The Good, The Bad, and The Holy

It is quite often that we teach our children to be good; that we expect people to be good; that we want to be good.  Yet, it is very rare that we hear people say that they will teach their kids to be holy; that they expect others to behave in a holy manner; that they themselves are striving for holiness.  But what are we really called to?  Is there really a difference between being good and being holy? Why does it matter?

Two Stories

Before we venture to think about why being holy is preferred over being good, I want to present you with two stories from the New Testament, one of them is an account given by St. Mark and the other a parable told by Jesus from St. Matthew’s Gospel.  The account from St. Mark’s Gospel (12:41-44):

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

The Gospel told by Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel (19:16-22)

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect,  go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

What Do We Make Of This?

These are probably the most basic traits that we want our children to have: God fearing, responsible, and morally good.  We teach them these things by directing them to two kinds of people: good people and bad people.  We tell them that the good people are to be imitated, and the bad people are to serve as models of how not to behave.  I suspect that by any of our standards, the people from the crowd in St. Mark’s account and the rich young man can be considered good people.  We can safely assume that they earned their money justly, they tithe to God, and they keep the commandments of the Lord.  They are God fearing, responsible, and morally good people.  Yet why does it seem that this falls short?

Being good falls short of being holy because it lacks the most basic and necessary Christian virtue: love.  Most people are good people because they feel obligated to do the things that they do.  The people from the first story tithe to God because they are obliged to do so.  They take what is change from their wealthy pockets and give to God his due while keeping what they think is justly theirs.  The rich young man tells Jesus that he has done all that is required of him from the law.  Simply put, being good generally means doing good out of obligations and fear of punishment for failure.  Many Christians, myself included, have a tendency to think this way when it comes to being good vs. being holy.

However we must remember that as Christians we are called to be holy.   We are called to love, and to love abundantly.  Holiness will require that we give not only our possessions to those who need them because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but to pray for them and for their well-being.  Holiness requires that we not simply go to Church on Sundays because we are required to worship God, but to yearn to be there with Him because we realize that we love Him as much as He loves us.  St. Therese of Lisieux puts it so simply:

“Do you realize that Jesus is there in the tabernacle expressly for you-for you alone? He burns with the desire to come into your heart… don’t listen to the demon, laugh at him, and go without fear to receive the Jesus of peace and love…”

To be holy, my friends, is to be self-forgetting.  It is to do the right things always out of love for God and for our brothers and sisters.  To be good demands that we overlook our neighbor’s wrong against us; to be holy demands that we not only forgive our neighbor, but to love him and pray for his repentance.  This is what every Christian ought to strive for.  I leave you now with these words from St. Therese of Lisieux for some reflection:

“Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.”

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4 comments on “The Good, The Bad, and The Holy

  1. SaintlySages says:

    An observation about Mt 19: When we hear the word “perfection,” we often think of moral perfection. But “perfection” can also mean completeness. The young man in Mt 19 was well on his way to moral perfection, for he kept the Commandments. But he lacked the perfection of completeness in the way he managed the gifts God entrusted to him: he used these for his own benefit, which is good, but he failed to also use these things for the benefit of others. God loves every human person. To strive for the perfection of completeness, we must strive to love not only ourselves as God loves us, but we must also strive to love all those whom God loves in the way He loves them. I look forward to reading more of your thought-provoking posts. God bless!

  2. alexanderschimpf says:

    This was intriguing. I agree with you that what the Church means by holiness would seem to go well beyond what we normally call goodness. On the other hand, you made me a little nervous by drawing the distinction so sharply, for goodness would seem to be a prerequisite for holiness. Put in a nerdy way, wouldn’t we want to say that goodness is a necessary condition for holiness, even if, as you rightly point out, it does not seem to be a sufficient condition?

    • gotdewy says:

      I had the same thought about this distinction that you pointed out here, Alexander. In fact, when I first started to write the post, I had in mind the secular claim to goodness (or the ability to be good) without having to recourse to God, or a deity. However, the more I wrote, the more I realize that Christians have a tendency to look at their calling in this manner, influenced by secular thought and differing only in having God as the law-giver. I certainly agree with goodness is a prerequisite for holiness, but it seems that goodness only tends to the well-being of the subject alone, while holiness tends to all creatures of God involved. I think my post could have been better written to avoid the confusion that it seemingly presents the notion of being good as something completely other and then vitiates it.

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