When Doing Good is Bad for You

Ever since our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit, we humans have had an innate sense of good and evil.

You help a blind person cross the street and you just know you’re doing something good.

You use a cat for a football and you just know you’re doing something bad.

You don’t need anybody to tell you.

Being able to separate the good from the bad is a handy skill when buying apples or recruiting a babysitter. It’s also the basis of every man-made religion under the sun. But your knowledge of good and evil does nothing to promote a life of dependency on Jesus.

Consider the religious person who reads the Bible to learn what pleases God. They are essentially asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt 19:16).

Their line of thinking runs like this: If I do good and avoid evil I will be judged to be a good person. From a religious perspective, this makes perfect sense. It also explains why so many go to church asking, What must I do?

But there’s a problem.

In the Bible you will find some good things that are bad for you. Other things are good for one person but not for another. And then there are things that used to be good but aren’t good any more.

It’s almost as if the Bible was purposely designed to frustrate the religious quest for being good!

It’s almost as if the Author is trying to say, “Why do you ask me what is good? That’s the wrong question.”

The law is good…

The best example of something that is good yet bad for you is the law. Paul said the law is “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7:12). He also said, “the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim 1:8).

When a religious person discovers the law his initial response is delight. Finally, some good instructions to live by!

But when he tries to keep the law he finds himself breaking it despite his best intentions. He tries harder and fails again. Then the law – which is good – begins to condemn him (2 Cor 3:7). Worse, sin which he did not know he had, rises up and begins to kill him (Rom 7:10).

The law is good but those who rely on it place themselves under a curse (Gal 3:10). How can something that is good be bad for us? Is the law defective? No – it’s good! The problem is not with the law but your flesh. Your flesh cannot cope with the law (Rom 8:3).

It’s not just the law. Anything that is good will become bad for you once your flesh gets involved:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die… (Rom 8:13)

…but your flesh is weak

What does it mean to live according to the flesh? And why is this bad?

Every day the Christian chooses between walking after the flesh or walking after the spirit. It’s a mutually exclusive choice.

We walk after the flesh when we rely on our own resources – our resolve, our abilities, our understanding. We walk after the spirit when we rely on his. It’s the difference between walking by sight or by faith.

The problem is, walking after the flesh comes naturally to us. We’ve had a lot of practice.

You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. (Col 3:7)

Before we were born of the Spirit, the flesh was all we knew and old habits die hard.

An illustration may help. I lived in Hong Kong for 15 years but now I live in New Zealand. But even though I am in New Zealand, I can still walk after the ways of Hong Kong – and to some extent I do. For instance, I still enjoy celebrating Chinese New Year.

The ways of Hong Kong are no better or worse than the ways of New Zealand, but the same cannot be said of the flesh. Walk after the flesh and your life will be barren and unprofitable:

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. (John 6:63).

The supernatural and abundant life that we’re called to live can only be received by faith and experienced by walking in the spirit. This is why the New Testament writers admonish us to put off the old ways of the flesh and put on the new ways of the spirit (Eph 4:22-24).

We don’t put off and put on to become spiritual; we do this because we are spiritual.

Everyone who is born again is born of the spirit (John 3:7-8). Since we are already in the spirit, let us walk after the spirit:

If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Gal 5:25)

The great religious blind spot

One of our biggest blind spots is we’ve bought into the idea that good things are good for us while bad things are bad for us. But this good-versus-evil logic is fruit off the wrong tree.

It gets us keeping score in a game God isn’t playing.

The real issue is life versus death. And if you sow to the flesh you will reap corruption regardless of what you do.

“Wait a second Paul. Are you saying I can do no good walking after the flesh?”

You can do a lot of good walking after the flesh, but it won’t do you any good. “The flesh profits nothing.” Live like this and you will be functionally identical to a moral sinner. You will miss opportunities to reveal the kingdom of God supernaturally. You will be acting like a “mere man” (1 Cor 3:3).

Jesus didn’t suffer and die to make sinners good but to make the dead live. Christ is in you and he is your life.

When you walk after the flesh, you are acting like the dead man you used to be. You are wasting your life in dead end pursuits.

You can spend all your days doing good works but none of it will result in praise to your Father in heaven because they are your works and not his. You may feel like you’re making a mark but in reality you’re just accumulating fuel for the fire.

Sadly, this is exactly how many Christians live. Ask them to define the works of the flesh and they will recite Paul’s list from Galatians 5. Immorality, idolatry, jealousy and so on. These are the biggies. It never occurs to them that walking after flesh can also bring death to the humdrum activity of everyday life.

Do you see the danger? Here’s a simple test to find out: Which of the following works of the flesh gives you greater concern as a Christian?

1. Doing something bad in a moment of rash passion, or
2. Wasting my life doing my good works that God has not prepared for me to do.

I suspect more people are fearful of doing something bad in a rash moment than they are of wasting their lives doing good. But a Christian who, in a momentary loss of sanity, fools around with “bad” sin, may be more likely to come to his senses than one who has been dulled by years of good service done in the flesh. I am not encouraging you to do bad things. I am discouraging you from walking after the flesh even if what you are doing is good. What seems right to you will in the end lead to death.

It’s time we discarded the forbidden fruit and got our nourishment from the Tree of Life. Our innate tendency to judge ourselves as good or bad based on the good or bad things we are doing, is doing nobody any good at all.


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21 Comments on When Doing Good is Bad for You

  1. What a truth “You will miss opportunities to reveal the kingdom of God supernaturally. You will be acting like a “mere man” (see 1 Cor 3:3)”

  2. as always, your posts are encouraging and challenging. led by the Spirit pointing us to Christ’s righteousness, which we are now – by faith. all Glory to Him!

  3. This is possibly one of the best articulations of walking by the flesh versus the Spirit. Paul I commend you for putting into words what is difficult for many people to understand in reading the Biblical language and cultural context. I think you hit the nail squarely on the head in making sense of “good & bad” and how we approach those topics and the true foundation of why we need to pursue life in the Spirit and behaving according to our true identity.

  4. Great teaching, but it would be helpful to give some teaching on how to discern ‘good’ works of the flesh from the good works prepared in advance by God. Otherwise there is a danger that Christians are paralysed by worrying which works are ‘of the spirit’ and which are of the flesh.

    • Hi Paul, I plan to follow up all this negative stuff on works of the flesh with something on walking after the spirit – so a response is coming. And it’s going to be good! In fact, something came to mind just a few hours ago while I was sleeping! But before then I’ve got a few more things to say about the flesh.

      As my old pastor used to say whenever anyone got up to leave the meeting (eg: if they were going to the toilet), “it gets better next week!”

  5. I appreciate how you elaborate on a topic that I am aware a lot of us struggle to understand. I am glad the Lord led me to your blog. Thank you for sharing His wisdom! 🙂

  6. a Couple of months ago we as a family decided to help a needy person by letting her live with us and finnish her final school year in a more stable house. Little dit we know that previously she was involved in satanism and when she reported of seeing deamons in our house I thought that it is our good duty as Christians to help her and lead her to God. While living this new life mission I found that she knows the Bible and religion very good and wants nothing to do with it but she had no relationship with Jesus and she was scared to have one. After last knight all chaos broke loose when she had some kind of eppisode and I found that this good we are doing is breaking up my family and friends……. After reeding this i understand why, you see this is a beautiful young woman and investigating my intentions it might not be as pure as i would have liked it to be and feel ashamed about my thoughts.
    “For if you live according to the flesh you will die… “(Rm 8:13)
    I still do not know answer to resolving this problem but know that I will help againg IF AND ONLY IF JESUS HAS LEAD FY FAMILYTO DO SO AND NOT BY HUMAN GOOD WILL!!

  7. Two years later Paul and I have benefitted from your explanation. Thanks, and I’d like to get ideas while sleeping, that really is the mind of Christ!

  8. Dear Ps Paul, God led me to your blog, I am a Pastor too, and your teaching has enriched my own sermons. Radical Grace had opened the veil of my eyes in 2009 by Ps. Joseph Prince of New Creation Church Singapore. Your teaching is the same way “Radical Grace”, but more down to earth. Thank you that God raises the minister of Righteousness like yourself, near the end time.

  9. I find your comments very helpful,but,I still trouble with understanding .I sometimes wonder if iam saved at all!

  10. Dear paul,
    What about those who struggle with fear over things they know cause death in thd future such as smoking or exposure to chemicals.. Etc. that they have done in the past.

  11. How can you waste your time doing good? Gal 6:9 tells us not to grow weary of doing good and vs 10 tells us As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto ALL men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith. Again in the gospels, matt. 5 says to let men see our good works to glorify our Father in Heaven. In the scheme of things, no they don’t matter much, but if God tells us to repent and be baptized and wash away our sins, then the other verses that tell us to do good, to teach the gospel, to help others, etc are still the whole gospel which we are commanded to obey.

  12. This is a great post Paul and nails the real issue to the mast. We all trip up here so easily and even if our dominate concern is not falling into some horrendous sin but fear of failing to respond to the Holy Spirits instructions,,,we attempt to manufacture substitute responses in the flesh (sense and reason without the Holy Spirit). I’ve sat under pastors who have cajoled their congregations for all that is lacking in their performance and pleaded for more prayer,greater fervency for the word of God etc..to try and recapture some previous movement of God….all good things but as long as we follow our own or someone else’s “flesh agenda” we miss the life God has planned for us in listening and responding to the Holy Spirits voice just as Christ did…Jn 5.30 “I am able to do nothing from myself (independently, of my own accord-but only as I am taught by God as I get his orders). Even as I hear I judge-I decide as I am bidden to decide. As the voice comes to Me,so I give a decision,and my judgement is right because I do not seek or consult my own will (I have no desire to do what is pleasing to myself,My own aim,My own purpose) but only the will and pleasure of the Father who sent Me (Amplified Version)

  13. You have a link to a teaching – walking after the flesh, I’d appreciate it if you had one about walking after the Spirit.

    • If you enter “walking after the spirit” into the search box at the top of this page, you will get some links to relevant posts. You can also find links in Archives>Subject Index.

  14. “You may feel like you’re making a mark but in reality you’re just accumulating fuel for the fire.” I think that is exactly what Paul is talking about when he says our works will be tested by fire and those whose “buildings” are of metal and precious stone will get rewarded but those whose are burnt up will still be saved but like somebody that just made it by the skin of their teeth. Why are you serving God? Do you think he expects it from you? “It is my duty to serve the Lord.” That is making a building out of wood and straw. Its gonna burn up into nothingness.

  15. This makes no sense. Sorry :/
    Romans 8:12 says, ” For if you live according to the flesh, you will DIE; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
    What kind of death is he talking about?
    I would think this is spiritual death. Wandering from Christ. Becoming lost because you CHOSE to. (God says the same thing with Adam and Eve; once they eat, they die (spiritually)).
    Even when you have the spirit, it shows that we can still walk by the flesh (as you clearly said) but it doesn’t say those who have the spirit are saved, but those who are LED by the spirit are saved. “14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”
    And when you walk by the flesh, you will die. Not just once, but all your life if you make this your life habit, then you will die.

  16. This is a great exposition of the crux of the matter. I like how you root it in John 6:63 in ESV is says “the flesh is no help at all” No matter how good your flesh is! Its the Spirit who give life. Thanks 🙂

  17. This is so true, yet most religious organizations teach a mixture of law and grace. Many are missing the freedom we have in Christ due to thinking we need to do certain things to earn our salvation.

  18. Ambangira Edson // January 7, 2020 at 9:22 am // Reply

    Wow. This is really the Gospel Uncut or rather the Naked Truth. Thanks Soo.. much Dr Paul. Your articulation of the Gospel Truth casts away all darkness of Religion. Christ Revealed!. Hallelujah

  19. Nice article(including others), it gets our attention on Jesus’ efforts than our efforts.God bless you.

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