When Doing Good is Bad for You

When Doing Good is Bad for You

By: Paul Ellis

Ever since our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit, we humans have had an innate sense of good and evil. You help a blind person cross the street and you just know you’re doing something good. You use a cat for a football and you just know you’re doing something bad. You don’t need anybody to tell you. Being able to separate the good from the bad is a handy skill when you’re buying apples or recruiting a babysitter. It’s also the basis of every man-made religion under the sun. But your knowledge of good and evil does nothing to promote a life of dependency on Jesus.

Consider the religious person who reads the Bible to learn what pleases God. They are essentially asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Mat 19:16). Their line of thinking runs like this: If I do good and avoid evil I will be judged to be a good person. From a religious perspective, this makes perfect sense. It also explains why so many go to church asking, What must I do?

But there’s a problem. In the Bible you will find some good things that are bad for you. Other things are good for one person but not for another. And then there are things that used to be good but aren’t good any more. It’s almost as if the Bible was purposely designed to frustrate the religious quest for being good! It’s almost as if the Author is trying to say, “Why do you ask me what is good? That’s the wrong question.”

The law is good…

The best example of something that is good yet bad for you is the law. Paul said the law is “holy, righteous, and good” (Rm 7:12). He also said, “the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim 1:8). When a religious person discovers the law his initial response is delight. Finally, some good instructions to live by! But when he tries to keep the law he finds himself breaking it despite his best intentions. He tries harder and fails again. Then the law – which is good – begins to condemn him (2 Co 3:7). Worse, sin which he did not know he had until he met the law, rises up and begins to kill him (Rm 7:10).

Paul said the law is good but those who rely on it place themselves under a curse (Gal 3:10). How is this possible?! How can something that is good be bad for us? Is the law defective? No – it’s good! The problem is not with the law but your flesh. Your flesh is too weak to cope with the law (Rm 8:3). And it’s not just the law. Anything that is good will become bad for you once your flesh gets involved:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die… (Rm 8:13)

…but your flesh is weak

What does it mean to live according to the flesh? And why is this bad for us? Every day the Christian chooses between walking after the flesh or walking after the spirit. It’s a mutually exclusive choice. We walk after the flesh when we rely on our own resources – our resolve, our abilities, our understanding. We walk after the spirit when we rely on His. It’s the difference between walking by sight or by faith.

The problem is, walking after the flesh comes naturally to us. We’ve had a lot of practice. “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived” (Col 3:7 NIV). Before we were born of the Spirit, the flesh was all we knew and old habits die hard. An illustration may help. I lived in Hong Kong for 15 years but now I live in New Zealand. But even though I am in New Zealand, I can still walk after the ways of Hong Kong – and to some extent I do. (I love Chinese New Year!)

The ways of Hong Kong are no better or worse than the ways of New Zealand, but the same cannot be said of the flesh. Walk after the flesh and your life will be barren and unprofitable:

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. (Jn 6:63).

The supernatural and abundant life that we’re called to live can only be received by faith and experienced by walking in the spirit. This is why the New Testament writers repeatedly admonish us to put off the old ways of the flesh and put on the new ways of the spirit:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:22-24, NIV)

We don’t put off and put on to become spiritual; we do this because we are spiritual. Everyone who is born again is born of the spirit (Jhn 3:7-8). Since we are already in the spirit, let us walk after the spirit:

If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Gal 5:25)

The great religious blind spot

One of our biggest blind spots is we’ve bought into the idea that good things are good for us while bad things are bad for us. But this good versus evil logic is fruit off the wrong tree. It gets us keeping score in a game that God isn’t playing. The real issue is life versus death. And if you sow to the flesh you will reap corruption regardless of what you do.

“Wait a second Paul. Are you saying I can do no good walking after the flesh?” You can do a lot of good walking after the flesh! But it won’t do you any good. “The flesh profits nothing.” Live like this and you will be functionally identical to a moral sinner. You will miss opportunities to reveal the kingdom of God supernaturally. You will be acting like a “mere man” (see 1 Cor 3:3).

Jesus didn’t suffer and die to make sinners good but to make the dead live. Christ is in you and He is your life. When you walk after the flesh, you are acting like the dead man you used to be. You are wasting your life in dead-ish pursuits. You can spend all your days doing good works but none of it will result in praise to your Father in heaven because they are your works and not His. You may feel like you’re making a mark but in reality you’re just accumulating fuel for the fire.

Sadly, this is exactly how many Christians choose to live. Ask them to define the works of the flesh and they will recite Paul’s list of “manifest” examples in Galatians 5. These are the biggies, if you like. It never occurs to them that walking after flesh can also bring death to the humdrum activity of everyday life, as the Bible describes elsewhere and as we will see in the next post. Do you begin to grasp the dangers of walking after the flesh? Here’s a simple test to find out: Which of the following works of the flesh gives you greater concern as a Christian?

1. Doing something bad in a moment of rash passion, or
2. Wasting my life doing my good works that God has not prepared for me to do.

I suspect more people are fearful of doing something bad in a rash moment than they are of wasting their lives doing good. But a Christian who, in a momentary loss of sanity, fools around with “bad” sin, may be more likely to come to his senses than one who has been dulled by years of good service done in the flesh. I am not encouraging you to do bad things. I am discouraging you from walking after the flesh even if what you are doing is good. What seems right to you will in the end lead to death.

It’s time we discarded the forbidden fruit and got our nourishment from the Tree of Life which is Christ. Our innate tendency to judge ourselves as good or bad based on the good or bad things we are doing, is doing nobody any good at all.


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