What good is being good?

The only current television series that my wife and I follow is ABC’s Once Upon a Time.  In an earlier post, I summarized the gist of the first season plot: because of an evil curse, fairy tale characters from the Enchanted Forest have been transported to the town of Storybrooke, Maine, doomed to live as humans in our world with no memory of their past.

At this point in the second season, the curse has been broken.  Memories and magic have returned.  But the narrative continues as before to flip-flop between their world and ours, the mythic and the real, the past and the present, offering up an increasingly tangled fable of good versus evil.

One of the lead “good” characters is Snow White, whose this-world Storybrooke persona is Mary-Margaret Blanchard (“White”… “Blanchard”… get it?).  She was once to have followed in the footsteps of her beloved mother, the queen.  But the long running battle for the throne between good and evil made Snow a fugitive and eventually led to the curse that stranded her and everyone else in Storybrooke.

At the center of the battle is a grudge held by the evil queen Regina, who persecutes Snow for innocently causing the loss of her first and only true love.  In response, Snow always tries to do the right thing, but sometimes her patience wears thin.

Even in this world, Regina (who invoked the curse in the first place and therefore never lost her memory) continues her quest for ultimate vengeance.  In a recent episode, Mary-Margaret discovered to her horror that her mother hadn’t merely died of illness; Regina’s mother, a sorceress named Cora, had killed her to clear a path to the throne for Regina.  In a face-to-face confrontation where the truth was revealed, Cora smiled coldly, then blithely took the life of another person whom Mary-Margaret had made a difficult sacrifice to save.

The episode ended with a debate between Mary-Margaret (Snow) and David (Prince Charming).  He urged her to stay true to the good, but she responded vacantly, as if seeing clearly for the first time: what use had it ever been to do the right thing?  Her decisions for good had accomplished nothing; the people closest to her had been hurt or killed while she struggled to stay true to her principles.

Resolute, she decided that she too must have her revenge.  She would kill Cora.

Fade to black.

Fairy tale?  Yes, albeit one still in search of its happy ending.  The writers, of course, will keep stringing viewers along with new plot twists and complications.  No one knows what Mary-Margaret will actually do.  I suspect that if she became a truly evil character, many fans would cry foul; it’s okay for her to struggle, but not to give herself entirely over to the Dark Side.

In nearly archetypal fashion, though, the story raises an age-old question: what good is being good?  Why stick to moral principles?  Why do the right thing, especially if it costs us something, or doesn’t do any good?

As I watched Snow White/Mary-Margaret lose her grip on the good, I thought, Is this what happens when we suffer but have no hope?

For Christians, good is not merely a means to an end, whether that end be our own happiness, our heavenly reward, or even the desire to “make the world a better place.”  That’s not to say that we don’t think carefully about the consequences of our actions, as to how others will be hurt or helped by what we do.

But the reality of life in a broken world is that even the most noble of actions can sometimes lead to pain or catastrophe.  We hope for outcomes that we can’t control.  When things go as expected, we rejoice, and renew our confidence in and commitment to the good.  When they don’t, well…it’s harder to remember why goodness mattered in the first place.

Christian hope means remembering that the eventual complete triumph of good over evil, of life over death, is not in our hands, but God’s.  We don’t bring the kingdom by our own efforts to do the right thing; rather, we demonstrate the reality and the presence of the kingdom by showing, in the power of God’s own Spirit, that it’s possible to do good in the face of evil.  And we do this because we know by faith that God is real, and good, and sovereign, and active–a faith that is itself a gift of God, a faith through which God reassures us that the story he is writing will have a happy ending.

So why be good?  Because the God we serve and whose image we are to reflect is good.  There’s no reason that matters more.