In the political arena and elsewhere we occasionally here the term "do-gooder", a label intended as a putdown instead of an accolade. Being a "do-gooder" is apparently not a good thing. The implication of its usage is that "goodness" is not always actually good. As someone mildly obsessed with language, I can't help but ponder such ironies. If you are into the ironic and the subject of goodness, being familiar with the Bible helps immensely. For a great many of us, the Bible is the very definition of goodness, and its study leads one into a much greater appreciation of language and how it is used to convey thought from one mind to another.
But I digress, a bit. The basic question I have raised is this" when does goodness count?" When does being good or doing good become the accolade and not the epithet, the nasty label? What makes some folks sneer at the claim or appearance of goodness? I suspect the issue is one of motivation and maybe something even more basic, the definition of what is good. One can certainly conceive of apparent goodness as being prompted by less than noble objectives. One could also imagine how an attempted goodness can turn out poorly or even disastrously. The former we write off as self promotion and the latter perhaps to the law of unintended consequences or sloppy execution.
Going back to the Bible, I recall from my more fundamentalist days that occasionally a preacher would stress that in doing good, we needed to be sure God got the credit, somehow. Goodness had to be done in God's name and for His purpose or it was somehow demeaned. I suspected even then that this meant contributing money to the church and letting them do whatever they deem as good with it. That God would want to take credit for what I had done didn't make much sense to me. A natural corollary to this injunction to only do good in God name was that those who were not church affiliated could never do or be good. Of course, this was perfectly in line with Orthodox theology, but it still felt wrong to just dismiss the obvious benevolence of non-Christians/non-church goers.
Whenever one turns to the Bible for guidance on doing good, the Book of Job is a prominent place to go. From the opening of the story we see that the issue in question is the motivation for Job being good. Satan accuses Job of being the kind of person who justly deserves the unflattering label of "do gooder". Job 1:9 quotes Satan as saying, Doth Job fear God for nought? Thus begins a celestial trial of Job's purpose in being good. Was his goodness driven by self interest alone or were there other factors involved. For instance could it be that Job found goodness to be its own reward, not requiring external stimulation or activation. Of course we don't completely find out what motivated Job's actions but we do learn that he and God both agreed that righteousness is not always rewarded physically here and now by God or any other outside force. Job was a discerning man and knew from personal observation that there was no correlation between good behavior and a life free of want or suffering.
When Jesus came along he reiterated the same notion: it rains on the just and the unjust. When the rich young ruler asked him how to obtain eternal life, Jesus startled him and us by saying sell all your possessions and give to the poor. The ruler claimed to be righteous according to the law, but apparently Jesus was not satisfied with his doing good. He called on him to develop a new mindset. To be united with his fellowmen in their experiences, which were obviously much different from his own. Again the motive for doing good seems to be in question.
Of course, when we think about Jesus and his stories, we have to consider the account of the praying Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee was certainly proud of his goodness and quick to let everyone else know about it. By contrast the publican was full of humility and repentance. There is no question as to whom Jesus gave his approval. Goodness as a show, as a badge of honor, as a claim to self righteousness is the quicksand in which many religious people find themselves trapped.
Finally we must deal with the words of Paul in I Corinthians 13 where he states emphatically that things done without love as a motivating factor are vain. That suggests that religious practice, moral obligation, a sense of ethical duty- all these fall short
of the any form of spontaneous goodness, a righteousness which wells up from the heart and mind and finds legitimate joy in being good. In essence we are led to conclude that goodness counts when righteousness becomes its own reward.
The prevalent idea, much promoted by religion, that benevolent behavior and consistently ethical conduct are unnatural and therefore uncomfortable and stressful teach us that goodness is not to be embraced joyously. In fact we are told that evil conduct is natural and largely pleasant to the evil doer. Thus all our institutions are based on ways to suppress the bad, with little effort expended to encourage the good. There is no thought at all that righteousness is the state to which man is born and in which he will find his greatest potential and happiness.
Counterproductively, those who see themselves as doers of the good based on right religion incessantly embroil themselves in efforts to control those they see as bad doers. Their methods of control often become the very evils they seek to suppress. In such a climate, goodness as a spontaneous outpouring of the heart has little chance to become a recognizable reality.
Perhaps the religious skeptic who treats his neighbor as he would like to be treated and does so spontaneously is the individual whose goodness really counts. The duty bound religionist, who seeks God's approval and that of his fellowman by exhibiting a form of goodness, too easily falls into the category of those whom Paul spoke, saying "They seek a righteousness of their own and not that of God".