November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
How do I know if I am a good person or not?
Most of us take an all-or-nothing approach: if I can name one or two bad things I’ve done then I must be a bad person. And if I can name one or two good things I’ve done then I must be a good person.
But our tradition has a more nuanced view.
Let’s consider, for example, Maimonides, one of the great thinkers of our tradition. In his view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.
In other words, any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.
We are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.
So what might that mean for us, in this context?
For most people, the source of their greatest regret is usually one of those moments when they have lacked the courage to do what is right. They could not bear to admit to themselves the full truth of the matter and papered over their guilty conscience with small lies: it didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that bad. No one knew.
The consequences that flow from that kind of mistake are what hurt most, sometimes excruciatingly so.
So let’s look at that. Let’s say you once did something stupid and lied about it. It was an error in judgment large enough that it could cause a huge rift in a relationship.
That error is a serious thing. You need to go back and fix it: admit the error, pay for anything that you damaged, acknowledge the hurt and experience the anger that you have caused. If you don’t do that, you’ll create several more errors.
For example, holding on to the sin and keeping it secret only allows it to fester: that’s a second mistake.
Lying to keep others from discovering the truth: a third mistake. And so on.
The pattern of behavior is what determines your character and defines who you are. Can people count on you? Are you reliable? Do you do what you say you will do?
I can tell you this: being honest, reliable, and trustworthy matters quite a bit. It defines whether or not people believe what you say and believe that you are worthy of their love and respect. And we all want those things to be true of us. And if it has not been true of you, it is in your power to fix it.
So let’s go back to Maimonides and look once again at what he had to say:
In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training. Any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.
In other words, we are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.
So, what do you think: are we punished for our sins?
Maimonides would say yes – but not in the way you might think. In Maimonides’ view, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence.
What is Providence? It’s God working through the natural ways of the world. Providence punishes us, he says, by causing things to turn out badly for us. It punishes those who turn their attention away from God and those who cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly. In his view, these are the natural consequences of sin.
It’s not that God has some kind of elaborate adding machine that keeps track of your sins. Rather, your sins have some very natural consequences.
In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but that is not what happens. Instead, the outcome should be understood as the natural consequence of the Pharaoh’s decisions.
God does not intervene – that is to say, God is not actively causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.
Most of us are not Pharaoh – most of us don’t sin on that grand of a scale. But I think that Maimonides might have a good point here, beyond his efforts in explaining a particularly troubling passage in the Torah.
If you lie to someone, you might not be found out.
But let’s say this one lie causes you to think it’s okay to lie – after all, nothing happened – and as a result, you start inserting small lies into your everyday encounters.
‘Oh, I didn’t get your message,’ you say, instead of ‘I got busy and forgot to respond.’ Not such a big thing, right? Except that it allows bigger things to happen. And what can happen from there is you start lying to yourself.
Addiction, in particular, feeds on this kind of small untruths.
The addict says, ‘I had to work late’ instead of ‘I was out feeding my addiction.’ The addict says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ instead of ‘I took that money to feed my addiction.’
Addiction is not the only sin that involves lying:
The cheater says, ‘I had a business meeting,’ instead of ‘I am involved in a relationship with a co-worker.’
Interestingly, however, cheating and addiction often go hand-in-hand. They are, in fact, related phenomena, for they involve lying to the ones you love. And these sins have grave consequences, for they can tear families apart.
So far, we’ve talked here about minor sins like lying leading to larger ones like addiction or cheating. What about the bigger sins, the ones that by themselves are nearly unforgivable, even when they occur within an otherwise praiseworthy lifetime?
Grave sins can also create a barrier to repentance because they are so large.
In those cases, Maimonides says, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.
But here’s the most important point. If you get nothing else out of the High Holidays, you should consider this and take it to heart: repentance is always possible.
The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might work to prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become nearly too ingrained to renounce. You have a lot of work to do in that case.
But if you let them go, you can be forgiven. Repentance is always possible.
God waits until the very last moment, to the very end: ‘turn back you sinners, turn back from your sins. Turn back and repent.’ You will be forgiven.
As we read in the liturgy: Lord, it is not the death of sinners you seek, but that they should turn to you and live.
So what do you need to do, you ask? How do you achieve this forgiveness? The answer is both very simple and very difficult.
You turn to the person you have harmed, look them in the face, admit what you have done, and say that you are sorry. You repair what can be repaired, you replace what can be replaced, you repay what can be repaid.
And what happens if the person won’t accept your apology? You are asked to try to mend this relationship three times. If, after the third attempt, they won’t accept your apology, you are off the hook. It’s their problem at that point.
Hopefully the person injured is able to turn and face you and say: I forgive you. It hurt, what you did, but I forgive you.
And having gone through this process, having admitted what was wrong about your behavior, you can ask for God’s forgiveness and then maybe also forgive yourself.
The last step in this process? If presented with the opportunity to sin in the same way again, you refuse.
So, to return to my original question: how do you know if you are a good person or not?
A good person admits it when he or she makes a mistake.
A good person asks for forgiveness.
And a good person avoids the temptation to sin again.