All religions and indeed non-religious ways of living involve the idea that it is important to do good for others. This is best exemplified in the ‘Golden Rule’, expressed by Jesus as: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets [Matthew 7:12 ESV]. This Golden Rule is also to be found for example, in Buddhism – Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful [Udana-Varga 5:18] and in Hinduism – This is the sum of duty; do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you [Mahabharata 5:1517]. And Emanuel Swedenborg commences one of his books [Doctrine of Life] with the words: All Religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good.
So, true ways of living involve doing good for others. But can we really do good?
Matthew, Mark and Luke all include an account of a rich man coming to Jesus and asking him a question as here in Mark’s gospel:
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
[Mark 10:17-18 ESV]
In these few words Jesus makes it abundantly clear that God alone is Good. But we might also ask the question “What is Jesus saying about himself”? Is it perhaps that he wants the rich man to make the connection that Jesus is Good because Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us”. In John’s gospel we find these words of Jesus: For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself [John 5:26]. We could easily replace the word life with good to emphasise that God in Jesus alone is good.
But where does that leave us?
Emanuel Swedenborg brings clarity to this situation in his opening words of Divine Love and Wisdom paragraph 4: God alone – the Lord – is love itself, because he is life itself. Both we on earth and angels are life-receivers.
Fundamentally we are receivers of love, life and goodness from God. We have no love, life or goodness in ourselves and yet it appears that we can use what we receive as if it were ours alone. And in particular we can try to do good for others from our own resources, motives and desires.
One of the dangers, of course, is that our motives and desires will be selfish and we will try to use our resources to do good for others in a way which seeks to benefit us and make us look good. Such a self-serving approach to doing good may have the external effect and benefit intended for others but internally it is anything but good and certainly does not have God’s goodness at its heart. When we put ourselves first in any situation and concentrate on our needs above the needs of others we are in a sense standing alone. Our world view is then dominated by I, me, mine and we appear alone and totally separated from others and indeed from God. It is in this context that Alone, we cannot do good.
But what of all the good done for other people every day through simple acts of kindness, love and caring, not from some selfish motive but from a feeling that it is the right thing to do? Surely the answer is that, no matter what race, colour or religion we are, when we have someone else’s needs in view the good we do for them is from God whether we acknowledge it or not. What really makes the difference is that we have rejected the error of a life dominated by I, me, mine and moved to one in which you and yours have become more important. We have stopped being alone.
We may still imagine that we are the ones doing good but what we do now has God’s goodness at its heart.
But can we go a stage further in not acting alone?
God gives us life and the sense and awareness that we live from ourselves whereas the reality is that we live only from God. But if we maintain and strengthen the appearance that we live from ourselves by the I, me, mine approach to life then we remain apart, separated and alone from God.
This is clearly not what God wants. In John’s gospel Jesus says the following:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
God leaves us free to do what we want with the life he gives us and to feel that it is our own. But he wishes that we would link or abide with him in the same way that he can link or abide with us. He wants us to be linked or connected together, to form a union with him, and not remain separated, apart and alone.
And what is the fundamental thing we need to do to make the link and start the process of union?
It is to do good for others as if the love, life and goodness we have is ours but believing, knowing and acknowledging that they are really only from God.