This week in my series on Christians and self-esteem I’m going to respond to part of Tim Challies’ post “I Forbid You To Say These Things at My Funeral.” There’s a paragraph in his article that’s a good example of how many Christians are reluctant to refer to themselves or others as “good people,” which I think can be very harmful to those who struggle with low self-esteem, depression, and/or anxiety. Here’s the paragraph in question, in which Challies explains why he doesn’t want anyone to say “He was a good man” at his funeral:
He was a good man. He is now, but he wasn’t always. He is good now that he’s in that place where he has been perfected by an instantaneous act of God. He is good now that God has transformed him to take away all desire for ungodliness and unholiness. He’s good now, but he wasn’t on this side of the grave. Frankly, he could be kind of a jerk at times. He could be moody and arrogant and self-centered. He was bad. But he was also forgiven and battling to kill his love of sin and desire for sin. He was learning and growing and displaying God’s grace. But he wasn’t good. Not like he is now. Not like God had created him to be.
This kind of statement is problematic for a lot of reasons. First of all, let’s look at this from a common sense level. When people say someone was a good man, they’re usually not speaking about the theology of justification.They just mean that he was a decent person who was usually pleasant to be around. And I really think it’s okay to celebrate that. Not everything has to be about how we can’t merit eternal life with God outside of Christ. Just because we think someone is good doesn’t mean we think they were perfect.
Even little kids get this. There are good guys and bad guys, and you want to be one of the good ones. I think when Christians say things like this, especially at a funeral, when people typically want to honor the life of the loved one who’s died, they sound a little delusional, or like they can’t accept a compliment. And if it’s a Christian funeral, I’m pretty sure that the pastor, at some point, will mention the fact that it’s only because of Christ that the person is in heaven, anyway.
Second, this idea that the only real good is perfection and the removal of all sin, and unless you have that, you’re bad and aren’t good at all “this side of the grave,” doesn’t reflect the nuance of the Bible itself when it comes to discussing the good, the righteous, and the wicked. Yes, Jesus says in Luke 18:19 that only God is good, and that’s the kind of goodness that Challies is talking about. But, as Michael J. Kruger points out in his article “Is Anyone More Holy Than Anyone Else? The Missing Category of the ‘Righteous Man,” the Bible also refers to people like Noah, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Joseph of Arimathea as “righteous,” and the Psalms also describe the “righteous” as opposed to the “wicked.” And Kruger doesn’t think this righteousness is only referring to Christ’s work, as he explains:
Surely we cannot suggest that all these passages are simply referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ (as important as that is). No, it appears the Bible uses this category of the “righteous man” for believers who display a marked consistency and faithfulness in walking with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean these people are perfect, sinless, or able to merit their own salvation. It simply means that the Spirit is at work in such a way that they bear steady fruit in their lives.
Therefore, according to Kruger, it is possible for some people to be more sanctified than others, even though we are all equally in need of justification, and so he rejects the tendency by Christians “to flatten out distinctions among believers and declare there are no differences between them.” To do so, he says, betrays a false belief that people can’t really change after they become Christians and ignores the fact “that Christ is also glorified in our sanctification.” As I said in a previous post, we don’t have to constantly tear ourselves down to give God more glory -- he gets glory in our goodness, too.
In fact, I’ll go beyond Kruger and say that we can talk about the goodness of non-Christians. Even though, as non-believers, non-Christians are not being sanctified and are not walking with God, they can and do follow God’s laws by his common grace, and that brings him glory, too. I think we can all attest that some non-Christians are way better people than some Christians, even as we acknowledge that only Christ can save them.
It’s clear that to speak about goodness and badness as all-or-nothing traits without nuance oversimplifies biblical truth, but it’s easy to do if you have high self-esteem. It’s a way to check your pride and reference the theology of justification while looking appealingly self-deprecating.
But if you struggle with depression, anxiety, and/or low self-esteem, it can be devastating. You already hear “I suck” and “I’m bad” in your head all day long, and reading things like Challies’ paragraph gives you confirmation that you’re right to think that way. It’s easy (and sounds pious) to talk about how bad you are when you actually feel pretty good about yourself in general. But if you don’t actually feel good about yourself, it’s a permission slip to continue your self-loathing.
Never calling people good sounds really holy, but it actually hurts people, AND it doesn’t even reflect the complexity of biblical truth. People like Tim Challies are afraid to call people good, because then they’ll think they don’t need Jesus. But you can need Jesus, and you can be a person worth celebrating. And if you struggle with low self-esteem, you desperately need to hear both of those messages.
Thanks to everyone who read and gave me feedback on this series! This will be the last post for now -- unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I'll continue to come across negative Christian messages about self-esteem, so I’ll likely be revisiting this topic from time to time. Until then, remember the words of Bob and Larry: God made you special, and he loves you very much.