When doing good doesn’t​ pay off

© May 4, 2018 | Schulter Etyang

This is the default mode of every human heart when bad things happen;

I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty… I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too. (1 Kings 19:10, 14 NLT) 

These are the words of Elijah as he fled from the murderous threats of Jezebel.  Why was Elijah on the run? Let’s check the context. Elijah had just finished doing some spectacular event for God. He had nudged Ahab king of Israel to some contest of sorts. “Ahab, prove that your god is the real deal.” Ahab took the bait and gathered 400 of his most prominent religious leaders to Mt. Carmel. Elijah was all alone. Each camp was to slaughter a bull, lay it on a Braai stand (South African term for a barbecue grill) and without fire, pray to their god that the meat would burn up. That was the deal. If the meat burns without a fire, then their god was real. So, the contest began in earnest.

Ahab’s religious leaders began to pray. They prayed for hours but their god didn’t answer. They cried aloud and cut themselves with knives and lances until blood came out. But he didn’t answer. At one point, Elijah poked fun at them and their god for his non-responsiveness. Perhaps he is asleep or meditating, or travelling, or busy, Elijah taunted them.

When it was his turn, Elijah took the bull he had slaughtered, built a stone Braai stand, dug a trench around it, poured water and seeds on it, three times. He made sure that it would be mission impossible for any kind of fire to light the wood. He then simply prayed and his God answered with fire. The fire burnt everything that was on the stand. Everything!

Everyone was in awe. It was spectacular. It was amazing. They fell on their feet and worshipped the true God.

Ahab, then, ran home and told his wife. His wife was livid. She sent a messenger to Elijah with these words. “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.” (1 Kings 19:2 NLT)

Elijah took off. God found him in a man cave and asked him, Elijah what are you doing here? His response, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty… I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:10, 14 NLT) 

Elijah went where every human being goes when bad things happen. He recited how zealous he had been for God. He was the only one left that had done the right things. 

This is so true especially for religious people of all faiths. We do good things in the hope that when it really matters, these good things would count for something. We subconsciously believe that if we do good things, then good things will happen to us. We even believe that bad things happen to other people because they might have done something wrong. So, we don’t understand when bad things happen to us when all along we have been doing good things. And especially the stakes are higher if we did those things FOR GOD.  This is what is called works righteousness. Works righteousness is simply the idea of depending on your good works. Your good works, then, define who you are, what you do and what happens to you. And this is the default mode of every human heart.

But Schulter, I am not the religious type. Nah, not me. Even if you are the irreligious type – you don’t care about religion – deep down in your psyche, you cannot escape the nagging feeling of the need to question why bad things have happened to you yet you are a decent human being. Unlike religious people who have a reference point – God, you also have a reference point – I.

I work hard

I pay my taxes

I am a good neighbour

I exercise and eat well

I love my spouse and kids

I help the poor

I am kind

I am honest

I am a good person

I am a decent human being

Elijah’s story is our story.

How do we answer this ancient question, why do bad things happen to good people?

We answer this question by simply stating the obvious, bad things happen to good people. Yes, bad things happen to all of us. This should not surprise us at all. If nothing bad has happened to you yet, continue living. We live in a fallen world, with fallen people. Fallen people who have the right to choose whether to do good or bad. And for the most part, they choose to do bad things to other human beings. Elijah had no control over Jezebel’s response. She chose to repay good with evil. Same with all of us.

Secondly, for the Christian, he or she looks to Jesus. Jesus was a good man. He was the ultimate good man. He was perfection. Three writers of the New Testament make these claims; he had no sin, he did no sin and he was without sin. Yet, this good man suffered at the hands of wicked evil men.

Thirdly, the gospel points us to Jesus and his work for us. If Elijah was living in our day, under the New Covenant, his response (hopefully) should have been this:

I stand on nothing else but Jesus’ blood and his righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name – Edward Mote ((1797-1874)

But what about me? What about all the good that I have done? This doesn’t make sense at all. I agree.

However, if you solely focus on the good you have done to get good to happen to you, you will always be in a tailspin. You will, eventually, become angry, bitter, and disillusioned, just like Elijah.

If you solely focus on the good you have done to get good to happen to you, you will always be in a tailspin. You will, eventually, become angry, bitter and disillusioned, just like Elijah.

This is what Jesus offers us. “Look to me and what I have one for you.” This is grace. This is the gospel. The gospel points you to Jesus and his work for you.

Therefore, we do good things for God and for humanity because Jesus has done good things for God on our behalf. We don’t look to the good we have done as our reference point but we look to Jesus and his work for us. And this should encourage us to do good even when bad things happen to us because as Isaiah says,

They will not work in vain, and their children will not be doomed to misfortune. For they are people blessed by the Lord, and their children, too, will be blessed. 

Isaiah 65:23 NLT

We don’t depend on these good works for our validation but we also know that good works eventually pay off – in spite of the bad things that happen to us.

That’s what grace looks like