One of the biggest emotional barriers to faith that some people have is the problem of goodness--goodness being found in people who are not Christians, the absence of goodness in some Christians, and a person's own goodness without Christ.
I'm sure there's a theological argument to be made here about original sin and how "there is no one good, no not one," and "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." But on the ground, the problem of goodness is a real problem. Many Christians are not living in a way that allows or invites Jesus to transform them. None of us Christians does that perfectly. There is much goodness in the world that comes from people who don't know Jesus.
It's tempting to talk about goodness at that level--to leave it safely there as an abstract discussion about where goodness comes from. In that context, I would argue that not-good Christians are not truly following Christ. I would argue that there is inherent goodness in all creation, and especially in people because we are created in God's image. There is never so powerful an illustration of this for me than when I am working in prisons with murderers--there is goodness and value even in them because they are made in God's image and still reflect a part of him, though in a way that is desperately marred.
But when I think about this issue in terms of conversations about faith, I think there's another place to consider going. I think I could tell the story about the rich man who met Jesus and then went away sad. Basically, this man comes up to Jesus and he has the guts to say to him, "Jesus, I'm good. I've been doing good things all my life. I've followed all the rules God gave, better than anyone else. What else do I have to do to have eternal life?"
I wonder if he really thought there was something else he needed to do, or if he wanted to be patted on the back for his ability to live above reproach. I'm wondering if he was asking Jesus what he was offering that was so different than what the man already had.
Then Jesus looked at the man and said, "There's just one thing that stands in your way. Sell everything you have & give it to the poor and then come and follow me."
I think in the church we focus a lot of the time on the selling everything you have part because it makes us uncomfortable. We want to explain and excuse our own materialism so we rarely look beyond that to the invitation that Jesus gave. But I think the most important part of that story is the invitation to follow Jesus--to be in relationship with him.
Jesus always looked deeper than a person's externals. He looked beyond whether someone followed the rules. He looked past what a person said or did to their hearts. He invited people into something more--a transformation of the very motivations and attitudes of the heart. Jesus wanted--he still wants--something deeper than mere external goodness. He wants to free us from the bondage of self-satisfaction and pride and the need to strive to live up to an image we project or a standard that we have set.
And oh, that kind of walking with Jesus is so much harder. It's so easy to check things off a list. It's so great to have the 10 commandments and a list of good things to do and be able to cross those things off every night. It's so much harder to hold your desires, attitudes, and motivations up to the light and invite Jesus into them to transform them into something that will always be life-giving and sacrificial and good and just and pure.
For the rich young man, Jesus was asking too much. That man went away sad, choosing not to follow.
I think a lot of us follow that man on his journey away from Jesus. To the Christians who do, I would beg you to change your mind or to drop the name of Christian--you are damaging Jesus's reputation in the world. Your striving for goodness is no different than the rest of the world's, and we humans are so complex with so many selfish motives and desires that we destroy the good we try to do. And to those of you who have never claimed or even desired to follow Jesus, I would merely want to say that, although painful and difficult, the process of examination and transformation into the image of Christ is worth every drop of sweat and tears; it is worth every sacrifice. To be able to let go of striving for goodness and perfection, to be able to rest in the grace and power of Jesus to transform, to be able to walk in relationship with One who loves extravagantly and completely... it is freedom. It is peace and joy in the midst of trials. It is contentment with life in all of its up and downs. It is knowing that you are loved by the One you have given your life to. It is life with the Eternal One, right now.