Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Tis the Season for Weird Sayings

This is the time of year when people begin to think about the things that are really important in life. Many people want things for Christmas, but they also want to feel that they are participating in the true spirit of the season. What this means is that people want to give to the poor, be more hospitable, and teach their kids to be more grateful. They want to express that there is something bigger than themselves this time of year. And Christians support this attitude and participate as well, thinking it to be honoring to Christ.

But there is something a bit creepy about all this. I constantly hear things on the radio and from friends that we should think more about making a difference in this world — not just now but always. Then I hear that we should give back whenever we have the opportunity, or pay it forward.

I believe these are shorthand ways of saying that it is good to do good. But I wonder if anyone spends much time really thinking about what they mean. Atheist, nominal Christians, unbelievers, believers, and everyone in-between are saying the same thing. But they can't mean the same thing, unless doing good is reduced to a subjective sentimentality, and the act itself is equated to a subjective moral imperative.

For Christians, what does it mean to do good?

It can't be to make a difference. Our very existence makes a difference. What do we mean by that? Whenever we make a good or bad choice it makes a difference. Do we mean that doing something that gets noticed is what's important? I thought that if we follow Christ we were not seeking attention or to feel significant. (The very act of choosing to follow Christ is making a huge difference.) If impact is felt, the glory goes to God. And we are significant (make a difference) even if some of us are quadriplegic or suffering brain damage and can do nothing of significance but lie there. Am I missing something here?

Also, what do we mean when we say we want to give back? I can understand to some degree if we are giving to God because of an overwhelming joy at what God has done for us. But we aren't paying God back, as if we are giving him a tip for good service. We aren't attempting to keep God on our side, and ensure his blessings either. What do we mean by give back?

Last, what do Christians mean when they say they want to pay it forward? Since when does a gift need to be paid for? It doesn't matter whether it needs to be paid to the giver, or to be paid to an intermediary. It isn't a gift anymore. What do we mean by pay? Perhaps we are trying to say that we want to pass on the good that we have received. That makes more sense, but that isn't paying anything other than attention.

What I find contradictory is an unbeliever saying these things.

When someone who doesn't believe in God says that we should make a difference by giving back, or paying it forward I wonder what they mean by make a difference. If they mean to do good, what do they mean by good? What is good except some sort of subjective standard or collective agreement. Eugenics was considered good by a number of people. Fascism was considered good by a number of people. Population reduction is considered good by a number of people. Elimination of religion is considered good by a number of people. Killing unborn children is considered good. When they want to pay if forward, what are they really doing?

So, why do Christians support these ideas? Could it be to appear good to the world? I hope not. Jesus gave Christians two criteria for doing good. Do them in secret, and do them to glorify God. Follow these and we get to the heart of the matter, which is to do the right thing for the right reason in the right way at the right time. And what makes them right is whatever Jesus says is right. And whatever Jesus says is right is true because he is the Alpha and the Omega.

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