If goodness does not pay, why be good?

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Human society operates in such a way that rewards behaviour favourable to its ends and penalizes actions detrimental to its cause. Under the State, in civil society, and even in the family, we are taught that behaving in a manner which is good reaps good things in return. Respectively, bad actions yield bad returns. Respect, good grades, stocks, votes, allowances: these are given and withheld from others depending on whether or not they are worthy of it. We are made to believe that the good things in life, as well as the bad things, are earned and deserved.

Perhaps this is the natural state of things, and with regards to how we view God and religion, we may even think that this manner of affairs is divinely ordained. Thus, we find the predicament of Job problematic: if disaster and suffering comes even to those who are righteous and obedient, why should we still do good things? If the sun rises and sets over all men, righteous and evil, and it is even possible for evil men to thrive while good men suffer, why not be evil? In fact, why not go beyond good and evil? Why not do whatever it is that yields good or favourable outcomes, and do away with the labels which distinguish righteous actions from vile ones?

Of course, these questions may be answered by saying that good actions, contrary to what the question suggests, are indeed rewarded, only not in the manner by which us humans expect. Christians, for example, believe in a real heaven and a real hell. The fact that one gets away in doing evil things in order to pursue their own benefit may be true in the physical, “sinful” world, but this is not the case in the afterlife. The rewards for good behaviour are in fact reaped in the afterlife, as well as the punishment for bad actions.

This answer has a large amount of divine truth in it, perhaps, but even as a Christian I find it hard to accept this as the final answer. Even in Scripture we find that doing good acts, even in the name of God: baptizing, exorcising demons, et cetera, do not get people into heaven. The Apostle Paul even says further that it is not good works which justify us, but faith in the Lord. This is proven further in the example of Hestas who was hung on the cross with Jesus, to whom Christ promised Paradise although he was a thief.

So not only it is possible for evil people to thrive materially, they may also gain entrance to heaven! The question remains then: why be good? Why not live an immoral and pleasing life and just repent and be baptized in your deathbed?

I do not reject of course, the doctrine of heaven and hell. I am only inquiring on our beliefs about heaven and hell. Perhaps how we approach these truths are tainted still by the conviction that a comfortable life comes from righteousness and obedience. I personally do not believe it to be so. For in the faith I have seen and read of people who have suffered much in obedience and have had their lives, friends and family taken from them in their faith. I think, that in answering the question, like I think what God had suggested in the Book of Job, we must inquire beyond our personal knowledge and experience. For often do they blind us of significant truths.

First, what is righteousness? In Job we are taught that righteousness is doing God’s will. Job is righteous not because he is rich or popular, but because he did what God commanded. This is what made the suffering and loss unbearable for him. Righteousness did not make him invulnerable to pain and suffering. Yet I think it should be considered that even if this were so, his vulnerability did not make him less righteous. Even when God had come to scold him for his nagging, God praised Job for “speaking truly of Him.” Perhaps good works and righteousness, even if it does not save us from suffering and pain, bring us closer to knowing God and His wisdom. And this is given proof by Christ: “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” He said. There is a strict correlation between doing God’s will and knowing God.

But why do we need to know God? St. Augustine said that God has made us for Himself and unless we rest in Him, we will be restless. The knowledge of God is totally alien to us because we are separated from Him. In Christianity, we call this sin. And this need to find rest, to find peace, is not something which cannot be ignored, just as hunger cannot be ignored. Man, says Christ, does not live on bread alone. Man is also sustained by the words which come from God. God’s Wisdom, His Word, is our Food. And doing His will brings us closer to that Food. Knowledge of goodness brings us closer to Him, and enables us to properly appreciate Him. Even if you were handed a cake, if you do not know what it is, you wouldn’t eat it. But how would you know that it is to be eaten if you’ve never tasted it? Doing good gives us that taste of the divine. It reveals to us what we are capable of, if we surrender our will to be more like His. In a sense we are prepared for the feast which awaits us in heaven, by acquiring a taste for them here on Earth.

Of course this does not solve why we must still suffer while doing good things. If doing good things is good for us, why does it not feel good? I think this will be resolved in answering another question, namely: what are we here on earth for? Are we here to feel good, or to be one with God? If the former, then perhaps goodness should be thrown out of the window: for it means nothing to alter our present affairs. Pleasure, like pain, comes without our consent, though we may pursue actions that might possibly increase their chances of coming to us. But if the latter, then we must do good, regardless of whether it makes us richer or poorer, regardless if it will cost us our lives. Because in doing good we are brought closer to oneness with God. We cannot do whatever it is that we want simply because all we ever really need and want is Christ, but we can’t get to Him. It is the world’s lies which lead us to confuse the itch we feel for Him for lesser things which are easier to acquire as they do not require any effort of goodness and humility from our part.

In conclusion, I am brought back to the simple yet profound answer I have iterated earlier: good actions, contrary to what the question suggests, are indeed rewarded, only not in the manner by which we humans expect. Unlike the rewards given to us by the State, society and our earthly parents, God’s reward for us in doing good is not a payment for a job well done. His reward for us is Himself: His will and face revealed, for it is the only thing that will truly satisfy us. Doing good does not exempt us from pain, but it makes pain meaningful. For even if we do not do good we receive it, but at least in doing good it makes us better.

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God’s Broken Windows: His Standards and Ours

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"If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

“If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”

If only our pain were proportional to the bad that we do, we think most of the time, life would not be as bad. Yet it seems that life is not that way. It seems that whatever good we do, we suffer unjustly. “If God lived on earth,” says a Yiddish proverb, “he would have broken windows.” And why not? Do we not protest every little injustice we experience from those in positions of power? If God were on earth, we would burn effigies in front of his door like people from the olden days burnt sacrifices.

Last Friday, however, I learned a very important lesson in suffering through our discussion about the Book of Job in our World Literature class.

For so long have I viewed suffering as either punishment or a test. But I found that this was an error and perhaps, veiled by self-righteousness. It was only then did I observe that when the people I hate and disdain are suffering, too easily can I say that it is probably deserved by some form of sinful act they have done. But when it is the people I love, I am so contented in explaining it to be a mere test of faith. What is wrong with this attitude is the double standard by which I judge whether it is punishment or testing. This leads me to judge which people to comfort and which ones to stay away from.

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
    Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
    and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
    at the blast of his anger they are no more.

– Eliphaz the Temanite, Job 4:7-9

This is the same thinking employed by Job’s friends and thus leads to condemn Job for having committed a great transgression, although it has been prior established that no one is as righteous as him. But I have also learned that Job is not exempted from having such a standard. It is through this idea of suffering being punitive that Job accuses God of being unjust.

“Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
    How often does calamity come upon them,
    the fate God allots in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    like chaff swept away by a gale?
It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
    Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!
Let their own eyes see their destruction;
    let them drink the cup of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care about the families they leave behind
    when their allotted months come to an end?”

– Job, Job 21:17-21

The problem in the Book of Job is the system by which we limit God’s justice and goodness by putting our standard of goodness above Him and judging Him based on that like we judge other people. And when somehow we are afflicted by pain we claim to be undeserving of, we accuse God of not being good or just or loving. Worse, we even doubt His existence. These are all because He failed to pass our standard of goodness.

“If only I knew where to find him;
    if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
    and consider what he would say to me.
Would he vigorously oppose me?
    No, he would not press charges against me.
There the upright can establish their innocence before him,
    and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.

 

“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”

– Job, Job 23:1-9


What we fail to understand is that God cannot be judged by our standards of good and justice and love. Because He is Goodness and Justice and Love. What He does is purely good and just and loving, though it may be ugly and undesirable, and shockingly, even though when other people do it, it is to be considered evil. When you think about it, evil acts done by people are only evil because they are playing God. But surely God can play God.

In all this seemingly arbitrary characteristics of pain, we should not fear that God might be exercising His power upon us like objects of experimentation or toys. Because He loves us. He told us so. We can be sure that whatever pain we are given, undeserved it may be, is necessary. We may not know His nature and decision-making process, but we know His plan. He made it clear.

It is a hard idea to accept, especially for the hurt and suffering and oppressed: that all this somehow makes sense in the grandest scale of things. But like Job, we are permitted to mourn and weep and beat our chests at God and ask Him questions. He is real and He will answer. But I am inclined to think that we don’t. For we are so quick to lecture God about how justice should really be like.

What we should be doing is not judge God by our standards of goodness, but judge ourselves on whether we are perfectly submitting to His standards. Because whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, God knows what He is doing. There will be times when this idea would be so hard to accept as sufficient, but it’s okay. We can always come to Him and ask Him about things, for we will find Him when we seek Him. Didn’t He promise that?

When in pain, talk to God. Be angry at Him, show Him how much you are hurting. But talk to Him. If you do, out of the storm He will come and will reveal Himself to you. You will know Him and you will know you. And then, there will be peace.

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.”

– Job 42:2-3

Beauty in Pain

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Vandals like these are objectively better than penises.

Whoever made this, thank you.

I saw this question written on the wall by ASCAL, the pathway between Palma Hall and the CAL Faculty Center.

Rarely do I see a thought-provoking question written in blood-red spray paint on a newly-cemented wall. These, so far, are the thoughts it has provoked:

1.) Before answering the question, I would like to comment on it. I am inclined to believe that such a question is built on the premise that pain is something ‘ugly’.

I find it easy to sympathize with this notion as like most ‘ugly’ things because it does not evoke warm, pleasant feelings. Like most ‘ugly’ things, we are not drawn to it; on the contrary, we are appalled by it. Pain – in plain language – is ‘ugly’ because it is not ‘cute’. We are not made happy by pain and we are thus inclined to avoid it.

Now, while I understand where this viewpoint may be coming from, I think that pain may not necessarily be an ‘ugly’ thing. I think there is such a thing as pain which is beautiful, perhaps because of its consequences (like the pain one feels with having one’s broken tooth pulled out), or because of its motivations (like the pain one might feel in dying for one’s country), among other things.

To abhor pain, to find it ‘ugly’ for the mere fact that it hurts and to exhaust all means – whether good or bad – to avoid it, would not only be shallow and conceited, but also is cowardice.

Our pleasure-crazed culture may frown upon such an idea, but I think the notion that some experiences of pain are not only necessary but beautiful as well should not be denied. For honor, glory and excellence are not borne out of maximizing pleasure, but through laboring through and enduring pain.

2.) That being said, there is such pain that may be found to be downright ugly, even by those who think that there may be beauty hidden in pain: the seemingly arbitrary, undeserved and cruel pain, which does not seem to produce either glory nor fulfillment. Such pain may include car accidents, killing sprees, rape-slay cases, etcetera.

The torturing and killing of the innocent neither as martyrs who welcome it, nor as heroes who have fought through it and lost, but as children who do not know any better: if there is such pain which invites the question the most, it is this kind of pain. How can undeserved, unwanted and unnecessary pain ever be made into something beautiful? It is I think, the only legitimate case against an all-powerful and all-loving God. And I, too, struggle with it everytime I see cruel injustice and oppression and untimely deaths.

To answer why God would permit such evil to prevail, however is another matter for another time. But is important to note that this is what makes the question difficult to answer. There is the kind of pain which is beautiful as it builds us up, and another kind which is just simply pain which hurts and kills for no apparent reason.

3.) In answering the question, I distinguish between the two kinds of pain.

The first kind of pain, the pain-as-means-to-an-end, may only be as beautiful and good as its own end. And the way to make such pain truly beautiful is to suffer it without hiding, transcending cowardice and regard for one’s safety.

Such pain’s beauty wasted when the cause is abandoned in the name of fear or conveniece. Christ’s sacrifice, for example, is beautiful because He did not opt out. He saw it through. Even if it means death.

The second kind of pain cannot be made beautiful. It must be eliminated. It is why there are causes which require us to endure hardship like good revolutionaries: because there is a war needed to be won.

Injustice can only be made beautiful by defeating it. Oppression can only be made beautiful by ending it. Evil can only be made beautiful by destroying it.

And in suffering through the realization of Goodness, of Justice, of Heaven – whether it is in this life or the next – is what would makes us truly beautiful.