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The Subtle Conformity of Goodness

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The Subtle Conformity of Goodness

Dr. Stanley ArumugamDr. Stanley Arumugam
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For most of my life, I was one of the “good guys” praised by family and friends. Now that I’ve lost everything they were so proud of in me, I am not considered much. Not even my accumulated years of goodness count at this stage.

For the first time in my life I have begun to experience the bitter lie of conforming to the goodness mentality. As a Christian, I was led to believe over time that goodness was a personal virtue and this was reinforced especially by family and the church community. It is hard to argue that a Christian should be good in conduct, good in speech and good in lifestyle.

So where’s the problem? The subtlety of the lie is not so much in the observed good behavior but rather in the motives that impelled me to be good. The lie was that the standard of goodness was the social expectations of people around me and not that of God’s expectation. The lie was that my goodness was a consequence of who I was ‒ a personal virtue attained as a result of my disciplined lifestyle. Contrast this subtle attitude to that of Christ’s reply to the rich young man:

“Why do you call Me good? No one is good ‒ except God alone” (Mark 10:18)

This goodness mentality soon became absorbed in pride. Again not obvious and overt, but subtle. Glowing in all the adulation of those around me over the years, I developed a “different than others” mentality. This other-distinction is what Jesus challenged the Pharisees to deal with. Listen to the words of the Pharisee in prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people …” (Luke 18:11-12)

And I kept up the good name. Over the years, I was the strong and stable friend. The one that can always be counted on. The one that will not say NO. The one that was always available. That’s what I was to everyone on the outside, except to those who allowed me to be myself.

I can recall my earliest sense of self as a child. My neighbors regularly commended me on being the best-behaved boy in our low-income block of flats. These accolades obviously delighted my mother and I in turn ever so earnestly tried to maintain this “good boy” image. As children we quickly learn that goodness behavior is rewarded favorably by our parents and other significant people.

As a teenager, I must admit I developed a certain envy towards the so-called naughty boys who occasionally skipped class, caught a quick cigarette or held their girlfriends’ hands on the way home. But being a good Christian was too important to forgo at that stage.

Over the past few months, I have experienced a new vulnerability. All my old goodness-rituals have given way. Not by my choice. I have had to come face-to-face with a side of me that is not the super-goodness side. A side of me that I denied over the years, because I was too much in control of my life.

From being a proud and successful management consultant, my life quickly turned around and fell apart ‒ at least in the eyes of those around me. I was out of my business partnership and without any work for three months.  For the first time, I began to experience the painful awkwardness of non-performance. I recall the first month without work when all I wanted to do was to stay curled up in bed the whole day if possible. My identity and worth was wrapped up in the success of my personal performance. Now it was gone!

In those first few months, my days dragged by mockingly. All the while, I found life difficult to cope with ‒ not being in personal control anymore. For the first time I really experienced the biting pain of financial lack. Up till then, I never knew what it meant to be broke.

The desire to get back on track ‒ to prove that I could still make it ‒ was intensely magnetic. In many ways this was fueled by the misguided encouragement of friends, “You can make it on your own. Look how far you’ve come.” I listened to these voices only to end up with days filled with more discouragement.

It’s funny that during this time of intense personal anxiety, it seems like everyone I needed was gone. I felt the deep pain of loneliness. All I had was myself to contend with.

In the midst of this period of struggle, I’ve begun to experience a new sense of God. A God that is real to my vulnerability. I’ve cried much, been confused, depressed, anxious, irritable, and angry, yet enthusiastic and passionate. In this time I also came to understand that my goodness was not my passport to a trouble-free life. I learned in this time that my goodness was a subtle lie that had to be stripped away by God. In my time of vulnerability when I had nothing to boast about, God did His work in my life.

This time was very much as one author describes it, “God’s Waiting Room.” In this waiting room, I have learned a few important things that have helped me make sense of my situation and helped me move forward. God’s waiting room experience is unique to every individual, but we can all benefit from recognizing when we are in God’s Waiting Room and what to expect in our time of waiting.

  1. Challenge to our thinking. In God’s Waiting Room we come face-to-face with the inadequacy of our accomplishments. In this time we began to recognize that all our goodness cannot rescue us from the desperation of our situations. In this time false teachings of many churches which lead us to believe that our goodness is a demonstration of our spirituality become exposed.

In this disrupted time of our lives, we begin to face up to the fact that God is in the midst of our chaos. We learn that our nice “boxing in” of God as the “God of Order” gets challenged. If God is only a God of Order, He cannot be in the middle of my calamity. This is a lie of the devil, which seeks through religious tradition to remove God from the reality of our situations. He is as much there with us in the times of chaos in our lives as he is in our times of order.

  1. Challenge to our feelings. Our need for acceptance and belonging is so great that we are constantly trying to impress God so that we may feel good. We learn that God’s acceptance of us is not reflected in whether we feel good or not. He loves us just as we are ‒ especially in the times when we are not feeling so good.

In this time of constant pain, it’s hard to imagine God with us, but He is. The truth of God’s abiding Presence comes alive to the person feeling overwhelmed.

God Himself said, I will not let go of My grip of you. I will not abandon you. (Heb. 13:6)

Like Paul, in the time of our waiting, we resolve to “meet life fearlessly, saying, “The Lord is my helper. I shall not be afraid. What can any man do to me?”

  1. Challenge to our behavior. I do not need to perform for God to bless me or to love me, for that matter. God reaches out to me in relationship. My response of trusting dependence is what He desires.

In our “Waiting Room,” we are confronted with resting in God rather than performing for Him. Resting is not easy if you have lived a life of high performance. We are called in this time like Mary to be open to learning how to enjoy God’s presence rather than performing continuously like Martha in the kitchens of our self-accomplishments.

Principles of the Waiting Room

Some practical personal strategies I found useful in this time: