Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm Good!

“I’m good.”

We say that sometimes, usually when someone asks if we need help. Sounds a little presumptuous, but it seems to work with current slang expressions. I may stumble noticeably, my friends turn and ask if I need any help, to which I respond: “No, I’m good.”

It’s ironic, of course, because usually if someone has reason to ask us this it means we’re actually not doing very well. We rarely announce our “goodness” when we successfully step over a curb in a parking lot and enter a store without incident. It’s not until we trip over that curb that it even occurs to us to announce our self-sufficiency to our fellow shoppers. It’s only when we’re obviously having trouble that we feel the need to proclaim our goodness.

Actually, the expression “I’m good” probably means something quite the opposite. It probably means something like “Even though I’m having trouble, I’d still rather handle things on my own.” Or more succinctly: “(I’d like to think that) I’m good!”

I think there are a lot of people in the bible who would understand this. I think of Nicodemus in John 3, discreetly searching out Christ under the cover of night. Something’s not quite right, so he seeks Jesus’ word on becoming acceptable in God’s eyes. Jesus flatly informs him that he must be born again. Nicodemus briefly ponders the cost of surrendering a lifetime of religious celebrity; the price is too much to ask. “I’m good,” he tells the Messiah, as he scurries back into his night.

Or the more candid approach of the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18. “What must I do to be good”, he asks Jesus. Give away all your riches, Christ tells him. He, too, slinks away: “That’s OK--I’m good.”

It’d be nice to think that God will simply accept us as we are: not perfect, but certainly not bad. But we have to do a few theological acrobatics to get this to happen. Claiming goodness involves somehow lowering the bar of God’s standards until we can easily clear it. We re-phrase “be perfect as your Father in Heaven in perfect” until it sounds like “be a little better than other people you know.”

Contrast this with the Philippian jailor, as found in Acts 16. He’s in trouble. An earthquake has broken open his stronghold and now the prisoners entrusted to him are now free to escape. This is not good. In his mind he already hears his death sentence pronounced: his life for theirs. In his panic he turns to Paul and Silas: “what must I do to be saved?”

Now, I must tell you: I find this question a bit curious. Where I grew up the word “saved” was usually reserved for conversations involving a specific understanding of Jesus’ role in covering the guilt of our sins. In the middle of what’s probably the worst crisis of his life this jailor is calling a quick time-out to discuss Paul and Silas’ theory of the atonement? I don’t think so?

It’s probably fair to say that whatever the jailer meant by the word “saved” must have extended much further than clarifying his doctrine of justification by faith. This was a big question he was voicing.

However, I think I know what he’s wasn’t saying at that moment: I’m good”.

There’s something that happens when someone suddenly discovers their complete inability to make their life “good”. That may come in a jailer’s crisis, an adolescent discovery or maybe in mid-life changes, but however it happens it involves a surrender of everything to the One who can actually make things happen well.

Announcing “I’m good” is probably forgivable when I stumble a little. After all, it’s just a figure of speech. But a day is coming when those words will take on a lot more meaning. On that Day every single stumble I’ve ever made—including the big ones—will be inventoried for public display if needed. I wonder if I’ll cringe as I realize how long that list really is. But as everyone’s attention turns to that list, someone will hold up nail-scarred hands reassuringly.

“It’s OK”, he’ll declare. “He’s good.”

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