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"Money Doesn't Make One Happy:" Examining Christian Folk Wisdom on the Subject of Wealth

Casual conversation is replete with folk wisdom on the subject of money. One becomes accustomed to hearing such remarks as, “Oh, I would never want to be rich.” This is usually followed by some sort of qualifier (“I just want to be comfortable”), or a platitude (“Money doesn’t make one happy, you know”), or the unimaginative, “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a lot of money,” and so on. These, and other like phrases, comprise the sort of commonplace moralizing to which, through familiarity, one tends to become inured, and they are often reciprocated by their hearers with an approving nod, as if the speaker had just uttered a trivial truth, such as, “I just want to be a good person.”

Were such phrases uttered by someone who was not already wealthy, however, it would be much easier to regard them seriously; for phrases of this sort, are, of course, the sorts of things only wealthy people say. Indeed, it is only in rare cases that our American wealth-eschewer does not at that very moment have (at least) a computer worth $500 to $1,000, otherwise known as a “smart” phone, on his person, own a vehicle, a home, a laptop or tablet, have access to air-conditioning, plumbing, running (drinkable) water, electricity, internet, cable television, a formal education, and a source of regular income.[1]

That a person engaged in such a prodigious standard of living can, without experiencing the slightest tinge of cognitive dissonance, blatantly denigrate the possession of wealth is, perhaps, evidence for just how exceptional the American economy is. Such statements reinforce the fact that, beyond the attainment of those necessities essential to survival, “comfort,” like wealth, is a relative state of affairs. The state “being comfortable” means one thing to (say) a Papuan and, to the average American, another thing entirely. In the case of the latter, it usually means something that, both historically and globally, amounts to a standard of living beyond even that of ancient kings; for, despite being unimaginably affluent,[2] there was no amount of gold that could have afforded Solomon, for example, the availability of electricity or the medical benefits of penicillin–advances that, in America, even the relatively poor take for granted. The standard of living most people in the history of the world would have considered “upper-class” is far exceeded by that which contemporary Americans now consider merely “comfortable.” But find me the man whose family is starving, or who is of financial necessity engaged in mundane or dangerous or backbreaking work, or the couple who is forced, for financial reasons, to allow their children to be raised by others, who will yet utter with a straight face such a phrase as, “money doesn’t make one happy,” and you will have discovered one who is either in denial of his predicament or does not understand happiness.

The meaning of “Money doesn’t make one happy”

Were one to ask ten people what the word “comfortable” or “happiness” means, or to define what (to them) constitutes “a lot” of money, however, one is likely receive at least eleven different answers. (This is, after all, not a subject many of us have thought critically about.) The answers produced will inevitably be products of one’s upbringing, social context, and values. Thus, as in any discussion, and especially one at whose center are much-equivocated terms, if we are to avoid speaking in circles, we must clarify at the outset what we mean. Rather than attempt to undergo a lengthy exposition of the various meanings of  “happiness,” or to analyze the etymology, however, I shall simply say what I think most people intend by it. In the context of an assertion like “money doesn’t make one happy,” people cannot mean by this something that is obviously untrue, such as, “money can’t buy comfort” or “money can’t buy pleasure.” Rather, they seem to mean something akin to the following: “no amount of money can provide a holistic sense of satisfaction in life.” This is surely a claim to which only a thoroughgoing hedonist might object.[3] The rest of us are compelled to agree, else profound dissatisfaction would be absent among those with sufficient wealth (whatever that is); yet, there is clearly no shortage of those who are both rich and deeply unhappy. This is because inveterate unhappiness of the kind produced by meaninglessness often stems from becoming discontented with pleasure, rather than from the regular experience of pain.[4] Summarizing Augustine’s thoughts on the matter, Nicholas Wolerstorff notes–correctly, in my view–that, “Only enjoyment of God is worthy of desire for its own sake. If enjoyment of some earthly thing comes your way, praise God for it; but do not desire it, do not seek it for its own sake. That way lies unhappiness.”[5] Therefore, let us agree that material wealth cannot ultimately satisfy.

If this is indeed what people mean by the phrase, “Money doesn’t make one happy,” it is odd that they should utter it in the contexts they usually do; namely, as a reason for why they do not–or would not want to–make more money or to build wealth. This is made all the more strange by the fact the man who, in conversation, shuns building wealth is often the very same man who sends letters to friends and family asking for donations to fund his short-term missions trip, complains nightly to his wife that he is underappreciated and underpaid, prays that he might be granted a pay raise, and could not conceive of turning down a promotion, so long as it came with greater pay. He wants desperately to be financially prosperous, but not too much. By day, he rolls his eyes at lottery winners and “trust fund babies;” by night, he clips coupons and enters online raffle drawings. He wants to be handsomely rewarded, but not if it requires being too uncomfortable for too long.

The Wealth Paradox

It is here we encounter the existential paradox with which some Christians appear to struggle: “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), yet money is also clearly indispensible to a society and a means to many good things; it is a thing of which to be wary, yet cannot be escaped. Since it cannot be escaped entirely, apart from a retreat into monasticism, the solution some have adopted is to treat as an extravagance any material wealth beyond being merely “comfortable.” Never mind that, if we are to use our Lord as the paradigm, even this is an extravagance. Indeed, I have been somewhat haunted by C.S. Lewis’ thought on the question of how much we should give:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.[6]

I say “haunted” because my suspicion is that Lewis has said something right and difficult about the attitude we ought to cultivate with respect to our lifestyle and our giving.

In any case, the reason for this apparent paradox–acknowledging the dangers of money while recognizing its necessity–is, it seems to me, that many Christians tacitly assume that the only reason a person would work long and hard to create significant wealth is to spend it on oneself. If not for this assumption, comments like, “I would never want to be rich,” become virtually unintelligible, especially in view of the ironic fact that most of us will of necessity spend more waking hours attempting to earn money than we will spend doing anything else.

Likely, however, what people really mean by this is not that they do not want to become wealthier than they are, but that they either do not want to do what they believe is necessary to create greater wealth, or else they don’t want to become like a certain kind of person that they associate with affluence (i.e., the “rich man” archetype; cf. Luke 16:19-31). Regarding this latter concern, Lewis cautions that:

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.[7]

We would indeed do well to remember that God is ultimately the source of all good things, denouncing an unhealthy emotional attachment to our possessions and any means requiring the oppression of others to obtain them. But why think that working to create significant wealth is necessarily only a selfish endeavor, especially insofar as it allows one in the long run to spend their time in the pursuit of more worthwhile activities than earning a paycheck? On the contrary, why not deliberately delay one’s own gratification, not only for the sake of one’s own family’s future (which is a good in itself; see I Tim. 5:8), but for the sake of others? Correctly understood, and properly ordered among our values–our “loves,” if you will[8]–there need be no existential crisis with respect to creating wealth. Like a hammer, money is but a tool, and it is one’s character that will influence whether it is used for good or for ill: it can either buy slaves or fund an orphanage. As such, it is a useful servant, but a diabolical master.[9]

Wealth and Living Modestly

So long as it means living below one’s means in a manner devoid of vanity, living a modest lifestyle is commendable. But why assume that one must remain poor (relatively speaking) in order to live modestly? Need one assume that wanting to increase one’s wealth is indicative of disordered desires? If one wants to live on only $25,000 per year[10], but has the means to create much greater wealth (all other things being equal), why not continue to live on $25,000 per year and, if one so chooses, give the rest away?[11]

Thought of in this way, it becomes clear that at the root of pious statements, such as, “I would never want to be rich,” is sometimes a kind of selfishness. To the extent that our own needs are met, we tend not to entertain thoughts of making ourselves uncomfortable in the short term for the benefit of others in the long term. Indeed, many people refuse to delay their gratification even for their own future well-being,[12] and it is surprising that some seem to think it an exercise in humility to deliberately work for little pay, while simultaneously accruing debt to buy things they cannot afford.[13]

The reason people say they need to “pray about” whether to give to meet a certain need or fund a worthwhile cause is not because there is uncertainty about the merit of the need–this is usually obvious–but because they lack the resources to assent without reservation; for a drowning man is ill-equipped to save another. There is often little material difference between someone’s needing to “pray about” whether to give to X and someone’s needing to “consider” giving to X. As such, this is often just a way of responding that intends to avoid challenge by one’s interlocutor; for who would dare suggest that one not pray about something?[14] In it’s worst form, much as we often take home leftover food, knowing we will probably just toss it out later, responding this way is sometimes just a passive way of saying “no.” But we should caution ourselves against using God as a screen for our own dearth of confidence in asserting ourselves.

Some have justified deliberately remaining financially hand-to-mouth because of the extent of their giving to others, and of all the reasons to deliberately struggle financially, this is certainly the most laudable. Did not the widow who gave her only two coins effectively give more than even the rich?[15] As in many other cases, Jesus clearly sought to point out that the condition of the widow’s heart, combined with her obedience, was of more spiritual worth than the large gifts of the wealthy–presumably, not because there is something inherently holy about small gifts, but because there is something holy in obedience when obedience comes at significant cost to the giver.

It would be a mistake, however, to cite this passage as evidence that Jesus intended to praise the widow’s being poor. This is, in part, because there are throughout the Bible numerous commands to defend,[16] do justice to,[17] and be generous towards the poor,[18] as well as praises for God’s doing such things–presumably because being poor is something to be remedied, rather than sought, and because justice requires that we not neglect those in need.

The Distinction Between Jobs and Work

A friend of mine recently mentioned to a Christian acquaintance that he was actively pursuing financial independence in order to be able to focus on interests other than his job. His interlocutor responded by asking, “You know [Saint] Paul was a tentmaker, right?” This was as if to say, “if such a venerable figure as Paul remained employed in the course of his apostolic mission, who are you to seek to escape your job?” In addition to the stark assumption that my friend’s job was a good one, and therefore not worth leaving, there is at least one more unjustified assumption underlying this response–that the desire to escape one’s job is equivalent to the desire to escape work in general.

Because we colloquially refer to our jobs as our “work,” it is understandable that the distinction between the categories of “job” and “work,” of which jobs are subset, has become blurred. There are clearly many endeavors that involve work, however, even arduous work, which would not constitute a job[19]–raising children being but one obvious example. Thus, while the desire to avoid work in favor of unadulterated leisure is rightly to be eschewed, it is nevertheless incorrect to equate the attempt to free oneself financially from one’s job with the attempt to free oneself from the responsibility of work in general.[20]

Implicit in such remarks is the assumption that to bend towards the ascetic is in some way to bend towards holiness. After all, if we desire to follow Jesus, are not we to heed the words of our Lord?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?[21]

Indeed we must. And it is on a certain understanding of this and other similar biblical passages[22] that the foundations of Christian monasticism were built; for monasticism is an attempt, among other things, to live consistently with Christ’s call to self-denial. This abnegation has historically involved the rejection of those worldly pleasures or drives that comprise ordinary human life in favor of abstinence, temperance, austerity, and, in its extreme forms, deliberately inflicting pain on oneself in the form of flagellation, sleep deprivation, or exposure to extreme temperatures. Hence, falling somewhere on the spectrum from complete self-indulgence to self-harm, asceticism (from the Greek “askesis”) tends to be a matter of degree, and there are many attempts at asceticism that fall short of something as all-encompassing as monasticism.[23]

In my own case, there was something in this call to self-denial that, even as child, I felt compelled to observe. Though no one had taught me to do so, I recall that, for some time, as our family would pray before each meal, I would quietly hold my breath for the duration of the prayer, believing that, in virtue of God’s holiness, I did not deserve even to breathe in His presence. As one might suspect, I had cause to seriously question the feasibility of this practice if, on a given night, my father’s thankfulness happened to be particularly long-winded.

At some point–I do not remember when–I came to realize that this practice, while perhaps admirable in its attempt at reverence, was at least unnecessary. The same could be said for asceticism writ large. Denying oneself food for a time, in recognition of the fact that “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4) is good; forever denying oneself food–or air–is deadly. Retreating periodically into solitude to pray is an indispensible discipline; withdrawing permanently from society is to relinquish our responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission.[24] Likewise, remaining ever-vigilant that our desires for comfort, leisure, or resources do not ascend in our hearts to the status of  “loves”–of ends in themselves–we should also caution ourselves against using this concern as an excuse to remain complacent. Becoming wealthy does not guarantee happiness,[25] but neither does being poor.[26] Being wealthy does not entail being materialistic, nor does being poor entail being righteous. We might be called to endure suffering on behalf of Christ. To do so with the right attitude is virtuous. But to inflict suffering on ourselves, or our families, either directly or indirectly, is to be foolish–or worse. While I do not intend to suggest that building wealth or pursuing financial independence is a moral obligation, good stewardship of the opportunities and resources afforded us is. As Solomon reminds us:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
    consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
    officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
    and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
    When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
    and want like an armed man.[27]

Insofar as one has the means to do so, I submit that we would do well to consider the ways in which our temporary self-denial might be applied, not only for our own gain, but to the very great benefit of others.


[1] See https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/understanding-poverty-the-united-states-surprising-facts-about

[2] See I Kings 10:14

[3] And even he might only grant that, holistic satisfaction being illusory, the pursuit of pleasure is just the closest one can come to genuine joy.

[4] Conversely, the regular experience of pain need not produce inveterate unhappiness.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 144. See also Proverbs 21:17.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996). See also Luke 21:1-4.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity,(1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 213-214.

[8] In You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), James K. Smith makes a compelling case for the fact that humans are properly understood as beings that love, rather than merely beings that think.

[9] See Matthew 6:24

[10] The weighted average poverty threshold for the United States in 2018 for a family of four with two children was $25,465. See https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html

[11] For now, I set aside those situations in which parents force their children to go without for the sake of their own ideals.

[12] See https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/21/consumer-debt-hits-4-trillion.html

[13] For example, encountering a recent college graduate who is debt-free is now an anomaly. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/02/25/student-loan-debt-statistics-2019/#5493a32c133f

[14] Cf. 1 Thess. 5:16-18

[15] See Luke 21:1-4

[16] See Jeremiah 5:28, Proverbs 31:8-9

[17] Leviticus 19:15, Ezekiel 22:29, Jeremiah 5:28; 22:3, Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 140:12

[18] For example, see Deuteronomy 15:11, Isaiah 58:10, Proverbs 14:31; 19:17; 22:9, , Matthew 5:42, Acts 20:35

[19] Whereby I mean a situation in which one trades time employing a skill for a wage.

[20] An additional problem with this reasoning is that it could be employed against any number of self-evident goods. Suppose one desired to avoid a hitting an iceberg while on a cruise ship. Another might as well respond with “You know Paul was shipwrecked, right?”

[21] Matthew 16:24-26

[22] Cf. 1 Pet. 2:11; 1 Cor. 9:27

[23] For example, Christians are commanded to engage in regular, temporary acts of asceticism in the form of fasting, abstinence, etc. See, for example, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 7:5.

[24] Matthew 28:16-20

[25] Cf. Ecclesiastes

[26] Cf. Proverbs 10:15; 14:20

[27] See Proverbs 6:6-11

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Stereotypes, the TSA, and Christian Legalism

At the root of any stereotype there is at least some kernel of truth; for a stereotype, even if it is rarely true, is at the very least not always false. The fact that I tend to regard employees of the Transportation Security Administration as a largely disagreeable bunch is not because it is true that they are always disagreeable, but because in my experience they have seemed to make a peevish attitude rather the rule than the exception; though I suspect that anyone whose job it is to daily perform the practical equivalent of herding cats might find their patience understandably stressed. Still, if one is to be violated, it might at least be with a smile.

Likewise, there is a general sentiment among skeptics that Christians are essentially like the TSA: always patting people down and cavalierly putting fun or apparently useful objects into the rubbish. “Christian” may as well be synonymous with “killjoy.” I wish this sentiment were entirely untrue, but I have encountered these unpleasant types myself. They are like the person who thinks it their sacred duty to cheerfully broadcast their diet regimen to everyone in the vicinity of the hors d’oeuvres. There is nothing wrong either with diets or hors d’oeuvres, but there is something to be said for tact.

But poor tact is not the real problem of the legalist. Finding life much easier to navigate when separated neatly into clearly defined compartments, he can make little sense of the notion that it might be perfectly acceptable for him to drink alcohol in his own home and sinful for him to drink it at his alcoholic brother’s. For the legalist, “alcohol” is synonymous with “drunkenness”. He thinks that since recreational sex is immoral outside of marriage, recreational sex is always immoral. He thinks that an expletive uttered in pain is the same as an expletive uttered in anger. Rather than trouble himself with considerations of an act’s proper context, he finds it simpler either to perform it wantonly or to banish it altogether. The world in which the legalist lives is not the one in which he finds himself, but the one he fashions in his own conscience. He worships himself as Judge, at the feet of his own law. A legalist knows little about mercy and everything about judgment. Wielding a microscope, he is ignorant of planks but an expert on specks. In his own failings he grants himself a pardon; in the failings of others he issues only a sentence. In his zeal to subdue the world with his gavel, the legalist has forgotten his real place in the defendant’s chair.

Though there is some truth to the charge of Christian legalism, it would be equally in error to suppose legalism the result of Christian doctrine as it would be to suppose fascism the result of being German. If there was one thing that drew the ire of Christ, it was the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees. Christ was, first, Savior and, second, the great anti-legalist; and to be Christian without following Christ is (crudely) even worse than being French and having no regard for cheese. Legalism is as much a thorn in the side of Christianity as it is annoying to the skeptic. Nevertheless, the skeptic, being predisposed to believe anything that might serve to justify his skepticism, will eagerly take any example of abuse and hold it up as doctrine. Thus, every Christian becomes a hypocrite, a Pharisee, an Inquisitor, and a Crusader; for the rejection of a faith which produces moral abominations is clearly much easier than one that produces Pauls, Livingstones, Müllers, Elliots, Bonhoeffers, and Liddells. The late Mr. Hitchens said quite soberly that religion poisons everything. It is difficult to take such statements seriously. That some religions poison some things is certain, but I think I should just as soon point to unruly school children as evidence that education poisons everything. Nevermind that atrocities are committed only in spite of Christ’s example; the skeptic would have us believe that He is at best a fiction and, at worst, Lucifer himself.

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Five Common Fallacious Arguments Against Theism

In the course of my discussions with atheists, and in hearing debates on the subject, I have found that there are a number of recurring arguments wielded against theism which are either logically fallacious or irrelevant. That is not to say that all arguments against theism are formally illogical, but many people repeat illegitimate objections without thinking through them; and while this is certainly as true of theists as it is of atheists, I want to address some of the more common objections made against theism. Though some of these objections are prevalent even among scholars, these arguments are especially common at the popular level. Note that this post is not intended to show that atheism is false, but merely to point out the fallacious nature of certain arguments given in its favor.

1.) Who made God?

This is a question very commonly asked of theists, and it is often regarded as somewhat of a “trump card.” However, this question merely demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of explanation.

In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. For instance, suppose some archaeologists unearth a bunch of primitive tools, pots, jewelry, etc, and they decide that the best explanation is that they have uncovered a village of some long-lost tribe that no one ever knew existed. Does it then follow that in order for the archaeologists to say that a lost tribe is the best explanation for their findings they must be able to explain the tribe (where they came from, who they were, etc)? Certainly not. If, in order to gain knowledge, one had to explain everything, it would clearly be impossible to learn anything.

This question is often posed in the context of the Cosmological Argument, which states:

1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2.) The universe began to exist.

3.) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,” subsequently asking, “what caused God?” However, aside from the apparent caricature of the argument, there are several problems with this. First, if the intent is to attack the concept of God’s eternality, then an atheist is forced to accept one of the following: that the universe either came into being, uncaused, out of nothing, or that it is eternal. The former is logically absurd, since it violates one of the most basic axioms in metaphysics, which is ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”); The latter espouses the very thing being attacked: namely, the concept of eternality (though it is also in conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the great body of evidence in favor of the “Big Bang” theory).

Much more could be said on the nature of this argument, but a full treatment of the Cosmological Argument and its objections is outside the scope of this post.

2.) Belief in God is a result of one’s environment.

Often, theists or Christians are told that their beliefs are the result of having been brought up in a Christian home, or in an environment conducive to apprehending a certain set of beliefs (i.e. Living in the “Bible Belt”), and that if they had been born somewhere else (India, for instance) then they might be Hindu or Muslim. This is certainly true. The problem, however, is that in making this statement, the implication that theism is therefore false is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy, which is attempting to explain away a particular view by showing how the view originated. It’s true that people often come to believe certain things as a direct result of their culture or home environment, but that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether those beliefs are true or false.

3.) There is no evidence for the existence of God.

I strongly disagree with this assertion, but let us assume that there is no evidence for God. Among forensic scientists it is virtually an axiom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in a court of law, the fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not commit the murder. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer, the defense would need to provide some positive evidence that he is in fact innocent (an alibi). But the mere absence of convicting evidence is not evidence that the butler did not commit the murder.

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when two conditions are met:

1.) Certain evidence of a particular entity would be expected.

2.) The field in which that evidence would be found has been thoroughly surveyed and found lacking.

An example: Sitting in class, I would have good reason to suspect that because I see no elephant in the room, there is no elephant in the room. However, the fact that I see no flea in the room is not a justifiable reason for believing that there are in fact no fleas in the room. The difference is that in the first case we would expect to have evidence of the elephant, but in the second case we would not expect to have evidence of the flea. What kind of evidence would we expect to see in the case of God? No one can presume to know. This is precisely why atheism is not a justified “default” position, since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.

4.) Religious belief has been the source of much violence and evil.

This is obviously true. One could also make the case that the same is true of atheistic belief, but the fact is that the implications of a belief are completely irrelevant in regards to whether that belief is true or false. I would maintain that the horrors committed by Christians in the past, as in the Crusades or the Inquisition, were committed in spite of Christianity, not because of it, but even if were true that Christianity sanctioned such things, it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false. To paraphrase Augustine, one should “never judge a philosophy by its abuse.”

5.) There are false religions, therefore all religions are false.

This fallacious argument is not one typically articulated in this fashion, but it is one frequently implied. Atheists often like to point to the most extreme, the most ridiculous, and the most absurd religions and its followers and imply that all religion is essentially the same. I’m thinking of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous,” for instance. While such cases make very easy targets (and thus very appealing targets), it is as irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion” and attack it as one, given the diversity of religious claims, as it would be to lump all scientists into a category called “Science” and attack it. That is, unless one is a materialist, in which case he may attack all claims of the supernatural outright as a result of his own religious presuppositions.

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“Good” Christians

What does it mean to be a “good Christian?” This is a phrase I occasionally hear in the south, and every time it makes me cringe just a little because it isn’t really clear to me just what it actually means. It seems most often used when someone is publicly declaring why they aren’t going to take part in a particular bad action (“…because I’m a good Christian”). But this seems silly. Why declare that you’re not going to do something you know to be wrong? Why not just silently refrain from doing it? Why distinguish yourself as a “good Christian” as opposed to….the other kind? I suppose the reason this irritates me so much is that it seems to be part of a culture that makes a special effort to project a certain image: that of a “good” person. But the irony of that endeavor is that if one does what they know to be right, their actions will speak for them and they need not bother trying to project an embellished facade.

Besides, one whose motivation for doing good is rooted in a concern for their own image is really no good at all, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” The matter of importance is not the condition of our reputation but that of our heart, and attempts to manufacture our reputation without addressing the condition of our heart is like treating the symptoms before the actual disease. If one’s heart is in Christ, he will, by God’s grace, be compelled to do the good works it is impossible for him to do otherwise. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:26).” Why? Because a true faith in Jesus manifests good works as a result. In this sense, the sense in which the Holy Spirit is at work in us, all Christians are “good,” not by anything wrought of our own hands, but we are made good by the Perfection of the One whom we serve, and the use of the term is, at best, an unnecessary redundancy.

I suppose, however, one must first ask what it means to be a Christian. After all, we’ve seen those with blatantly partitioned lives, who seem to have worked switching between their “good Christian” act and their “bad” act into a science; And if Christianity is based on adhering to a set of rules, then it seems to me that the term “good Christian” is perfectly acceptable, given that some people are better rule-followers than others.

But adhering to a set of rules isn’t Christianity at all: it is Islam (“To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward,” Surah 5:9). By contrast, Paul writes to the church in Galatia: “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Galatians 2:16).” It seems very much the case that many people touting the Christian label, or even the coveted “good Christian” label, are in the practical outworking of their faith much more suitable followers of Allah than of Jesus, trying to check all the appropriate boxes on an exam for entry into heaven we’ve all already failed. The term “good Christian” reeks pungently of legalism, and it comes across to me as an attempt to let others know: “I do bad things, but I’m still a good person (whatever that means); And good people go to heaven.” If good people go to heaven, if good people even exist (Psalm 14:3), then I’ve got the wrong Bible.

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