Is it better to be good or be accepted as good? This is perhaps the most pertinent moral question that every single person has to grapple with at many points in their life. The school child who is given a choice to bully a weaker kid with his friends or refuse to do so and risk being bullied himself, is forced to make this choice: be good or be seen as good. The older teenage child who is in a peer pressure culture to be sexually free needs to choose between being sexually active and sexually chaste so they also are forced to make this choice: be good and maintain your sexual chastity or appear to be good to your friends or social group and indulge in the group vices. The employee who is being asked to go along with or overlook some form of corruption or dishonesty in the workplace is being given this same choice: be good or be accepted as good. The solider who is asked to enforce an unlawful or an unjust command is being forced with this same choice: be good or be accepted as good. Examples can go on and on. 

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We face this sort of choice again and again in our lives. It never fully ends. The pressure of fitting in, the pressure of keeping a job, the pressure of maintaining friendships, the pressure of many other things will often put us into a position of needing to choose: do I want these people to see me as good and continue to accept me, or do I want to actually do the right thing? This is a common pressure on us. It takes character to make the right decision consistently.

John C. Wright reflects on this in his book Transhuman and Subhuman, in light of another book, The Glory Game:

“The theme of the book, as I said above, is abnormally clear, because Laumer skillfully has left out anything which might detract or delay from emphasising that theme. This story is as sharply pointed as a fable by Aesop. The point is the answer to the question famously asked by Socrates, but surely asked by all men in all ages when they reach a certain age, whether it is better to be seen as evil while truly being good, or to be seen as good while truly being evil?

The question divorces the reward of virtue from the reality of virtue, at least, in the view of the world where the only reward is the esteem and applause of men. Tan Dalton does what is right, come hellfire or floodwater, and does not flinch at paying the price in terms of esteem lost, prestige ruined, career savaged, character slandered—and he does not get the girl in the end.

The setup of the paradox of seeming rather than being good is simple enough: Dalton is presented with two political parties, a stupid party and an evil party, both of whom have a dumb and cowardly answer to a not-very-complex question, but a question that requires bravery and fortitude to answer. He cannot in good conscience join with either party, and so he is isolated, despised by both, and scorned by all. In other words, he is given for his goodness the exact same reward rightly given to evil men.

One thing that particularly delighted me both as a child and as a man about Dalton’s answer is the pragmatic idealism of it. Pragmatically, it is unwise either to overreact or underreact to the aggression of an ambitious but weaker alien menace. But whether it is unwise or not, it is unfair on idealistic grounds not just to Mankind, but to the Hukk aggressor also, to meet aggression with a reward, because it confuses them into a false picture of the world, one where they can make many small piecemeal attacks with no fear of massive, overwhelming, or, (in this case), genocidal retaliation.

Now surely no one raised in a Christian nation, (even one that is culturally Christian if not officially), is unaware of the answer to the Socratic question. The non-Christians who, for whatever reason, accept Christian value judgments as valid can see in the example of Christ on the cross, or Socrates drinking hemlock, the reward of being good rather than looking good. Until very recently, the picture of a man willing to make any sacrifice to do the right thing, despite any slander or false accusation, was a paramount ideal of our civilisation.

The self-aggrandising hucksterism of a Cassius Clay was not a mainstream ideal, nor was success at any cost, nor did anyone listen to smirking cads who said that winning was not everything, but the only thing.

Even children were taught the ideal of seeking the reward of virtue not in the opinion of the fickle world: Superman is garbed as a drab and mild mannered reporter who cannot even get a date, no worldly reward comes to Clark Kent for his good deeds; Spider-Man is hated as a menace by the city he saves, so if anything, his reward is even less. These are the men upheld, and rightly so, as heroes to our children. Glory Hounds like Booster Gold or Gilderoy Lockheart are rightly portrayed as distasteful, comedic, or villainous.

We are a society that by tradition—Christian tradition—mistrusts those who seek the good opinion of society.”[i]

I think one of the most important points in this section of Wright’s discussion is this one: “Until very recently, the picture of a man willing to make any sacrifice to do the right thing, despite any slander or false accusation, was a paramount ideal of our civilisation.” Our modern moral code has completely changed, which is why the anti-hero, who is really often just an interesting villain, is so common in today’s pop-culture. The idea of the clever, but devious, ordinary man who uses any means at his disposal to get “what is his” is a picture of the new pagan morality overcoming our society…which is really just the old pagan morality returning. A morality with no real higher guide or judge, one that simply does what seems right or feels necessary in the situation.

But the truly noble person, the truly good man, does not focus on success at any price or any cost. He is willing to suffer for doing what is right. The world might mock the Ned Starks of society and look at them as foolish, or pity them for their old morality, but our western culture was so successful, in part, because it was built by people who had a higher sense of morality than just doing what worked, or what succeeded. Men and women who knew it was correct to do what was right, and not just because of some expedient reason or belief they would necessarily always prosper. They knew that doing what was right was the correct thing to do because they knew they would be judged by a higher power; God.

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Paul reflects on this in the book of Galatians. In this book he is dealing with some popular false teachers, and that is a key point; they are popular. He reflects on the motivations for his ministry by saying, “10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). Paul’s concern is not popularity or success, even though he does want to flourish in his ministry. Paul’s main concern is that he is doing what Christ commanded him to do. Success, for Paul, is receiving that commendation from his Lord, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Paul had many failures and many successes in his ministry. But overall it was a barnstorming success, as he was part of the early generations of the Church which made the Church the power force in this world that it became. But this success was a bonus to his ministry, serving his Lord was the goal.

It may be popular today to look at doing what works, whether it is right and good or not. It may be popular to go along with this culture, because this is the increasing zeitgeist of our world today, as reflected by the pop-culture push for the break all the rules, even decency rules, character of a lot of modern media. But Paul, and many other Christians, were willing to suffer for doing what was right in a culture that rarely rewarded that, basically guaranteeing that they would face persecution of some kind and a often a very hard road.

Our modern culture is reviving that old pagan moral code, which is really a lack of moral code and whatever works, or whatever serves the cultural idols of the day. But we have not yet completely lost that different morality that the Church unleashed on the world. A morality that did exist before the Son of God came to earth as a man, we see it in Joseph, Daniel, David and many others in the Old Testament, but which did not really transform the culture until Jesus unlocked the Church from the law of Moses through his death and resurrection. Then this morality spread like wildfire, especially among the heathen Gentiles of Europe, and transformed the European nations remarkably, eventually creating western civilisation. This Christian impact has not completely faded. I don’t even know if it can completely fade.

So, in light of that, we should be far more willing to suffer and far more willing to do what is good rather than worry about being seen as good by our decadent society, because we live in a culture where it is easier to do that. I did not say it is easy, it is often hard, but it is not as hard in our culture as it was in first century Judea, Corinth, or Rome.

The only way we can hold ourselves to this standard, and do so consistently, is to remember we do not primarily serve men or governments, but God, and he will judge us according to how we did what was right, and he will frown on us doing what made us accepted by this world just to look good. Jesus gave us a heads up that this would be part of following him;

“18 If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (John 15:19-21).

We should not be surprised when this happens. We were forewarned. But we were also promised we would be rewarded. Knowing that we will be rewarded for what we lose in this life for doing the right thing, helps us to have the strength to do that.

This does not mean we will always get it right and stand on the right principles. We are fallen, prideful and stubborn creatures, we will get a lot wrong. But it does mean we know the challenge set before us is not an impossible one. Previous generations of believers maintained their nobility in even more trying circumstances. It is simply our job to trust in Jesus, believe his words and carry on the tradition.

References

[i] Wright, John C. Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth (pp. 129-130). Still Waters Books. Kindle Edition.

 

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Matthew Littlefield writes to think through some of the current issues facing society, the Church and whatever else comes to mind that might be interesting to process. Matt's focus is usually historical or scriptural, though he will address current issues from time to time as well. He is a co-author of The Ezekiel Declaration and the book, Defending Conscience, How Baptists reminded the Church to defy tyranny. He blogs most days at YoungGospelMinister.blogspot.com.

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