An instruction manual for goodness

“It’s good to be important
but it’s more important to be good.”
Advert for ING banking

“I don’t trust anyone who needs an instruction manual to tell them how to be good.”
Respondent to a Guardian survey about the social role played by religion in their area.

How do we know how to be good? Are we born with an inherent understanding of right and wrong? To a certain extent I think the answer is yes. I think a result of the fall is that we have the knowledge of what is good and what is bad, and the ability to choose between them.

What we don’t have on our own, though, is a reason to choose the right over the wrong. Anyone who has ever spent any time with young children will know that no matter how much you reason with them, there are some times when they’re going to hit their siblings, take their toys, or throw their dinner on the floor. They have to be given a reason to choose the right thing over the thing their impulses push them towards.

The Bible isn’t an instruction manual telling us what is right and what is wrong, or telling us how to be good. It is an explanation of why we should be good (as well as an explanation of why we find it impossible to always be perfect).

The Old Testament was, to a certain extent, a manual for the Jews on how to be good. It set out dozens of rules and regulations, along with the requisite penances if (when) you broke them. And the lesson was: This is impossible.

With sin in our lives, there is simply no way we can ever live perfectly good, loving, altruistic lives. The New Testament is the story of God’s solution: Jesus, who had no sin, lived the perfect life as an example to us, then died a sinner’s – and a criminal’s – death to pay once and for all all the penances we have accumulated over our lifetimes.

It’s not a manual telling us how to be good, it’s a map showing us how to find the one perfect person who can forgive our bad-ness and give us the power we lack to choose ‘good’ in the future.

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