Saturday, April 28, 2007

Good Will and Good Sense

by Troy Chapman

Jesus told a story, a little story, called the wise and foolish builders, that I’ve always liked. You probably know it. Two guys build houses, one of them on rock, the other on sand. The rains come along and hammer the two houses, and the guy on the sand gets washed away. He’s the foolish builder. The guy with his house on the rock is safe and sound. He’s the wise builder.

There isn’t much detail in the story as it’s recorded in the gospels, but presumably both houses were well-constructed. The problem wasn’t the integrity of either house but the integrity of one of the foundations. If the house represents our knowledge of the world — what we believe and how we think — the foundation represents our underlying spiritual attitude. Jesus identified a right underlying spiritual attitude as love, which for the sake of clarity I call unconditional good will.

So the story is telling us we can get all our ideas right and subscribe to the “right” philosophy or theology, but if we don’t have good will it will fall in the end. Thinking right isn’t enough to make a person wise.

But the other side is also true. What if both men in Jesus’ story had built junky houses? A rickety house won’t stand no matter how good the foundation so there are two aspects to wisdom — right and realistic thinking about ourselves, others and the world (the house), and a right spiritual attitude (the foundation).

The world is full of smart and clever people who don’t have good will. It’s also full of people who have an abundance of good will and a shortage of good sense. If I had to choose I’d say good will is the most important. But it’s a lousy choice.

Wisdom is about getting these two — good will and good sense — in balance. It’s about having realistic ideas about the world and at the same time maintaining unconditional good will.

That’s not always an easy balance to maintain. Good will is easier to pull off when we see the world through rose-colored glasses and avoid the harsh truth that people are often pretty rotten. By the same token, when we say squarely the true nature of reality, it’s a whole lot easier if we abandon our good will. But it’s a balance we can maintain if we remember that our good will ought to be unconditional, and our good sense unshakeable.

There’s never a good reason to withdraw our good will — even from the most malicious people. But neither is there ever a good reason to ignore malice in a person, or pretend they are something other than what they are.

Wolves are wolves and dogs are dogs and we ought to always remember that. We shouldn’t bring wolves into the house to play with the kids but neither should we hate them. They are what they are. In the same way, people — thought they are constantly changing for both better and worse — are what they are in the moment. We shouldn’t trust a thief with our valuables but neither should we have ill will toward him. It won’t change him for the better and it will change us for the worse.

If we manage to maintain this balance between good will and good sense, we’ll have both a solid house and a solid foundation, and will be in some measure the wise builders Jesus was calling us to be.

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