Skip to main content

EBS48: The Margin of Goodness

Eric Butterworth Speaks: Essays on Abundant Living #48

Delivered by Eric Butterworth on August 16, 1975

Download the PDF for The Margin of Goodness

Return to Eric Butterworth Speaks

It is unfortunate, but quite true, that one of the most beautiful of all words has fallen into disrepute. I refer to the word “good”. All too often the word is associated with “goody-goody”, because most people have a very stuffy and old-fashioned idea of what goodness is. Many of us have accepted the Pilgrim’s concept of a goodness based on repression and restraint. The idea was that if you went to church three or four times on Sunday, and if you didn’t dance, and if you were never frivolous or carefree (and, according to some customs if you didn’t kiss your wife on the porch on Sundays), then you were good. Little wonder why the little girl prayed, “Lord, please make all bad people good and all good people interesting.”

As James Hilton once wrote, “It is a pity that good has acquired a taint so that nowadays it hints of smugness, whereas bad almost always suggests something romantic, dashing and bold.” I think a vital part of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is that which concerns the older brother. Could it have been that the prodigal left home because he couldn’t stand the stuffy goodness of the older brother? Jesus tried to show, in some ways, that the self-righteous goodness of the older was worse than the downright wickedness of the prodigal. If our goodness does not make us happy, expansive and interesting, if it does not make us creative and contributory to a better world, then in the largest meaning of the word it is not goodness at all. There is nothing worse than a stale, oppressive, and negative morality.

The old idea of goodness was that which resisted badness, evil, and the devil. I love the story of the woman on a shopping spree. Her young husband, whose business was struggling, warned, “Now please don’t buy anything today. If you see anything that you feel you want, just tell the devil, ‘Get thee behind me’.” So, she went off to “window shop”. When her husband returned from work, she reported buying a wonderful new dress. He was most upset and asked, “What made you do it?” She replied, “I just couldn’t help myself, dear, the devil tempted me.” He reminded her, “But I told you to say, ‘Get thee behind me Satan’.” “I did,” she said, “and he whispered over my shoulder, ‘My dear, it fits you beautifully in the back, too’.”

The great error of moralistic religion is that it points up the person who is “not bad” as the example. But goodness does not consist cheifly in not being bad. The Book of Revelations points this up graphically: “I know thy works, that thou are neither cold not hot. I would thou were cold or hot. So, because thou are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” As Henry David Thor-eau said, “Be not merely good. Be good for something.” Goodness is not a passive quality, but a vitally active and creative expression. The “be good or else” of the Puritans must change to the “be good for something, be good at something, be good in expressing something.”

In Jesus’ time there were many religionists who were meticulous in their observation of religious forms. We read of Jesus’ reaction: “But I tell you unless your goodness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” We also know of Jesus testing the rich young ruler who came wanting to be a disciple. After speaking of the Ten Commandments, Jesus said, “Do one thing more. Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. And then come and follow me.” Of course, if the man had been able to give up all things, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to ask him to do so. The fact that he couldn’t give them up proved that he didn’t have great possessions... great possessions had him. This was the added step. Being a disciple was more than just living up to the Ten Commandments and the prevailing spiritual code. The man had to actually live iai the consciousness of the progressive unfoldment of his God-self. To be good is not enough. There must be a margin of goodness in our consciousness.

What do we mean when we talk of the word “good”? Well, a good craftsman is not simply one who doesn’t make mistakes, but rather one whose work is sheer poetry in expression. A good musician is not simply one who is mechanically in tune and in rhythm, but one whose music is beautiful and heartwarming. He is an artist. So too, the good person is not just the person who does no wrong, who goes to church and keeps the Ten Commandments, who lives a morally clean and correct life and who never hurts anyone. The good person is one who fulfills his inner spiritual nature .

Thus we come to the idea of the “margin” of goodness. In his engaging essay, “Mushroom on the Moor”, F.W. Boerum once confessed his love of margins. He thinks he must have derived it from nature, who goes in for them on a truly stupendous scale. Nature wants one bird, so a dozen are hatched. She knows perfectly well that eleven of the twelve are mere margin. She wants a tree so she plants a hundred. She knows that ninety and nine are margin to be browsed down by cattle, but she means to make sure of that one. When an engineer plans a building, he doesn’t provide merely for predictable stresses; he multiplies his estimates of probable stress by three or five and sometimes twenty times to create what he calls the margin of safety.

There are similar margins in the human body. The margin of safety of normal blood sugar and calcium levels is nearly 100%. There are large safety margins in the circulatory and respiratory systems. Of course the heart is prepared at any moment to contract twice as rapidly to account for arterial pressure that may suddenly increase. So then, if a man has been given the necessary knowledge and intelligence to provide for greater resiliency and strength in bridges and buildings, and if the human body has been created with such marvelous reserve powers, doesn’t it seem logical for us to build a reserve in consciousness?

Jesus, you remember, made forgiveness one of the great prerequisites to attaining the health and healing we desire. The disciples asked, “How oft shall we forgive one who offends us? Til seven times?” Jesus said, “I say unto you, til seventy times seven.” Here is a margin of goodness.

Faith is the foundation of the spiritual life. Do you have faith that God will help you, or do you also have faith that you have already received help? Remember, “Pray, believing ye have received, and you will receive.” Here again is the margin of goodness.

We are told, “Give and ye shall receive.” And, “The Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” You give, but how much and how cheerfully? Allow for a margin of goodness.

If life were predictable, and people with whom we associate and work predictable, then the goodness of the Pharisees might be enough. But in the crises of human experience, it is the margin that counts. It is not just praying, but praying without ceasing that is important. It is important to pray not only when you have needs, but even when you have no problems.

Sometimes we refer to marginal Christians, marginal Jews, or marginal devotees of any religion. These are the people who give perfunctory acceptance to its ideas and a mechanical practice of its tenets. But it is the extra amount that counts— doing beyond what is necessary and involving yourself in the real, sincere practice of the principles rather than outward expressions of piety. Jesus said, “If any man ask thee to go with him one mile, go with him two.”

Go the added mile. Concentrate a little more on love and non-resistance. Do for the other person more than he has done for you. Continue in this consciousness and you will build the margin of goodness in consciousness that will carry you through the challenges and experiences of everyday life.

© 1975, by Eric Butterworth

Return to Eric Butterworth Speaks