Ever wonder what old women think about? I can’t speak for others, but I think a lot about God, about the evidence of God all around me, about beauty, about finding the sacred in everything I see. And I think about dying, about losing my energy and my strength and my eyesight, and – yes, I’ll admit it – I think about old men.
Right now, I’m thinking about men I’ve known who have died, and the phrase we use at funerals, “He was a good man.” We all have our own images of what makes a good man. For some, a good man is one who takes care of his family, his employees or clients or patients or students, anyone for whom he feels responsible. For others, a good man is one who is admired for his achievements. For others, a good man is one who seems to embody all the virtues, or who follows the teachings of the church perfectly, or who gives generously to help others. These are all good qualities, but I’m not sure they really define goodness. For one thing, they can suggest a sort of perfection impossible for human beings. And focusing on perfection can be destructive.
When Paul writes to Titus, he seems to set a standard of goodness too high for most humans: he describes a church leader as someone who is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled . . . . (Titus 1 1:6-9) This seems more like a goal to aspire to than a description of actual people. The men I’m thinking of right now had many or even most of these qualities, but they also experienced frustration, failure, and loss. They were all disappointed in their lives in some way, and not one of them would have considered himself a good man. But to me, they were all good men.
When we expect and demand of ourselves that we perfectly embody all of our goals, some of our images of goodness can get pretty distorted. I’ve known a lot of men who feel that it is their primary duty to provide for and protect their families; for such a man, the definition of self can require success in this. If – or when – such a man finds himself faced with a problem he can’t solve, his image of himself can be destroyed. When he loses his job, or his wife, he can be devastated. When such a man no longer has anyone to take care of, his life can become meaningless.
Some men consider themselves failures if they can’t point to some great achievement in their lives. Others see themselves as hopelessly bad if they don’t embody every virtue named in the bible. Yet others feel inadequate or guilty because they can’t do everything they would like to do for others.
(All of this, of course, applies equally to women. I just happened to be thinking about good men today.)
All of the good men I know are imperfect. All of the men I know are imperfect, and all of the women, too. All humans are imperfect, except for one who died on the cross. So why can’t we remember that the standards of goodness we reach for are beyond our reach? Why do we condemn ourselves when we can’t reach those standards? Why do we punish what God understands and forgives?
A good man will not always be able to provide completely for everyone he cares for. Life has a way of presenting us with problems we can’t solve. A good man is one who tries, and loves, and accepts his own limits, and trusts in God.
A good man does not necessarily achieve things the world would point to as great accomplishments. A good man is one who listens for God’s call, does his work with God’s call in his heart, and finds meaning and joy in the work he does, whatever it is.
A good man is not necessarily one who makes great gifts of money or even of time to help others. A good man is one who gives what he can with love, whose greatest gift to others is the gift of himself.
A good man is not even one who rigorously practices all the teachings of the church or one who strives to embody all the virtues. A good man is one who keeps his eyes on God, letting God lead the way. A good man is one who sees himself as a vessel for God’s transforming love, bearing fruit in the Spirit. A good man is one who knows that virtue (literally, in its Latin root, manliness) is not a goal to strive for but a result of living in the Spirit.
These friends who have died were all good men. They all loved God and loved their neighbors. They were not perfect, and some of them set unreasonable goals of perfection for themselves. One was so torn by what he saw as his own inadequacy that he lost his battle with the depression he had fought all his life. And yet I have no doubt that God has welcomed them all, welcomed them as the good men they were, because God loves them.