“Greater good” theology. We often talk about the “greater good” in ethics. We defend God’s use and allowance of evil, understanding that so long as there is a “greater good” which can be expected, evil is justified. Joseph tells his brothers after they sold him into slavery out of jealousy, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Though I am not too comfortable once we, as fallen, ill-informed humans, began to incorporate a “greater-good” theology into our lives, practically speaking it seems anything can be justified when the door is open for us to find a “greater good” that might come from any particular unrighteous action. Of course, it is not always cut-and-dry. Often, when people seek my advice on these matters, I want to hide. Some things are just too hard to give advice on. Take marital issues, for example:
1. A wife comes to you and says that her marriage is falling apart. She and her husband have tried and tried, but their marriage is, according to her, beyond hope. They fight continually in front of the kids. They bring out the worst in each other. The marriage has changed both of them into bitter, unhappy people. Their kids are suffering greatly due to their unhappiness and seeing a terrible example of marriage.
It is a sin to get a divorce. However, the attitudes that they continually bring out in each other are terribly sinful as well. Not to mention that they are hurting the kids. Which is the greater evil? Which is the greater good?
2. A wife comes to you and says that her husband is crazy. Although he has never cheated on her, he is completely controlling. He tells her she has to stay at home all day and be a “good housewife.” He does not allow her to have any friends. She cannot decorate her home. He has a private eye watching her to make sure she is obedient when he is not around. He has a gun and has threatened her with it before. The kids are exposed to all of this.
It is a sin to get a divorce. But she wonders what kind of effect her husband’s life and attitude is having on the kids. She does not want them to grow up to be like him. Which is the greater evil? Staying with him, or leaving? Which is the greater good? Staying with him and enduring, or leaving and protecting herself and her children?
This is real-life stuff. Both of these examples are true (slightly modified). Both women approached me for advice. Obviously, the second one is much more difficult than the first.
Is it legitimate to seek a greater good? Is it biblical? If so, how do we draw the line? Can’t we always justify things by finding some “greater good”?
Some people believe that God, through example, implicity demonstrates a greater good approach many times in Scripture. For example, Samuel was supposed to anoint David as king. But if he did, Saul would kill him. He asks for the Lord’s advice and the Lord tells him to say he is going to go sacrifice (i.e., leave out the part about anointing a new king). Here is the account:
1 Samuel 16:1-2
The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” 2 But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” The LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’
Was it a greater good to lie so that a new king could be crowned? Would the greater evil have been to tell the truth?
Then there is God’s implicit approval of the Hebrew midwives who lied about giving birth to Hebrew sons (Ex. 1:17). It even says that they lied because “they feared God”! Rahab is also honored for lying about the presence of Israelites in her apartment (Josh. 2:4). Rahab even made it into the great “hall of faith” for her lie (Heb. 11:31).
Are these examples where “greater-good” morality is not only approved but prescribed? If so, doesn’t this open Pandora’s box? How can such morality be regulated? Who determines what the greater good actually is? Sure, there are easier and “harmless” examples, like speeding to the hospital when someone is injured. But most are not so easy.
BTW: On the second example of the two women, I advised the woman to do everything she could to “remain faithful to the Lord,” trusting him for the outcome. She did. Then she killed herself about a year later.