The sin of pursuing what’s good
The idea of sinning against God by seeking to do something good seems irrational, maybe even ridiculous. Yet God’s Word warns us about being presumptuous. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours. His sovereign will can involve us doing something completely counter-intuitive, and the Bible is littered with such examples. When we follow what appears good or logical to us, God’s Word warns us that there is a real danger that we fall into the sin of idolatry, where we place our own views above God’s.
(See Chinese versions: 简体中文 > 追求完美的罪 | 繁體中文 > 追求完美的罪)
Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
1 Samuel 15:23 ESV For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry…
When God’s will is unimaginable and doesn’t look good
Here are just a few examples from the Bible that demonstrate how God’s will can appear irrational and absurd, simply because the outcomes are beyond our ability to fathom or conceive.
1 Corinthians 2:9 NLT That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”
1. God’s plan includes tolerating evil in our midst – Judas Iscariot
We may presume that once we follow Jesus, our lives will go more smoothly. Yet this is not always the case. It can sometimes mean that God’s will is for us to endure greater evil and more difficult situations as we follow Him.
Jesus, for example, willingly selected Judas Iscariot to be in His inner circle of disciples, knowing very well that he would betray Him one day. By having a traitor so close to Him for years and treating him no different from the others, Jesus demonstrated how He loved His own enemies. We, on the other hand, would normally avoid our enemies. Clearly, God’s perspective is not the same as ours. He calls us to overcome evil with good.
Matthew 10:1-2,4 ESV And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: … Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Romans 12:21 ESV Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
2. God’s plan looks outrageous – Abraham and Hosea
It was the same with Abraham, whom God called to sacrifice his own son – again another counter-intuitive command. One might presume that God would protect Abraham’s only legitimate son and view His command as cruel and bad. Quite on the contrary, through Abraham’s story, God shows us how He felt when He led His own Son, Jesus, to be brutally sacrificed for our sins. (In the end, God stopped Abraham for sacrificing his son.)
Sometimes, God can call us to do something that doesn’t make any sense (because it is not about us) and nothing in our human wisdom will be able to decipher it. Abraham would not have understood God’s real intentions either, but he obeyed anyway. As a result, God called Abraham His friend. What an incredible privilege and honour. Jesus has also said that we too can be called His friend if we do what He commands.
James 2:23 NIV And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
John 15:12-14 ESV “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
Another example is the prophet, Hosea, whom God instructed to marry a prostitute. One might presume that the proper and lawful thing for a man of God to do would be to marry a virgin. However counter-intuitive this was, it was God’s will that Hosea’s marriage and children would be a manifestation of His relationship with His people over the centuries, who had repeatedly been unfaithful and worshipped false gods, and His grief over their spiritual adultery. Through the prophet Hosea, God wanted to illustrate how He feels towards us when we sin against Him.
Hosea 1:2 ESV When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”
3. God’s plan looks disastrous – The Red Sea and Jesus’ crucifixion
When God called Moses to lead His people out of captivity from Egypt, He gave Moses specific instructions about where to go and where to camp. One such place was by the Red Sea, in front of Baal-zephon, the Canaanite sea and storm idol. As the Egyptian army drew near, the people cried out in terror because they presumed that they would be slaughtered. But God had a higher plan. Not only was He going to part the sea to save them and destroy their oppressors, He was going to totally discredit the idol worship of Baal-zephon. God’s plan looked disastrous to the people because their faith was based on what they could see with their own eyes. God’s plan was based on His good character and infinite wisdom.
Exodus 14:1-2,10-11 ESV Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea… When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?
When Jesus came to earth, the people presumed that He would free them from their Roman oppressors, just as Moses had freed their ancestors from the Egyptians. Jesus, however, warned His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed. It must have been a shock to hear that their Leader and Saviour was knowingly walking into a murder plot. How was Jesus going to be the Messiah and save them if He died? Jesus had all the power to do miracles, why wasn’t He going to use it to save Himself? The apostle Peter even rebuked Jesus for such a plan. We, of course, know the end of that story.
Matthew 16:21-23 ESV From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Satan can use what’s good to lead us to sin against God
It is illuminating to note that Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus knew that it was not the Holy Spirit who had inspired Peter’s rebuke, but Satan. In spite of Jesus’ rebuke, Peter must have felt that he was doing something good and righteous by trying to save his Saviour once again in the garden of Gethsemane when he attacked the high priest’s servant with a sword. Peter held on tight to what looked good in his eyes, rather than really listen to Jesus and submit to His will.
John 18:10-12 ESV Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him.
We too can make the same mistake as Peter by doing what we believe to be good and righteous, and risk being a stubborn obstacle to God’s will.
The tendency to fall into this pattern is even greater if we have made inner vows to “be good,” “do what’s right,” “prove that I am good/better,” or “never make another mistake again.” Also, see Inner vows must be revoked.
Such self “laws” will cause us to set our minds on the “things of man (i.e. our ways of thinking)”, rather than follow God’s will – just as Satan had done to the apostle Peter.
As such, Satan merely needs to use this mindset to lure us to:
- Presumption: Presume that what “looks good to us” must be good for God.
- Diversion: “Do good things” that are outside of God’s will for us.
- Doubt God: Accuse God of not being good because His plans “don’t look good” to us.
- Rebellion: Resist doing anything for God that “doesn’t make us look good” in front of others.
The traps of pursuing what’s “good”
The desire to do good can become a spiritual stronghold because it is based on our own understanding and desires, and not God’s will. Here are a few examples.
Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
1. “I must be good now that I am a Christian.”
Many of us try to be on our best behaviour when we have our Christian “labels” on. But God sees whatever we do both in public and in secret. Trying to be good, even with the best intentions of being a good ambassador for God, will ultimately wear us down because of how imperfect we are on the inside. We cannot hide our inner worlds and heart conditions from God.
Thankfully, Jesus set an example for us by proclaiming that no human being should seek to be called “good” because only God is good. Jesus even corrected someone for calling Him “good.” We are all sinful beings who are under God’s grace, that are being transformed bit by bit to become more like Jesus. It is very liberating to acknowledge that we don’t have the ability to make ourselves right before God, only the Holy Spirit has that power. This is when we are able to testify of God’s goodness.
Mark 10:18 ESV And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
Titus 3:5 ESV He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
2. “They have good credentials. So, they must be God’s first choice.”
We are often attracted to people with the best credentials, appearances, or charisma. God, on the other hand, always favours men and women who are truly humble and will obey Him first and foremost. We see an example from the Bible where God corrects the prophet Samuel, who thought that Eliab would be God’s natural choice as Israel’s next king. God was far more interested in the youngest son whom everyone else had overlooked, David. God knew David would seek to honour and glorify Him, not himself.
1 Samuel 16:7 NLT When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Surely this is the LORD’s anointed!” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
Later, we see that Eliab rebuked David in the battle with Goliath, as simply being a busybody. We know that David was the only one who was willing to stand up for the living God and fight Goliath, so as to “take away the reproach from Israel.” Eliab did nothing more than falsely accuse David.
1 Samuel 17:28-29 ESV Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?”
1 Samuel 17:26 ESV And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
When we primarily look at credentials, we will be easily led astray by false teachers and false prophets because they will come with impressive natural abilities, knowledge of the Bible, or signs and wonders. The Bible warns against being drawn to people with merely the appearance of goodness and godliness but who won’t stand up for the Living God in the face of evil.
Matthew 24:11 ESV And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.
2 Timothy 3:5 ESV Having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
3. “This will bring us good blessings. It must be from God.”
“Every good and perfect gift is from God” is a relatively popular quote amongst Christian circles. It is based on James 1:17 and appears to imply that you recognise God’s hand through good (earthly) things that come our way. Yet this verse needs to be read in its context; the apostle James is actually referring to how God allows us to go through trials and tests of our faith, which produces good things – something he calls worthy of joyous celebration. Trials and testing result in good gifts for our spiritual growth.
James 1:17 ESV Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
James 1:2-4,12 ESV Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
It is misunderstandings like this that have led people to think, “God will not let me suffer (because suffering is bad)” rather than pause and consider that God had allowed Jesus, His own Son, to suffer tremendously for us. Anyone who follows Jesus will similarly have to face persecution and suffering.
2 Timothy 3:12 ESV Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
As a result, we become the ones who define what is “good” for us based on our terms, rather than accept what God has determined to be good for us. It is mindsets such as this that will reject Matthew 19:21 where Jesus asked the young man to sell all his possessions in order to follow Him. Sadly, the young man held on to his earthly possessions and forsook the best Gift of all, Jesus Christ Himself.
Matthew 19:21 NLT Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
4. “This is a good cause. God will certainly bless our efforts.”
God’s people can make the mistake of catering to good causes on the presumption that God would bless their efforts. We see that the Israelites made this mistake too. They presumptively went to war without first consulting God and entered partnerships that He did not condone. God called them stubborn and declared that they only “added sin to sin.”
Numbers 14:44-45 ESV But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah.
Isaiah 30:1-2 ESV “Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
We see that the disciples, on the other hand, always waited on the Spirit’s directions through worship, prayer, and fasting. It was only after the Holy Spirit provided instructions that they would move ahead.
Acts 13:2-3 ESV While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 14:23 ESV And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Doing what is right and good in the sight of the Lord
God knows all the upcoming storms and safe harbours in this life, and He is the perfect Captain to steer us to safety to His eternal Kingdom. Our navigational plans will always be limited by what we can see or what we have learnt in this life. God’s views are eternal and perfect.
When we act presumptuously based on what we think is good, we will only be defeated in our battles.
Deuteronomy 1:42-44 ESV And the Lord said to me, ‘Say to them, Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the Lord and presumptuously went up into the hill country. Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah.
Therefore, let us pursue to do what is good and right in God’s eyes, not our own, so that we may not sin against Him. By doing so, we will find great peace and rest in the knowledge that God knows what is best in light of eternity. After all, He is for us, not against us.
Deuteronomy 6:17-18 ESV You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers
Romans 8:31-32 ESV What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
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Waiting on God’s timing
Seeking solutions vs. God
How to test for the Holy Spirit
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