For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Romans 7:18-19
Can we be good without God? Are the human spirit and the desire to do right so strong, so powerful that desire is a sufficient motive to do good? In his classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the 19th-century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky asked, “Can man be good without God?” History says “No!” without qualification. But today our educational system, the philosophy of government, and the pattern of our lives attempt to say, “Yes! We don’t need God to be good!”
If there is anything new about the way we strive to answer that question, it is by making ourselves believe that we have included God in the scheme of our lives. In reality, we pay token tribute to Him while leaving Him on the sidelines, and attempt to be good ourselves. It just doesn’t work. The end result is violence, shattered families, and broken lives. Life is no longer sacred, either in the womb or in the convalescent hospital. The streets are no longer safe to inhabit, and contracts, written or oral, are no longer binding.
For 73 years Russian communism launched the great experiment in striving to be good without God. Essential goodness, whereby all people would be equal, was quickly flawed. It soon became apparent that some were more than equal than others, especially those whose privileges enabled them to shop in the stores with western goods and better food. Those not so fortunate ate cabbage and potatoes. It wasn’t because some were better than others; it was only that some had better connections.
Under communism, God was set aside. Atheism became the official religion of the state, and upon that philosophical foundation, there was no motive for goodness. The law of the land became essentially the law of the jungle. In morality it was, “Do whatever feels good”; in business, it was, “Do whatever you can get away with.”
Without God, there is no basis for integrity, no motive for morality, no need for honesty, and, certainly, no accountability. It just doesn’t work.
History is the sad refrain of man’s attempts to be good without God. The failures resulted in murder, wars, and devastation. And the lessons we have not learned, we are doomed to repeat.
Going one step further, is it possible that you—at least in a measure—attempt to be good without God? You cite all kinds of supporting evidence. You neither murder nor steal. Oh, maybe a bit here and there on your taxes, but nothing that puts you in jail. You remind yourself that you are a great deal better than many. But your heart is like a dungeon of lust and turmoil. Can you relate to what Paul wrote as he said, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19)?
Striving to be good without God is an endless, fruitless game whereby we try to convince ourselves that we are better than we really are.
It is only when we turn to God that we see ourselves as we really are—sinners who have fallen far short of God’s expectations. By throwing ourselves on His mercy, we receive the lifeline of grace which rescues us from the failure of our good intentions. Stop striving to be good without God. It cannot be done.
Resource reading: Romans 7
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