How Are Good Deeds like Filthy Rags?

“Hey, Maya. Do you want to come to youth group with me tonight?” Jane balanced her folders and pencil case on her hip as she watched her locker buddy put away books and waited her turn.

“…uhh, youth group… what’s that, again?”

“Well, we get together as teens for two hours. We play games and share snacks but mostly our gathering is about studying the Bible.”

“Oh… uhhh. I think I’ll pass.”

“No?”

“I’ve heard all that stuff before, and I don’t need it. Seriously, Jane. Just because I don’t believe the Bible, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”

“Maya-“

“You’re seriously trying to convert me right after what I did last week? You could have chosen a better time! I just raised $500 for children in Africa – single-handedly – and now you’re trying to tell me that I’m a sinner?”

Jane opened her mouth, but words evaded her. Maya hoisted her bag over her shoulder and disappeared into the crowd.

Maya wanted to…

…use her good deeds to prove she wasn’t a sinner. However, one passage in the Bible likens good works to dirty rags:

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

-Isaiah 64:6

Though I’ve never personally studied the meaning behind the original Hebrew words, I’ve heard multiple teachers say that “filthy rags” refers to used menstrual garments (pads and tampons) – repulsive and offensive.

If this is how God sees good works, then they’re not something to boast about or use to prove that we’re not sinners. But how can the source of all good things take such offense at righteous deeds?

0057-how-are-good-deeds-like-filthy-rags
Righteous works —> filthy rags. How does it add up?

Looking at the big picture for context, “us”, in the verse above, refers to the people of Israel. Originally God set them apart as His special people. They entered an agreement with Him.

But by the time this verse was written, the Israelites had strayed far from fulfilling their part of the agreement. They bowed down to statues as though the clay and wood were alive and could help them. By their actions, they denied the One true God until their lives looked just like the lives of any pagan nation. In short, they had all become like one who is unclean.

Their righteous acts – whatever was left of them – were like menstrual garments.

Why did God reject their good deeds?

I believe it’s because they wanted all the credit. As people who denied the one true God, they were in no frame of mind to give Him honor and glory for the good things in their lives.

The person who loves and obeys God will acknowledge Him as the sources of all good in their lives. They can say:

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”

-Palm 16:2

But the person who denies God (by what they say they believe or by how they live) doesn’t acknowledge God. They want to keep the glory for themselves. They want people to pat them on the back for how good they are.

This is very offensive to God. It’s taking His gift and denying the giver. It’s claiming credit that rightfully belongs to Him. It’s as offensive as dirty rags.

Talk (0r think) about it

  • What is a common way that you (or people in general) seek to gain credit that belongs to God?
  • How does God view the good deeds of those who love Him and obey Him?
  • Why does it make such a drastic difference whether a person has trusted in Jesus or not?
  • Tell us about some good things that God has done.
  • How can we be intentional about giving God the credit for His work in our lives?

Resources for deeper digging

Psst! For more on:

  • What it looks like when someone does good and recognizes God as the source of the good: Read the story in John 3:22-30.
  • Isreal abandoning God: Read the verses surrounding Isaiah 64:6 for context – or the whole book of Isaiah – for context.
  • How God views the good deeds of those who love and obey Him: listen to or read this. There are some big words, but it’s very comprehensive.
  • What our good deeds are worth: check this post.
  • God as the source of all good: check this post.

 

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