There’s a fun show that Annie and I have been watching lately called “The Good Place.” It’s a really fun comedy about hijinks in the afterlife. Basically, the main character finds herself in the afterlife, and is told she has gone to the Good Place because of how good she was. But when she starts encountering some of the other residents and hears about the kind of lives they led, she starts to realize that she’s not supposed to be there. The other residents of the afterlife were saints, acting with complete selflessness toward others, and generally being good people to an obnoxious level.
But the show, entertaining though it is, also says something very interesting about the afterlife. The architect—the host who welcomes the main character into the afterlife—explains that people’s good deeds are calculated by a points system, and are offset by their bad deeds. Their points are tallied up, and if they achieved enough points, they would get to go to the Good Place. It’s a remarkably simple system and I think part of the popularity of the show has to do with how we generally think that kind of system is fair.
I mean, think about the popular concept of “karma.” It’s this idea that if you do good, somehow good things will come your way. If you do bad, it will somehow come back to bite you. I think we like that kind of system because it follows our sense of fairness: do good, get good. Do bad, get bad. Stretching that system out to have ultimate consequences—where you end up after you die—is just what follows that kind of thinking. If you were a good person in life, saving kittens and giving to charity and packaging Lutefisk meals for takeout, you should be rewarded. If you were a bad person, trolling people on Facebook and stiffing the waiter and not even volunteering to make lefse, you should be punished.
But how good are we, really? If there really is a points system, and we have to meet a certain threshold to get in, are we there? Can we be confident we have done enough good—and not done enough bad—to earn it? If salvation is based on whether or not we’re good enough, then there is the constant worry that we’re just not. That kind of thinking filled the hearts and minds of Europe with fear in the Middle Ages, and it reached a fever pitch when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door.
See, Luther was constantly terrified that he was outside of God’s grace. He was constantly in dread that if he didn’t remember one miniscule sin, it would be enough of a blot to blot him out of the Book of Life. He was taught that you had to merit salvation by your good works—acts of goodness to your neighbor, sure, but also visiting holy relics, praying certain prayers a certain number of times, asking for intercession by the saints, and attending Mass enough. There was even a doctrine in the church called the “Treasury of Merit”—basically a lockbox of points that the Pope was allegedly deputized to dish out to particularly good Christians who donated to the Church or visited relics or prayed at the bones of saints.
If it’s really a points system, if karma is really how God decides on our salvation, then we will never be free from the existentially dreadful question: did I do enough? Was I a good enough person to make it?
And that’s where Martin Luther gave the world its best reminder. We are not justified by the works we do, how good we are, how many relics we’ve reverenced, how many people we’ve helped, or even how morally upright we are. We are justified solely by the grace of God. When the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. It’s not our job to earn salvation. It’s not even possible, actually. So we live in the trust that when God claimed us in baptism, once that water hit our heads, the Son had made us free forever. There is not points system. There is no “doing enough” to get saved. We don’t live in that system of doing good, earning good. We live under grace. And that grace is our freedom.
So what is that freedom for? If it doesn’t matter what we do, then why do anything at all? Can’t we just do whatever we want and never have to worry about the consequences? If it’s the Son who makes us free and not our good works, then could we do all the evil things ever and not have to worry about the consequences?
We want to do good. We want to be good people, to care for others and the world that God made. We want to seek justice for the oppressed, give voices back to those who have been silenced, be made whole and holy with each other. We were not created to be evil, and as much as we are bad at not sinning, we are equally bad at wanting to sin. Because we want to be good. Being freed of the anxiety of “am I good enough” means that we no longer have to spend energy on fretting and worrying about whether we are doing enough good and instead can focus all our energy on just doing good.
And that’s what freedom is: doing good for its own sake.
It looks like dropping off a hot meal on a neighbor’s porch because you know they’re going through a rough time.
It looks like wearing an uncomfortable mask for seven months because you know every little bit helps, and it just might save someone you’ll never meet with a compromised immune system.
It looks like reorganizing and volunteering for the Lutefisk supper with a takeout format because you know how important this tradition is to some people’s lives.
It looks like confronting hate and bigotry even when you’ll never meet someone victimized by it because the world needs more brave people.
It looks like paying for the person behind you in line at the drive-thru because you hope one little act of goodness inspires another.
It looks like supporting and cheering on the school board as it makes difficult decisions in this pandemic, because you know they’re trying their hardest.
It looks like sharing this kind of hope with other people who are filled with anxiety about being good enough, and reminding them that “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
We are freed, because God knows who we are. God wants us to be freed from the shackles of works righteousness, that hanging dread of being good enough, because that energy is better spent actually loving our neighbor, being changed by grace, and making the world look just a little bit more like the kingdom of God every day. Hope lives in that freedom that we’ve been given, because if God trusts us enough to grant us salvation with no strings attached, God must be willing to trust us to do good not because we have to, but because we want to.
So be free. Love your neighbor. Change the world. God is with you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.