Have you ever noticed how some good people think they are better than God? They might be good because they are moralists or because they are religious. But it doesn’t matter: either way—really good people, whatever their belief system, tend to think they are better than God.
Really good people, whatever their belief system, tend to think they are better than God.
I was listening to a friend go on and on about how God, if he exists, has done this or that and it’s all wrong. I’m sure they thought they were just being reasonable, but they weren’t. I realised, as I listened, they were putting themselves over and above God. They thought they were better than God.
When you or I criticise someone’s actions or speech—when we decide for ourselves whether what they’ve done or said is wrong—isn’t this just what we are doing? We must think we know better than them. We know what is right and wrong.*
There’s a great example of this in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). In case you don’t know it, it tells the tale of a younger brother who has walked away from his Father and family and squandered half the family’s wealth. But when he comes back, the father in the story is waiting for him; waiting to forgive him and welcome him with outstretched arms and celebrate his return.
Jesus is sharing the startling fact of the gospel in a nutshell. The son represents all those whose lives reek with moral failure: prostitutes, tax collectors, criminals, drug users and so on. The father is God who welcomes back those sinners (and less notorious sinners like you and me). And it is a wonderful welcome! In the story, the father throws a party for his youngest son, and declares that the lost and dead son has been found and is now alive. Jesus says the same celebration unfolds in heaven every time someone turns to God. All who seek mercy from the Father receive it and the angels party!
All who seek mercy from the Father receive it and the angels party!
But there is also an older brother in the story, and he judges his father for this welcome. ‘When this Son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:30). The good, upright, faithful older brother is really angry. The welcome is wrong, and the party is monstrous. In his eyes, what the father does is worse than the failure of the younger brother. How dare the father welcome back the son.
Jesus tells this story because he, God in the flesh, was currently being judged by good people. They were upset that he cared for prostitutes, tax collectors, criminals and other sinners. Actually, the were more than upset. They thought Jesus was in the wrong.
This is what many (or all?) moralists and good people do. My friend, had decided that God was in the wrong because he, God, wasn’t fixing things now. He wasn’t smiting the evil people and fixing all the world’s problems. For that is what fixing many of the world’s problems would require—don’t you agree?—dealing drastically with the people who do wrong. And so my good friend thought he knew better than God—that he was better than God.
Now this really turns things upside down. For it means these good people think they know better than God who offers the forgiveness in Jesus and holds back his judgment so the wicked can come to him.
How good is the good person who doesn’t want others to find forgiveness? How good is the person who wants others to receive judgement? And, how good is the person who thinks they don’t need forgiveness and that they know better than the God who offers it?
*This isn’t saying we can’t ask questions about what God is doing or why (See Psalm 73 or Job’s questions in Job) or that doubts suddenly rule you out of the Christian faith. Nor am I saying that challenging questions or even criticism of church leaders is wrong. Both of these are important and, believe it or not, part of Christianity. Rather, the issue here is the self assured attitude that condemns God without even the possibility of considering that God might, maybe, just know what he is doing.