Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?
We often wonder why bad things happen to good people. While that is an interesting question worthy of its own study, here is another question that is equally gripping.
Why is it the case that good people do bad things?
Of course all of us sin, and we daily need the grace of God (1 Jn. 2:1). Occasionally, though, we are stunned, sometimes traumatized, when people we have known for many years and for whom we have entertained the highest regard, do outrageous things that seem so terribly out of character for them.
What has happened? We thumb through the pages of our minds trying to make sense of seemingly senseless deeds. Is there any answer? Let us briefly, and with reverence, explore this issue.
The Mystery of the Human Mind
In the first place, we must concede that only God knows the inner recesses of a person’s mind.
“Jehovah sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but Jehovah looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7; cf. Lk. 16:15).
Experts may study a person’s past, pursue physiological and psychological tests, and engage in prolonged interviews with the evil person. And yet, the causes of what appear to be random acts of wickedness may never be completely known.
Paul contended that no person can really “know the things” of another (1 Cor. 2:11).
And sometimes it is the case that even the bad person doesn’t know why he did what he did — though perhaps that “non-explanation” is frequently a rationalization for not wanting to reveal the actual reason.
But in this article, we would like to suggest some possible explanations for why good people do bad things.
Altered Mental States
At the very start of this discussion we must concede that it is possible for a good person to slip into a state of irrationality (i.e., become incapable of reasoning, hence, be mentally irresponsible). Thus, he does things he would never do under normal circumstances.
The causes triggering such aberrant behavior may be varied and in some cases entirely unknown. If someone becomes mentally incompetent, they are not morally culpable for their behavior. While an act itself technically may be bad, the perpetrator is not responsible because he does not understand the nature of his act.
A very fine Christian man, an industrial painter by trade, committed suicide in a most horrible fashion. When many of his friends heard the tragic news, they were dumbfounded. How could a gentle, caring person possibly do such a thing?
An autopsy later revealed that over many years, noxious chemicals within the paint seriously damaged his brain. His faculties for making spiritual decisions had been nullified.
I knew a deeply spiritual man who was as close to the Lord as anyone within my acquaintance. As he grew older he became consumed with cancer, his brain being seriously damaged. He gradually turned into a stranger using the vilest profanity and occasionally made lewd suggestions to ladies in his presence.
The body was that of a good man. His words were not issuing from his godly soul but were the effects of disease!
Varying circumstances may alter a person’s clarity of mind. They could be genetic, environmental, disease. Consequently, illness could lie behind his inexplicable conduct.
These would be deeds for which one is not accountable. Unfortunately, this rationale is probably used to justify the person in more cases than is warranted. But God knows the truth and will do right by all (Gen. 18:25).
A Facade of Goodness
Some good people who do bad things actually are not good people at all. They feigned goodness out of various motives, but inwardly they have been corrupt for a long time.
Though Judas Iscariot obviously had some good traits initially. Otherwise, he would not have been chosen as an apostle (see Acts 1:17). But there were hints of his spiritual depravity before his actual betrayal of the Lord (cf. John 12:4-6).
Dennis Rader became known as the BTK serial murderer. BTK was his self-adopted title for “bind, torture, and kill.” For some 30 years, Rader appeared to be a model citizen. He was a Cub Scout leader, active in his church, and had the respect of his associates. All that time, he was periodically committing the most atrocious brutalities in the annals of American criminality.
His arrest February 26, 2005 left numerous friends and associates in a state of absolute shock. He was a “good” man who wasn’t so good!
It is not unusual for some prominent religious leader to be exposed as a deviant. Those of his religious fellowship are terribly traumatized by his exposure, only to learn that his perversion spanned several decades. The term “hypocrite” seems almost too tame for such creatures.
Here is an important point.
Sometimes we mislabel people as being good who are actually very evil. When a person behaves wickedly, they are wicked in spite of appearances of being good.
A wicked person can mask himself in the disguise of goodness with little, if any, pangs of conscience. One more deception is scarcely a bother.
People Have the Power to Choose Good and Evil
Some good people do bad things simply because they can!
One of the marvelous gifts of God is the power of choice. It is one of those aspects that is a part of the blessing of being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).
In contrast to his creation, the Lord is without limitation in all his attributes. This includes being infinitely good (Psa. 33:5; Rom. 2:4). He never chooses the option of evil, nor does he ever even wish to (Jas. 1:13).
But as created beings, we are finite. Both our wisdom and will are less than perfect. Hence, we make choices between good and evil, and all too frequently, we make stupid and wicked choices to our own hurt.
But here’s the good news. With sufficient motivation, an evil person can choose to change his life and seek God’s pardon (Acts 2:38; 22:16).
Clyde Thompson was known as “the meanest man in Texas.” He murdered two boys when he was only 17, and became a terror of the Texas prison system. He killed two prisoners while on death row.
But a kindly guard gave him a Bible, and by reading and ingesting the Holy Scriptures, his life was radically changed. Eventually he was paroled, and became one of the most vigorous prison-evangelists of the century, leading many souls to Christ (see: The Meanest Man In Texas by Don Umphrey).
On the other hand, for reasons perhaps known only by oneself and God, a good person can choose to turn from goodness and do evil with unrestrained reckless abandon (Ezek. 18:24).
“But why?” we ask.
Why did Peter, a very good man, deny he knew Jesus? Was it overconfidence? Fear? Both? We may speculate, but the simple fact is — he did it, and it was wrong.
There are many reasons people do things that are out of character for them.
Sometimes a long-held subdued grudge may flare into a roaring flame under certain circumstances.
A neglected or abused spouse might reach a level of frustration that gives motive to an immoral or criminal act.
During a time of depression, an aging husband or wife might have a sexual “fling” in an attempt to recapture some missing youthful passion in their life.
Sometimes people are desperate, and no other person knows it but them. Desperation can trigger rash and ungodly acts.
The truth is, we may never discover why certain good people do bad things.
One thing we do know is this. Our ability to choose is a gift that may be employed righteously, or devilishly. We must constantly cultivate a passionate desire to make wise choices to the glory of God.
Saul, the first king of Israel, started his reign admirably. Blessed by God, he valiantly defeated some of the pagan enemies that troubled the nation of Israel (1 Sam. 11).
But the ruler had some significant personal weaknesses. In his arrogance, he set aside divine instruction and determined he would exercise his own judgment (cf. 1 Sam. 13:8ff; 15:1ff).
When the courageous young David began to attract attention after his defeat of Goliath, a spirit of jealousy seized the king and led him down a path of spiritual abandon (cf. 1 Sam. 16:14). He hardly was recognizable as the former “Saul.”
We all have personal weaknesses we struggle against. The person who says he does not has perhaps revealed his greatest weakness of all.
Even the indomitable Paul struggled to bring certain fleshly temptations into subjection (1 Cor. 9:26-27; cf. Rom. 7:14ff). If this amazing apostle labored under tremendous internal pressures (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7ff), should we be surprised at our own inclinations?
It sometimes is the case that a person will struggle with a personal weakness for years — holding his own, yet yielding on occasion. He makes progress and does well over all. Then, for some reason not be apparent to others, he totally surrenders to those unspeakable acts that baffle family and friends. These people “break” spiritually, forfeiting all implements of moral or religious virtue (Eph. 6:10ff).
Are rational people accountable for these acts of rebellion? Yes, indeed. They will appear before the Lord in judgment (2 Cor. 5:10).
The lesson we should learn is this. Our personal weaknesses must be identified and defeated through study, prayer, and association with godly people who can provide us with moral support, even if they are unaware of the specific nature of our needs.
Some people are more fragile than others. A tragedy in their lives, for example, virtually dissembles them.
A lady lost a wonderful Christian friend to cancer. With tears streaming down her face, she told me: “I just don’t know how I can believe in God any longer.”
Did she expect her friend to live forever? Doesn’t death come to all? We must be strong when disaster strikes.
One thing is certain. Heartaches won’t cease for the person who chooses to stop being good in the face of personal tragedy.
The Eroding Conscience
The human conscience is an inward faculty unique to those made in God’s image. This gift either accuses or excuses a person’s thoughts, words, and actions (Rom. 2:15).
The conscience does not determine what is right or wrong (Prov. 14:12; Acts 23:1). Rather it merely judges one, based upon the standard of conduct the person has adopted.
It is clear, therefore, that the conscience must be educated by divine revelation (the Scriptures), and constantly cultivated to remain sensitive to truth (Eph. 4:19; 1 Tim. 4:2; Heb. 5:14).
The Bible speaks frequently about the “hardening of the heart.” The conscience is such a sensitive instrument that it becomes a sin to violate it even in matters of expediency (Rom. 14:23).
Here’s the point I’m driving at. There are some people who let their consciences gradually erode. Eventually, they slip over the edge and do terrible things that others never dreamed them capable.
Richard Kuklinski was a hit man for the mafia. This professional murderer was known as “the iceman” because he sometimes froze corpses to disguise the time of death. Ironically, he also was emotionally frigid as well, having killed approximately 125 victims before he was arrested in 1986.
In a television documentary, Kuklinski attributed much of his apathy to his father’s violence—a mean-spirited, brute who beat his son regularly apparently for no reason at all.
Growing up as the victim of abuse, young Richard eventually pursued the path of viciousness himself, killing his first victim at age 18. To peer into his eyes (via several television documentaries) was to look through clouded windows into an empty space with no remnant of conscience. He claimed to have no remorse over the slaughter of his victims.
How very important it is to “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23).
Evil Friends Will Destroy You
When Paul wrote to a church in a very corrupt city, he cautioned: “Evil companionships corrupt good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33).
Actually this is a quotation from Menander, a Greek playwright, who, in that context, spoke of the danger of consorting with prostitutes.
Another proverbial expression says, “lie down with dogs; get up with fleas.” This is not in the Bible, but it surely makes a point.
In his parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told of a foolish youth who took his inheritance, gathered his possessions, and “took his journey into a far country. There, he wasted his substance with riotous living” (Lk. 15:13). It does not take much imagination to picture the many newfound companions who flocked to the lad. In short time, he abandoned his spiritual roots. His new friends joyfully helped him waste his inheritance.
There are numerous warnings in Holy Scripture of the danger of close association with the ungodly.
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20; cf. 1 Cor. 5:6, 9ff; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 2 Pet. 2:2, 18-20).
Some folks are basically good people, but they have been caught up in relationships with ungodly companions. These “friends” have led them like lambs to the slaughter away from the source of their spiritual strength.
When you surround yourself with evil people, it becomes infinitely easier to do unbelievably terrible things.
I knew of a young man who was sentenced to death. A murder was committed one night. Though he denies any personal involvement, he admits he was with them. His life was destroy by the people he was with.
I have known of Christian parents who were stunned to learn abruptly of their children’s wicked lifestyles, themselves seemingly oblivious to the fact that for years they, with considerable pride, had thrust their youths into a corrupt environment under the guise of wanting them to cultivate social skills.
A Destroyed Foundation
The composer of Psalm 11 once asked: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v. 3).
There is a principle here that warrants investigation. A structure is no stronger than the foundation upon which it rests (cf. Matt. 7:21-27). People who have but a veneer for a spiritual base are very vulnerable to temptation and apostasy.
Good conduct ultimately is tied to God. The atheistic philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, was quite correct when he wrote, “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist.”
While there are many skeptics who are moral, relatively speaking, they are so because they have borrowed or stolen their ethics from elsewhere, and not because such is intrinsic to their blighted system.
The best people are those who nourish their souls constantly with the strength that is resident in the Bible.
“Your word have I laid up in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psa. 119:11).
When the Son of God was severely tempted after the forty-day ordeal in the wilderness, his source of power was “it is written” (Matt. 4:4-10).
It is a grim and tragic reality that many people who are basically good people, but who do not keep their souls strong, can eventually drift into a state of weakness (Heb. 2:1).
We should profit from reflecting upon Paul’s discussion of those who are “strong,” versus those who are “weak,” in Romans, chapters 14 and 15. The difference between the two classes is divine knowledge—assimilated and applied.
It is an indisputable fact that the pages of church history are littered with cases involving good people who lacked or neglected the discipline of study and perseverance. They permitted the assaults of unbelief to chip away at their moral sensitivity. Progressively they became weaker.
Finally, with nothing to fall back on, they give in to pride, anger, frustration, immorality, or even criminal conduct. Once the foundation of godliness has rotted, the person becomes easy prey for Heaven’s archenemy.
The “Security” Illusion
It is most likely that there are some “good people” who labor under the illusion that just because they have lived faithfully for many years, a breech of faith, even a dramatic one, will not jeopardize their salvation.
Apparently they entertain the notion that longevity in Christ grants immunity from the consequences of evil.
Some doubtless have absorbed that noxious dogma of Calvinism — that the child of God can never be lost. No matter what he does, his heavenly destiny is secure, they allege.
However, a prophet of God declared:
But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die (Ezek. 18:24).
These are sobering words indeed. The fate of the rebel is too transparent to misunderstand.
There are two benefits of this study.
First, it can serve as a preventive for those of us who want to enter heaven more than anything else. We are concerned about how to maintain our spiritual integrity. We want to know how to avoid some of the pitfalls that lie in that perilous route.
Second, a consideration of these truths may assist us in understanding and coping with the defection of loved ones and friends who have so disappointed and discouraged us.
Life is filled with struggle and heartache. But giving in to evil never accomplishes anything. It only complicates.