Is Thinking Oneself To Be “Good” Equating Oneself With God?

QUESTION

Isn’t it true that the moment he says that he is ‘good’ he equates himself with God?  Isn’t it true that no mortal being can deem himself to be ‘good’ without PRIDE taking over?

ANSWER

Thanks for writing.  (My return email to you failed because your server rejected it.)  I have some thoughts that are going into a book I’m currently writing about common failures in our thinking.  I think this is very relevant to our discussion.

One of the most common thinking errors people make is what we call overgeneralization.  Think of statements like these:

  • “You’re ALWAYS late.”
  • “You NEVER get it right.”
  • “All politicians are crooks.”
  • “All whites are racists.”
  • “All blacks are thieves.”
  • “All cops are brutal.”
  • “All people killed by cops deserved to be killed.”

These kinds of statements come from taking thinking shortcuts.  In effect, what someone who thinks this way has done is to reason in this manner: “Well, I’ve seen enough crooked politicians to decide that they’re ALL crooked.”  So he’s taking a shortcut. And he’s cheating.  He doesn’t think he has time for highly-honest-and-rational-and-responsible thoughts like these:

  • “I have no way of knowing whether there are any honest politicians or not, but I sure do notice a lot of crooked ones, and it makes me wonder if they are ALL crooked.”
  • “As far as I know, there could be some non-crooked politicians that never get shown on the news, so I just don’t even know who they are.”

No, the “cognitive miser”—the guy who is stingy with expending time and energy necessary for excellent thinking—just doesn’t want to get into covering all the possibilities.  Instead, he just finds it much easier to say that “all” politicians are crooks, and to be done with the matter.

OK, so there’s the principle, but what does that have to do with Christianity and God and goodness?

The fact of the matter is that many (if not most) of us are suckers for overgeneralizing when it comes to talking about human character.  We want a simple chart with three columns.  The first column would have the names of the particular people in question.  (Say, “Hitler” or “Jesus” or “Jimmy Carter” or “Booker T. Washington”.)  The second column would be titled “Good”, and the third column “Bad”.  And we would want to see a check mark EITHER in the “good” or the “bad” column for each person listed in the first column.  That’s how we tend to think—unless we are well trained and highly disciplined.

Take Joseph Stalin, for example.  The first thing many people want to check when they see his name is “bad”—and truly, he did very many bad things.  But I also happen to know that his daughter, many years later, would go on and on about what wonderful times she had had sitting with her father and listening to performances of German art songs on their Victrola.  This surprises nearly everybody, because they have defaulted to thinking that there was NOTHING good about Stalin.  But this is simply not the case.  Even though he was extremely evil in many ways, there were some good things about his life and habits.

Similarly, some (not all) in Christianity have jumped on the bandwagon of folks like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who erroneously opined that nothing about a human is good.  This, too, is an overgeneralization, and it simply is not accurate.  Luther said in his hearing at Worms, “I, scum that I am, [am] capable of naught but error….”  Well, that may sound “humble” or “pious”, but it is a senseless and self-contradicting statement.  Indeed, if he really understood what he was saying, he’d have had no reason to say it at all, for it could not possibly be correct. And if he knew it to be true, then he would also have to expect that it, too, would be an error, since he’s saying he’s incapable of anything but error.  So it could not possibly be true.  But Luther wasn’t reasoning this out.  Rather, he was saying it for other reasons unknown to us—for motivations other than wanting to be honest/rational/responsible in his every thought and belief.  He may have thought, for instance—and I don’t know this, so I’m just speculating for the sake of discussion here—that he was saying this in the interests of being “humble”.  But if this were the case, he did not understand that authentic humility is also honest, rational, and responsible in all matters, in thought and word and belief and action.

So his idea, too, is an overgeneralization.  What Luther was thinking about deserved some more careful thought than he gave it—the sort of thinking that burns up more energy in the mind than many are accustomed to burning—things like these:

  • “Well, it’s true that I mess up quite often, but to be honest, I’m not wrong about EVERYTHING.”
  • “Before I buy into the idea that I am wholly incapable of getting anything right, I should test that idea.  Let’s see, my socks match today, so I got that right.  And when I came to work, I ended up at the proper address, so I got that right.  And when the clerk gave me too much change, I settled it honestly, so I got that right”, etc.

The fact of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that any of us is totally wrong about everything—cognitively or morally.  Even axe murderers can hold doors open for old ladies, and they can correctly memorize which cable channel EPSN comes on.  So it’s not like their minds and morals are incapable of working.

Probably the better measure of a person, therefore, is to look at how many things he does right and how many he does wrong—-and then to look at what sorts of things he does right and wrong (namely, at the moral importance and weightiness of those things).  But the answer one gets from this sort of thorough analysis of a man’s life is much more complicated that simply  picking whether to put a checkmark by his name in either the “good” or the “bad” column.

With God and Jesus, it is by no means an overgeneralization to say that they are “good”, for they have zero compromises in their characters, in their behaviors, in their pasts, and so forth.  There is no exception.  But call any man “good” or “bad” and we can find lots of exceptions to such overgeneralization.

To your point about pride—–Pride, too, is an overgeneralization—an un-sober estimate of one’s own knowledge, skills, abilities, or status.  It often requires a deliberate negligence to whatever may be wrong with the man.  It is a way of thinking that God finds morally deficient and wrong.  It is dishonest, irrational, or irresponsible (and maybe all three) to think wrongly of oneself.

A similar thing happens with the two biases that cognitive scientists call “the devil effect”, by which a certain vilified person  is believed to be incapable of doing anything right, and “the halo effect”, by which a certain favored person is believed to be incapable of doing anything wrong.  The latter is what historians call “heroification”—where the faults of certain historical figures—say, George Washington, for example—are ignored in order to make a convenient hero of the figure. Indeed, this heroification even happens with historical narratives about nations (such as the United States), as well as with historic figures.

Well, all this is mental cheating.  It is shortcut thinking, irresponsible to the full set of facts.  And if this is the sort of thinking we tend to do about ourselves, it makes it very easy for an attitude of brazen pride to develop.

I do not believe it is proud, however, for a man (or woman) to think, “That was a very good thing I did.”  The only way this would be patently proud is if the thing having been done were not indeed good.  But if it’s true, it’s true.  Billy helps a fallen man get up again.  This is good and Billy knows it.  In fact, the very reason Billy did it in the first place was because he believed it to be the good and proper thing to do.

A humble Billy, therefore, will think things like this:  “I just did a good thing in helping that man up, and it makes me wonder just how often I go out of my way to be kind like that, for I am certainly aware of moments when I chose not to help those in need.”  He will not tell himself anything false about it, however.  He will avoid thoughts like, “Sure, I did a good thing, but I’m still an evil person.”  Or, “I may have done a good thing, but it was probably for some bad motive in my heart that I did it.”  Or, “Sure, I did a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything good in my heart.”  It would be dishonest of him to dismiss the good deed as anything but the good deed that it was.  He need not lie to himself in order to be righteous in his thinking about himself.  Indeed, isn’t the contradiction there obvious?  Even so, many have a way of thinking that is just that twisted.

So many are suckers for this all-or-nothing way of thinking about human morality.  It’s just such an easy way of thinking, it suits a great many people, even if it is not an accurate way of thinking.  And this really messes up Christians who are trying to understand the teachings of the Bible.  They opt for this system of “total depravity”, even though it simply doesn’t fit all the evidence.

I hope this helps you to see what my thoughts are on the subject.

 

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