Good vs bad

Good vs Bad

You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, You’d better not shout I’m telling you why,

Santa Claus is coming to town.[1]

Many of us developed an image of God based more on Santa Claus than on anything biblical. That image, born in childhood and perpetuated by many churches, persists long beyond our belief in the jolly, bearded gift-giver. God is often envisioned as the eternal, heavenly version of the mortal, earthly Santa Claus. God makes a list and checks it twice, so God can find out who’s been naughty and nice. For the naughty kids, Santa brings coal, if anything at all. Nice kids get toys. Likewise, God sentences naughty people to hell for eternity. Nice people get to spend their forever in heaven. For Santa Claus, “crying” and “shouting” put one in the “naughty” category (never mind the impact of that on our mental health as we grow). For God, the standards for naughtiness and goodness are less clear. In fact, they vary from church to church and from believerto believer. There is, arguably, no greater source of biblical debate than over what behaviors clear us for entry into heaven and what is a one-way, non-refundable ticket to hell. There is little argument, however, that these images of Santa Claus and God make some children better behaved as Christmas approaches and some adults more religious as they age.

My daughter was always suspicious of Santa Claus. She refused to sit on his lap, and she questioned the existence and reality of the Santa-mystique from an early age. As a parent, for me at least, it was an annual dilemma as to how much I should push the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas. I chose to not to directly answer her questions about whether he was real, opting to give vague generalizations and trying to change the subject. I did not want to lie to her, but I also did not want to rob the season of any of its magic. As it turns out, the season is magical with or without the Santa Claus myth.

I remember older relatives asking me as Christmas approached, “Have you been a good boy this year?” It was a terrifying question. While I felt I had been mostly good, I knew I was not always good. I just hoped no one else, especially Santa Claus or (gulp) God, noticed. I was especially thankful no one could know the bad thoughts that perpetually plagued me. I would have collected enough coal over the years to heat a city had that been the case. And the same question is out there today, although in a different context. “Have I been good enough to go to heaven when I die?” The question may not be asked as directly as my relatives asked in the context of Santa Claus, but it still hangs over us like a shroud that gets heavier with each passing year.

The question raised by the question is this, “How good is good enough?” For me at least, Santa Claus always brought me toys for Christmas in spite of the bad things I had done and thought throughout the year, so I must not have been that bad. Does God weigh good and bad in a similar manner, the weight of one cancelling out the weight of the other? If so, I may be good enough. If not…

With Santa Claus, the punishment for bad behavior, as the story goes, only lasted a year (of course a year for a child is an eternity). With God, the punishment is forever. What I couldn’t see as a child but should be able to understand as an adult is this: It is impossible to be good all of the time! Even the apostle Paul understood this: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.[2]

We are, individually, a mix of good and bad. All of us. Throughout all time. That is an undeniable fact, whether we label it as the sinful nature of humankind or our selfish, narcissistic tendencies. I suspect our issue is not one of sin so much as a misunderstanding and judgment of what is good or bad. Our expectations are high, due at least in part to the Santa Claus stories of our childhood and our subsequent projected beliefs about the nature of God. Those beliefs are completely out of whack with the Jesus of the Bible – God made flesh who came to reveal God’s true nature. Love. Forgiveness. Grace. Healing. Acceptance. Inclusion. Understanding. Not even Santa Claus could be so lavishly generous.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at, or through my website, At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s

Mass on the World

Saturday, September 18, 2021, 7:00 AM

Baker Wetlands Discovery Center Overlook

1250 N 1365 Rd, Lawrence, KS

No charge. All are welcome

[1] “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Christmas song by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, 1934.

[2] Romans 7:15.

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