I was always a good kid.
Ask my parents and I think they’d tell you, I was a joy of a daughter to raise. (Tell ‘em, Mom!) I never really gave any trouble when it came to boys, I had absolutely no interest in the shenanigans of drugs or alcohol, I was an excellent student, great friend, medium athlete and a conscientious includer of people. When we studied the fruit of the Spirit in my high school theology class, “goodness” was one of those fruits I was pretty sure I was nailing—no Spirit necessary for this one, thankyouverymuch. Being good was easy! Just look at how impressive I was!
Ah, the overconfidence of youth. I remember sitting up late one night on our senior class trip to Florida, riding shotgun with the bus driver while the rest of the class slept. We barreled down the highway somewhere between Toledo and Orlando while I flapped my adorable jaw about how I knew everything there was to know about God and the Bible. After twelve years of private Christian education, I really saw no need for further study of Scripture or pursuit of additional spiritual instruction. I was relatively confident graduation would procure for me both a high school diploma and my own personal sanctification certificate, all in one march across the stage.
I was in spiritual darkness. Not because my life showed all the signs of rebellion and bad news, but because my soul had no need for a Savior, or so it thought. I assumed I had saved myself through years of right answers and right behavior. But at 18 years old, my goodness wasn’t enough to save me—it was actually separating me from Christ.
The bus driver that night didn’t tell me all the hundred ways I’d gotten it wrong or laugh me off the bus. It was worse than that—he wasn’t impressed by me. In the honesty of that moment, just two people and a whole lot of highway, all the words I’d served him didn’t return the usual, “Wow, you’re such a great kid!” that I was used to. Instead, he looked concerned. That was new and puzzling for the good girl accustomed to good reviews. We sat quietly after that—me, the bus driver and the Holy Spirit. And God was at work in my “good”/dark heart, revealing a need for Him I’d honestly never noticed before.
It turns out, God wasn’t impressed by me either. The act of goodness, kindness, self-control and so-on that I had perfected (and was sure would save me) was the very thing of which I needed to repent. My acts of righteousness were exactly the bad fruit Jesus warns us about in Matthew 12—produced from the upside down heart of a girl who thought her behavior made her a believer.
Slowly but surely, in the days and months following that night on the bus, the Holy Spirit gave me eyes to see that God wasn’t commanding me to bear fruit to begin with—fruit-bearing was the job of the Holy Spirit. Rather, God was beckoning me to abide in His presence, like Jesus tells His disciples in John 15.
I love the way David talks about God’s shepherd-like presence in Psalm 23. God is near to him—leading and restoring him, even in the valleys. David writes in verse 6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” He understands God’s nearness doesn’t make him good, but that goodness and mercy are always with him because the Lord is with Him. God is good, so the fruit of God’s Spirit, or presence, is goodness.
Friends, whenever we think we can do goodness on our own, we are saying we can be the essence of God without the presence of God. But we can’t! Ephesians 5:8 tells us, “at one time you were darkness.” I was, too. All of us. And we’re learning again and again and again: our self-made fruit does not rid us of our darkness—it doesn’t have that power. Only God can make us light.
Even when we fool the whole world with our goodness, God sees and knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves. May His goodness follow us as we draw near to Him, and may we may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“Oh, how abundant is your goodness!”
- Psalm 31:19