“We imply, and often believe, that habitual vices are exceptional single acts, and make the opposite mistake about our virtues—like the bad tennis player who calls his normal form his ‘bad days’ and mistakes his rare successes for his normal." -C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 53
Many could agree that it is easy to find ourselves thinking we are generally good people. The theology of men like Joel Osteen depend on this thought. If you are a generally good person, meaning you are kind to others and give money to the church, then God will bless you for your kind work. This couldn't be more opposite from the scripture. In Romans 7:24 Paul says, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" and in 1 Timothy 1:15 he called himself the "foremost of sinners." The apostle Paul! A man we would look on and aspire to imitate. A man who has lovingly taught us the faith and doctrine. Yet even he would tell you that he is a wretch of a man! Where does Paul derive this thought? Read Romans chapter three to get a glimpse. Paul also saw the holiness of Christ and understood, in comparison, that even our righteous deeds are but filthy rags.
Now, most people may not see themselves as righteous, but they certainly don't see themselves as wicked. Why? Lewis explains on the page prior to the quote above, which I will get to in a minute. To paraphrase, he says that we do not see ourselves as wicked people because we tend to compare ourselves to others that we judge as bad. Likewise, we see ourselves as generally good because we compare ourselves to someone who stands out as good even by worldly standards. With the force of a hammer, Lewis says, "The very fact that you selected him for the comparison is suspicious: he is probably head and shoulders above you and your circle."
Chew on that for a minute!
Does this create a false dichotomy in our head? Absolutely, it does! I understand a false dichotomy as limiting a conversation to only two options. An example would be the statement, "If you want better healthcare, we need to raise taxes for universal healthcare. If we don't raise taxes there can't be universal healthcare." This leaves no room to point out that we could cut hundreds of billions in unnecessary spending to pay for universal healthcare (if that were plausible, though I find it not). The false dichotomy we are currently dealing with in this article is as follows: you are generally good or generally bad. You may say I am setting up a strawman argument for sake of an article, but hear me out. Ask anyone you know, or even seriously examine yourself. You will find that you will compare yourself to others. When John from church is ousted for having a pornography addiction you pat yourself on the back that you are not like that porn-loving John (Luke 18:11), except you have trouble reaching your back to pat it because you are severely over weight... (Proverbs 23:2, Matthew 7:3)
The mistake we make here is comparing ourselves to John and not to the righteous requirement of the law that was fulfilled in Christ. If God were okay with us gaging our goodness based off of the rest of fallen humanity, he would have never instituted the law. I can hear the German soldiers: "Man, that Heinrich, I can't believe he pushes the Jews into the gas chamber with such force! No matter, he will answer to the Lord one day. Next!"
The Long Game
We see our virtues over time like adding a 10lb weight to the scale of good and evil, whereas we attribute the sinker weights you use to fish with to the evil side of the scale for all of our vices. Simply, when we are bad we think little of it, an exception. When we are good, we cling to it, a norm. This is rooted in the desire to earn our own salvation which is rooted in pride. In the quote above, Lewis says we believe this about our habitual vices. Over the course of our lives, we tend to let the bad fall to the wayside and not seem as bad or serious yet we put even our smallest acts of kindness on a pedestal. Also rooted in pride. Let me give you a fabricated real life situation to explain what he means.
Gregory has a problem with lust. It consumes his life and all he can think about is women. However, Gregory decides this week to give an extra 25% to the church. In Gregory's mind, his 25% extra is equivalent to his habitual sin of lust. We need not extend this example, such as whether or not he was repentant. The principal remains that we are not just judges, yet God is.
The Reality and the Good News
To go back to the definition of a false dichotomy, I dare to say that this dichotomy is not false because the options are restricted (i.e. only generally good or only generally evil) but because the options are too many. Man is wicked. There is no dichotomy. To not be in Christ is to be wicked, regardless of man's perspective. This is the reality. Man is born into sin with a sinful nature (Psalm 51, Romans 1-8, Ephesians 2:3). We stand condemned before a thrice Holy God who cannot look upon sin because His eyes are pure (Habukkuk 1:13). Not all men are as sinful as they can possibly be, but all men are evil outside of Christ. But that is the good news. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). If man were not sinful we would have no need of a savior. "But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:57)
Though you are fallen in nature and a slave to sin, you can be free in Christ (Romans 6). Jesus Christ put on the likeness of sinful flesh and condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in you, if you would walk according to the spirit and not according to the flesh. (Romans 8:3-4) Do not linger! Live for him now.
Thanks for reading! God bless you and your family.