Sunday, June 8, 2014

God is Good

"God is good, all the time!"
"All the time, God is good!"

These words were used as a call-and-response that was recited nearly every Sunday morning at the Presbyterian church in which I grew up. This simple declaration of God's perpetual goodness reminded us that, in spite of the various trials, heartaches, and seasons of suffering in our lives that did not always appear to reflect this truth, the God whose sovereign purposes encompassed all events and circumstances nonetheless has the best interests of his human creatures in mind- and this not just some of the time, but all of the time. While it was a simple truth that even a child could understand, this positive affirmation of God's boundless benevolence is also, I believe, a profound truth with implications regarding God's perfect character and nature, as well as his relationship with all of his creatures.

The truth of God's goodness is easily established in scripture; Jesus himself declares the unique goodness of God in Matthew 19: "So He said to him, 'Why do you call Me good? No one is good (agathos) but One - that is, God.'" Did Jesus mean by this that there was literally no one else "good" in the universe? No, for in Acts 11:24, Barnabas is called "a good man." Likewise, in Matthew 12:35 Jesus speaks of the "good man" bringing forth good things out of his heart. Obviously, "goodness" is not something exclusive to God alone. What Jesus meant by this statement, then, is that no one is essentially and necessarily good except God. Only God is eternally and unchangeable "good" by virtue of his existence. All goodness - and all concepts and ideas of goodness – exists only because he is necessarily good. All goodness springs from his own essential being.

Whatever God's goodness consists of, then, it is not a character trait he can simply switch on and off at will. It is instead an essential attribute that is just as much a part of him as his unlimited power and infinite wisdom. Because it is the very essence of his divine character, it governs every choice and action he makes in relation to his creatures. God is good, always. It is impossible for him not to be good. Because of this, everything he wills is good. Our God is omni-benevolent, for all that he wills is good.

The Nature of "Good"

But what does it mean to be good or to do good? What is "good?"

When we speak of something as being good, we typically mean it serves the purpose for which it was intended to serve, or operates as it was meant to operate. Someone may say "good shot" when an archer hits the target for which he was aiming. This is because the archer hit what he was intending to hit (i.e., the bulls-eye, which is what a good archer is expected to hit when aiming at a target). So, as far as a created thing goes, we may say that something is "good" when it serves the purpose for which it was intended and created. Conversely, something is "evil" (or "bad") when it goes against or is contrary to the purpose for which it was intended and created – that is, it goes against what it was meant to be. If an archer misses the target completely, then we would call it a "bad shot." If the archer missed the target most of the time, we would say he or she was a "bad" archer (or at least, not a very "good" one).

With this rather basic understanding of good and evil, let's look at sin. Both from revelation and experience, we know that sin is fundamentally unnatural and self-destructive. It disrupts life's harmony, bringing frustration, pain and sorrow; in biological terms, it could be called a "homeostatic imbalance." Speaking in legal terms, the apostle John calls sin "lawlessness." This is because sin is against the inner law of man's own "moral nature" (which was codified - albeit imperfectly - in the Law of Moses). That sin is essentially a violation of man's created moral nature should come as no surprise, since we are told that man was created in God's very image and likeness. Because man's true identity is that of a being a divine image-bearer, sin must be inconsistent with this true identity. Because sin is so contrary to man’s best interest, it must be contrary to his created nature. Thus, sin can be thought of as anything voluntarily done by man that is contrary to, and inconsistent with, his nature and identity as God's image-bearer. Thus, sin is fundamentally "evil." In contrast, "good" is anything voluntarily done by man that is harmonious with how man was created to live – to live and function in such a way that is consistent with man's true nature and identity as God's image-bearer.

How is God Good?

Still, we must ask: how does this concept of good and evil apply to God? There must be more to "goodness" than being useful or doing what one was created to do, for God is good, and yet God is uncreated. There must be a more absolute and objective element to what goodness is.

Goodness – or a lack of goodness - can only exist as an objective moral reality when a relationship exists and has been defined. Goodness becomes an objective reality and is defined by one being's actions toward another being. To better understand what it means to be or do "good," let’s take a look at the story of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand, as recorded in the "synoptic Gospels":

And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, "Step forward." Then He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good (agathopoieo) or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him. (Mark 3:1-6)

Luke’s account of this episode is nearly identical to Mark's:

Now it happened on another Sabbath, also, that He entered the synagogue and taught. And a man was there whose right hand was withered. So the scribes and Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, that they might find an accusation against Him. But He knew their thoughts, and said to the man who had the withered hand, "Arise and stand here." And he arose and stood. Then Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" And when He had looked around at them all, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he did so, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. But they were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:6-11)

The word for "evil" in both passages is kakopoieo. This word refers to that which is of an evil or harmful character, or that which is a perversion of what is good. What we are interested in, however, is how Jesus understands "evil" and "good." He seems to get at the heart of the meaning of good and evil at the end of verse 9, above. According to Jesus, to "do good" is to "save life" (Gk. sozo, meaning to deliver, protect, or heal), while to "do evil" means to kill or destroy it.

We have no reason to believe that the man with the withered hand was terminally ill, or that he would have died had Jesus not healed him. There is no indication given that, by healing his hand, Jesus saved the man's life. Jesus was speaking in terms of principle. "Save life" and "destroy it" are simply expressions that have to do with two different and mutually exclusive mindsets or dispositions, and their corresponding choices and actions. We must apply the expressions to the situation in order to understand the underlying principle behind them. When we do this, we find that to "do good" is to do what one can to restore or improve the well-being, and promote the best interests, of others. It means to care for them by bringing whatever healing is necessary. It means to relieve suffering, both physical and spiritual. It means to help others live as they were created to live, and in doing so, to live as you were created to live. "Good," then, is essentially life-affirming. To be"good" means having a life-affirming mental disposition and character, and acting in ways that sustain and promote life. It is self-giving and sacrificial.

In contrast, doing evil means not just actively harming someone else, but refusing or neglecting to help those who are in need. Evil actions spring from an acquired mental disposition that places little value on others and their ultimate well-being. To be "evil," then, means having an attitude that is callously indifferent to the welfare or fate of others (like that of the legalistic and self-righteous Pharisees whom Jesus was confronting in the above passages). "Evil" is that which is ultimately hostile to life; it is fundamentally life-denying, even if indirectly so. It is fearful, selfish and prideful.

It is significant that we are told how the Pharisees disregarded Jesus' words and were "filled with rage" (Luke 6:11). They immediately went out and began to plot how they might have Jesus put to death (Mark 3:6). In doing so, they were confirming Jesus' own words that evil is ultimately opposed to life. Because they saw Jesus as a threat to their own religious authority and power, they sought to destroy him and put an end to his growing influence.

Let's look at one more account. In Matthew's account, we read:

Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"—that they might accuse Him. Then He said to them, "What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him. (Matthew 12:9-14)

Here, Jesus is recorded as giving a specific example of a "good" action that even the most legalistic Pharisee would not have thought twice about doing on the Sabbath: saving one's sheep that had fallen into a pit. So, according to Matthew’s account, to do good also means taking redemptive action and preserving life.

But, as Jesus implies, there is nothing particularly virtuous or praiseworthy about a man saving his own personal property from loss. Human beings, on the other hand, are of much more value than livestock (v. 12). It is the life of people with which God is most concerned. And it is not the life of certain kinds or classes of people, but of all people, individually. As God's image-bearers, human beings are supremely valuable in God’s eyes - the most valuable of all his creatures. We could say, then, that because man is the most valuable creature in God’s eyes, we are all under obligation to care for and promote the good and quality of life of our fellow man, no matter what. It is "evil" not to do so, because we were created to love as God loves.

This is in accord with a theme that runs throughout scripture: God is more concerned with how we treat others and the disposition of our heart than he is with our legal attempts at righteousness and our strict observance of religious rituals. Whether it's pulling livestock out of ditches or offering them to God as a sacrifice, what God is truly concerned with is how we treat our fellow human beings who are in need. It is mercy and justice that God desires, not empty, ritualistic law-keeping (Matthew 12:7). Furthermore, we are to show mercy to all, because God will ultimately do the same (Rom 11:32). We are to love even our enemies, because God loves his enemies (Rom 5:6-8), and is ultimately going to save all of them (1 Tim. 4:10). It is only in doing so that we manifest God's perfect character, which is love (1 John 4:7-21). Only in loving others - including (or rather, especially) our enemies - are we said to be "perfect" as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:43-48).

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