I want to ask a question about goodness, or at least about good intentions. The shocking revelations about MPs’ expenses have made me wonder how it is that we have so many villains as public servants. I know a few politicians and from my personal interactions with them they seem to be honest men with a high sense of public service. There is a public mood at the moment that all politicians are crooks and the sooner they are set before a judge and jury the better. The European and local elections are due in a couple of weeks and the current mood says whatever you do, don’t vote, it only encourages them. If we follow that instinct we will find ourselves ruled by extremists, for certainly the very committed won’t abstain, and the very committed are often committed to extreme policies.
Let me first say that I don’t believe that any man is perfect. I believe in original sin, and therefore I am not dismayed to find that a man set on a pedestal has feet of clay.
As far as the MPs are concerned, it now appears that they were encouraged to lie and cheat by a central office of expenses presided over by the Speaker of the House (he is an ex-shop steward for the sheet metal workers) who seems to have set himself up as shop steward for MPs. The central fees office seems to have taken the view that MPs were not simply claiming expenses, but were receiving a special tax-free allowance in lieu of a salary increase. I remember a similar culture in business in the 1970s. I was speaking at a meeting in Spain. I had been funded for the meeting by an equipment manufacturer (they paid my airfare and hotel costs). They told me that the regulations did not allow them to pay me a fee for my services, but they would be generous with expenses. I did not understand what they meant by that so they spelt it out. “You may have a letter to open so you might need a letter opener. You might therefore take a trip to the jewellers and purchase one with a gold blade and diamonds in the handle.” In the event I did not feel that I could do such a thing with an easy conscience and I declined.
At least three MPs have been found claiming for repayment of mortgage interest long after the mortgage had been repaid, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is indeed reasonable for someone who has to live both in constituency and London, to be reimbursed for the extra cost of doing so, but as one MP commented you may have two homes, but you’ve only got one belly, and to claim for food consumed at your second home seems unreasonable. Having a second home is open to abuse and it seems that MPs have used every dodge in the book to enhance their private income. While many of them have not broken the rules, they all appear greedy; as if these people who claim to be politicians for the public good are in fact only concerned about their private good.
How is it that people with good intentions find their good intentions paving the road to hell?
This is not the first time our politicians have been caught out. Tony Blair seemed to be a breath of fresh air after the sleaze that seemed to pervade the ’18 years of Tory misrule’ as it was called. Yet he misled Parliament over the Iraq war and signaled his dishonesty by accepting a bribe on behalf of the Labor Party from the Motor Racing chief in order to allow tobacco advertising to remain on racing cars in his very first week of power. Politics is a dirty game and compromise is its name. American legislators like their slice of pork before agreeing to anything. Only this week the British Medical Journal reports of the effect of putting a minimum price of 50 pence a unit on alcohol. It would save more people’s lives than are killed on the roads every year. Yet the government would not countenance it, such is their cosy relationship with the brewers and distillers.
In the Letter to Titus chapter 3 Paul tells him to “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.”
Good advice! But putting it into practice is an awesome task. Why is it so difficult? We assume that people are naturally good, so it shouldn’t be difficult. However, Paul goes on: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” When it comes down to it, we aren’t naturally good; we’re naturally bad. We tend to compare ourselves with murderers and rapists and drug dealers and say, “We’re not as bad as that!” But why chose such a comparator? Are you as good as Mother Teresa in your self sacrifice? She wasn’t good enough! Are you as good as Bill Gates in your charitable giving? He isn’t good enough! Are you as good as Lord Shaftsbury, or William Wilberforce, or Florence Nightingale, or Elizabeth Fry, or Abraham Lincoln, or Hudson Taylor in their various attempts to improve the world? None of them was good enough, nor would they claim to be.
I used to tell people in the Health Service that you could get anything done as long as you didn’t want the credit for it. The first step to doing good is self-abasement. Jesus told of the Pharisees who sent a trumpeter out ahead of them to play a fanfare to announce their good works. “Verily, they have their reward!” But the Bible tells us that all our righteousness is as filthy rags, and so it is. There used to be a TV advert set in India where a young man got an elephant to sit on his old Simca to squash it into a similar shape to the new Peugeot 107. Such a bashed up old vehicle is a potent symbol of our attempts to mimic the righteousness that God demands. Tawdry and risible are our tries. Without an admission of our hopelessness we can get nowhere.
Paul continues: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” We are smothered in God’s goodness when we accept the Savior. It is only when we have the humility to accept this that we can begin. Some people have a swaggering satisfaction that they are the chosen ones, the elect of God, or even the Israel of God. They see themselves as having some superiority – even if they don’t know how to define it. There is a chorus that we sing that goes, “I’m special, because Jesus loves me.” In a sense that is true and in a sense it is insanely untrue. Just think how the world looks at you when you go around singing, “I’m special.”
He did not choose to save us because of anything special he saw in us, even something that he saw and we cannot define, and certainly not because of our goodness or our potential or our obedience. It is a mystery why some are effectually called and some are not, but it is certainly not because of any sort of merit. And it is certainly not our place to disparage anyone else he effectually calls.
Paul continues: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (verses 5b-7). The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is a great mystery, but it is what makes us truly alive. The Spirit is like light; you cannot see light, only what the light illuminates. Similarly, you cannot see the Spirit, only the effects He makes on people’s lives. Many Christians will tell you that they have never had any special feelings to denote the presence of the Spirit, no tingling, no ‘high’, no emotional peak; yet ask those who know them and they will tell how they display kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control, love, joy, peace, patience and goodness. These are not natural gifts; no-one is like that by nature; these are the fruits of the Spirit.
It is justly emphasized that it is the Spirit who gives us new birth, new life, indeed eternal life. But Paul continues: “This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” (verse 8). The Spirit’s activity is not just confined to our future, but also to our present – and our present is devoted to doing good. “These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”
Again in verse 14 Paul emphasizes, “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives.” This is the normal Christian Life. What was it about Wilberforce and Wesley, and Booth, and Hudson Taylor, and Dr Barnardo, and Elizabeth Fry, and Florence Nightingale, and Lord Shaftsbury, and so may others who have done great works of generosity to their fellow men, who have righted great wrongs, stood up for the poor, the persecuted, the downtrodden? It is the life of Christ in the heart of men. It is the Holy Spirit working his purposes out as year succeeds to year.
Oh, I know it isn’t only Christians who do good in the world. The Bible acknowledges that. Cyrus, the Persian king, was God’s instrument while he was certainly no believer. In Isaiah 44 and 45 we read: [God], who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid. This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut.” In His common grace there will be many who will unknowingly be God’s instrument, whose right hand will take hold of. A story is told of a man visiting a church who complained that Enid, a old woman in the church was a gossip, a shrew and a complainer. “I know a woman down my street who is kind, helpful and pleasant, who never darkens the door of a church and thinks all religion is poppycock.” The pastor replied, “But you should have seen Enid before she became a Christian.” Of all true Christians we may be sure that when the Holy Spirit gets to work on them, they will be better than they were before.
Goodness is not a way of salvation; it is a consequence of salvation. We don’t do good works to impress others, or to earn merit, or even to improve the common weal. It is the love of Christ that compels us – both the Holy Spirit within and our intense sense of gratitude for what we have been give.