperfect. Jesus says in Matthew 5:48 “you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect”. The dividing line is perfection. This means that our assumption about where the line should be is likely wrong by a long shot. Almost no one considers literal moral perfection to be the definition of a good person. We all assume that people can still have flaws and be a good person. After all, we say, “no one’s perfect”. But this is not at all how God thinks about this issue.
To further illustrate, consider the assessment of humanity from Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. What this passage teaches us is that every person on the planet “falls short” of the standard God holds us to because of our sin. Thus, from God’s vantage point, the entire human race is on the “bad” side of the line. This would further be proven by the words of Jesus in Mark 10:18, “no one is good except God alone.” What this reveals is that the way God sees the world has every person on the “bad” side and God alone on the “good” side. Even though we may not see it this way, this is true assessment of how things really are.
The implications are significant. The Bible is challenging your own self-evaluation that you are a good person and saying, in fact, that you are not a good person. It says this not only of you but everyone else as well. If this is true, and God alone is good, it should greatly alter the way we see ourselves and others around us!
In fact, this is the foundation of the Christian worldview. The starting point of the Christian faith is the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God. We are bad, God is good. And because God is ultimately the One who will judge us in the end, he has given us indication ahead of time that we’re in a lot of trouble. He won’t declare us good, even if we think we are. He will declare us sinners who have fallen short of his standard for our lives and held accountable for our wrongdoing.
This is why Christians put such emphasis on sin. It reveals the perilous situation in which we find ourselves. It is also why Christians put such emphasis on Jesus as our Saviour, because it reveals our only hope for resolution. We can’t move from the bad side of the line to the good, because we’ve already sinned and can’t undo it. But what we can do is have our sins forgiven. In other words, we can’t become good people but we can become forgiven people. These are not the same thing but they are the difference between self-righteous religion and true Christianity.
Several things happen when we think this way, in accordance with the truth:
- We don’t think of ourselves as better than anyone else.
- We recognize that the forgiveness that God offers through Jesus is absolutely essential and our only hope.
- We will reject philosophies that encourage us to think in terms of a “us=good, them=bad” mentality.
As I see it, all three of these are current problems that need overcoming.
Firstly, human pride is rampant. This is not unique to anyone in particular, but all people tend to gravitate towards this viewpoint. We like to elevate ourselves at the expense of others. We tend to think if we were in charge, things would go better. We think the people around us are stupid, lazy, or not as capable as we are. This kind of thinking is poison to the soul and the Bible teaches that those who think this way will be condemned by God (Luke 18:9-14).
Second, forgiveness is our greatest human need, not self-improvement. All secular philosophies and non-Christian religions offer some variation of self-improvement designed to bring us into the “good” side and maybe even shoot us past other less-good people. This is a fools errand because, as Scripture noted earlier, we all “fall short” of who we are supposed to be. No amount of self-improvement will make a person acceptable in the eyes of God. Perfection is the only standard and is an unattainable one. Therefore, the person who realizes this truth will be quick to seek God’s forgiveness rather than pursue the futile path of self-improvement.
Thirdly, the typically-used good-bad spectrum wreaks havoc in our personal lives and in the world around us. A good-bad mentality is another variation of divide-and-conquer. It breaks the people of the world into unnecessary categories that create division, disharmony, and pride. It causes people to judge others based on their own arbitrary standards of goodness and pridefully wish others were more like them. “If only people were more like me, the world we be a better place!” we foolishly think. Nah. You’re a contributer to the misery in the world like everyone else.
Here’s the point: if we start off with a faulty foundation, we will build a tower destined to crumble. Trying to slice up the world into good and bad people is a mistaken endeavour that is rooted more in our own sinful pride than in reality. Instead, we should see the world and ourselves the way God does, with him alone as perfect and all others, including ourselves, on the side of failure and imperfection. Only when we do this can we orient ourselves to God and others rightly and begin to develop a coherent, biblical, and life-giving worldview.