Of all the idols in the world perhaps that most insidious and subtle is the idol of good character. In making this assertion I don’t mean to deny the importance of being genuinely good, neither do I want to undermine focused efforts to grow and develop as a person. I do, however, want to draw attention to the fact that religious people are prone to a unique temptation, wherein being good can become more important than worshiping God. Of course, one cannot be good in the profoundest sense unless one worships God, and neither can one genuinely worship God and be apathetic towards virtue and good character. The hitch in this interdependent relationship is that idolatry in its worst form is not when something obviously inferior or evil seeks to usurp the place of God in our lives, but rather when something good is given ultimate status.
Character matters, but intimacy with God matters more. It is better to know God as sovereign and gracious amidst one’s brokenness than to have a strong ethical character that might tempt one to neglect God all together. In this instance the person of good character will have exalted his character to the point that he cannot see God at the root of his good character. Moreover, such a person will not be able to readily discern his own defects of character, as being distant from God would impair his ability to see how good Goodness actually is.
At the root of genuinely good character is humility, which quite simply is the ability of the soul to see clearly. Knowing this is critical, because in apparent contradiction to what I said above, the ability to worship God is intimately wedded to the goodness of one’s character, but such a character, without humility is like the whitewash on the tomb of dead men’s bones. A person who has been endowed by God with a strong will, the ability to discipline oneself, and deny oneself for the sake of a higher cause, and yet who does not acknowledge God at the root of his strong character is blind. Instead, such a one is likely to view himself as the product of his own doing, and will assert himself as a standard against which he will inevitably judge others. The irony of this is that such a good person could never be good in the fullest sense of the word, for good is defined by the qualities we see in God, and God is compassionate, and redeeming. Such a person could never function as an agent of redemption, for redemption requires healing at the roots, and such a person is cut off from the root.
So, perhaps the crux of the matter is that a proud person with good character is at risk of having his good character undermined by his pride. His pride, being essentially a distorted vision of himself, others, and God, functions to bar himself from reality. Such a person is living on borrowed time, because he relates to his good character as something which at root is his own, and in his failure to acknowledge God he will cut himself off from the source of his own goodness, and be left with the only thing that is his own: pride. In saying this, I am reminded of Lewis’s words, “of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”