Christmas is still a celebration of the birth of Jesus, regardless of whatever else it has become. I write and speak a good bit about ethics, morality, and spirituality, but I rarely mention my religious beliefs, unless asked. I consider myself to be a Christian. That said, I don’t think anything I write or speak about is uniquely Christian. I attended church regularly as a child and for a couple of decades as an adult, but I haven’t attended church for anything other than weddings and funerals for more than 30 years. For many, going to church appears to be an effective means of expressing their spirituality. For others of us, it tends to be a spiritual distraction.
I once visited a Bruderhof community in Pennsylvania, a non-denomination Christian community that uses Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for spiritual guidance. When asked if I was a Christian, I said I was, but I also said I didn’t see much difference between core Christian beliefs and the beliefs of other major religions or enduring philosophies of the world. I thought for a minute and added that I thought the distinctive beliefs of Christianity could be summed up as “salvation by grace through faith” and “forgiveness of sins.” First, goodness cannot be earned or deserved but instead must be accepted, by faith, as a gift, by grace. Second, we each have the free will or discretion to accept or reject the inherent goodness in ourselves and in others. To sin is to reject this gift of goodness and act accordingly, but such rejections can be forgiven.
When we accept the inherent goodness in ourselves, we see the inherent goodness in others. We then feel compelled and empowered to express our goodness through respect and encouragement of the goodness in others. In so doing, we make our unique contributions to the greater good. I believe the most basic and fundamental definition of love is: “a belief in inherent goodness” – in ourselves, other people, the other living and non-living things of earth, the universe, and ultimately in God. The Bible speaks of God as the source of all goodness and love: “God is good… God is love.” To love is to express our belief in goodness – to always want and seek the best for the objection of our affection. Only when we accept the goodness in ourselves and in others, can we truly love and accept love in return.
The Bible states: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23] We are fallible human beings, vulnerable to the distraction of egotism, selfishness, and greed. When we fail to reflect the goodness in ourselves, we fail to see or respect the goodness in others, we fail to do our part for the greater good, and we fall short of the glory of God. Virtually all major religions and philosophies accept that life on Earth is meant to be “good.” The uniqueness of Christianity, in my layman’s opinion, is that Jesus believed goodness was a gift from God, and he recognized that we fallible humans must be forgiven our inevitable errors if we are to fulfill our purpose within the larger whole of creation.
So, what’s the take-home message for this Christmas season? There is little indication that we, as responsible members of humanity, are respecting or reflecting the goodness in ourselves by seeing and respecting the inherent goodness in others, particularly others most different from ourselves. There is little indication that we are willing to respect the inherent goodness in the other living and non-living things of the earth – the whole of God’s creation. It is difficult to see that we collectively are fulfilling our responsibility to contribute to the “greater good.” The world seems filled with hate rather than with love, with evil rather than goodness.
However, Jesus came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” [John 10:10] – that we might love and be loved, might care and be cared for, might accept and give the gift of goodness. Jesus taught that we cannot become good, no matter how diligently we work, but that goodness is inherent within us. When we accept the gift of goodness, we are compelled to respect and work diligently to defend and encourage the goodness in others. Jesus knew there would always be times when we individually and collectively would reject the gift of love and fall short of the glory of God. He also knew that God, being the source of all goodness, would forgive our shortcomings, if we would only repent. If we would see the goodness in ourselves and others and act accordingly. In the hope that we may learn to accept this gift of unending love, I will celebrate this Christmas season.