The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; He knows those who take refuge in Him. (Nahum 1:7)
Quicknav Series Index
- The Goodness of God: How do we know that God is good?
- God’s Goodness vs wish fulfillment: If God is good, why didn’t I get what I want?
- God’s Goodness vs human suffering: Why do bad things happen to good people?
- God’s Goodness vs the reality of evil: Where does evil come from?
- God’s Goodness vs refining fire: How can a good God directly cause suffering?
- God’s Goodness vs seeking safety: Should we actively avoid suffering?
- Coming soon: How can a good God send people to hell?
- Coming soon: Is God predictable? Does God change His mind?
I recently heard a sermon from Nahum 1:7 on the goodness of God. Although the preacher spoke persuasively and made several valuable and accurate assertions about God’s character, I was a bit uncomfortable with the general tone of the sermon. He rightly proclaimed that God is good, but in my opinion, he missed key elements about God’s goodness I feel can’t be overlooked. That got me thinking about the topic, so I thought I’d share. It will take multiple posts to get this out, but this at least gets us started. (See my Series page for the whole series.)
First, a little context…
Throughout history, polytheistic religions have maintained an “animistic” world view. They see gods in anything they don’t understand. These gods are actually quite similar to human beings, so we approach them essentially on human terms. For example, there is a god of the rain, who brings rain in the right amount when he’s happy with people and in a good mood, but withholds it or drowns us with it when he isn’t. Similarly, a god of the harvest would provide a good or bad harvest depending on her mood. We humans, in this view, can affect the moods of the gods with our worship, sacrifices, obedience, etc., but they are still independent (moody!) entities. It is always possible, therefore, that they could wake up on the wrong side of the cosmic bed one morning and wipe out your crop or curse you with a three-year drought just because they feel like it. You never know! So, you live in fear, working hard every day to appease them, but scared they will turn on you. To say that these gods are “good” would probably be overly optimistic. It would be more accurate to say they’re “fickle” or “unpredictable”, but not “good”.
Non-Christian monotheistic religions vary greatly in how they assess “goodness”. Judaism and Islam both largely align with Christianity in this regard, given their roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. But because they function from a limited (in the case of Judaism) or distorted (in the case of Islam) revelation of God, important differences in the theology of God’s goodness (as well as many other topics) are introduced. In both cases, God’s goodness becomes less of a factor, and man’s obedience becomes the focus. Whether God is good or not, you do whatever God – typically represented by the local rabbi or imam – tells you to do, or punishment awaits. There is much focus on God’s “rightness”, but comparatively little focus on His “goodness”.
Neither Buddhism nor Hinduism are rooted in the concept of a personal God. Hinduism, for example, emphasizes truth and enlightenment, as achieved by perfecting one’s unity with the Brahman (the Hindu’s conception of God), who is a perfect-but-impersonal “universal truth and reality”. So the question of his personal qualities (i.e. his goodness) is not very meaningful, as much as a Hindu would say that it’s “good” to achieve “oneness” with him.
Atheists have little concept of “good” beyond what benefits me. Other than “selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Philippians 2:3), what else could define “goodness” in a world that consists only of matter, energy and random chance? Maybe you could argue some sort of “good of the species”, but how would that work? Wouldn’t it actually muddy the waters, since “what’s good for me” would almost always conflict with “what’s good for mankind”?
And we could go on.
The God of the bible
The God of the bible is different from any of these other conceptions of god. Contrary to polytheistic views, God is everlasting and consistent. He is nothing like us, and cannot be approached on human (or similar) terms. He stands outside of time and never changes. Contrary to Jewish or Muslim beliefs, we do not work our way to God; rather God comes to us. No matter how good we think we are or how hard we work, we could never reach God, so God draws us to Himself, making a way for us to know Him. Contrary to Buddhist and Hindu views, God is an actual Being, who possesses real (non-physical) personhood. He desires an intimate relationship with us. God not only saves us, and makes a way for us to know Him, but adopts us as His very own children.
And this God reveals Himself as … He claims to be … perfectly good.
How do we know that God is good?
Let’s assume this is all true about God. How do we know He’s good? How can we trust Him not to act like the animistic gods and suddenly deal treacherously or ruthlessly with us for no apparent reason? An all-powerful God whose goodness is in question is terrifying, not comforting. There is a very real sense in which we should fear the Lord, but it’s not because God’s goodness is in question.
Still, how do we know?
Some have serious problems with the entire concept. Maybe you’ve been hurt or have not gotten something you felt you needed or deserved or just really wanted. Maybe it’s even something you intended to employ in your life to honor God and serve others. Why did God withhold that? And if God is good, why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? What about all those times in the Bible when God changed His mind (e.g. Gen 6:6, Ex 32:14, etc.)? I thought you said God was consistent and unchanging! And where did evil come from? If God is so good and He made everything, why is there so much bad stuff?
These are great questions, and a discussion of God’s goodness should address them. I will save these “level 2 questions” for follow-up posts, but there’s more than enough to cover upfront in addressing the basic question: How do we know that God is good?
God is good because He says so
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! (1 Chronicles 16:34)
The Bible, as the authoritative Word of God, unequivocally proclaims God’s goodness (Psalms 25:7-8, 145:9 and many others), evenly claiming God is uniquely (the only) good (Mark 10:18). As the all-powerful God of the universe and final authority in every matter, God has revealed Himself, declared Himself to be good. He points to His thoughts and ways, His decisions and the outcomes of those decisions, and calls them “good” (Genesis 1:31; 1 Timothy 4:4). By His own authority, God defines good and bad in reference to Himself alone (throughout Genesis 1). And if you think about it, by what else could “good” be defined than by the character of the One who stands beyond creation, created everything, and authored the rules for how the universe works?
God is good because nature demands it
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
In contrast to the other perceptions of god we discussed earlier, the Christian God — the God of All Creation — must be good by definition. This is because God Himself stands as the backdrop against which all moral decisions in the universe are made. His thoughts, words and actions are therefore inherently right and good, and every moral assessment in the universe is made in that context. No measuring rod exists (or can exist) to refute Him. There is nothing beyond God or even of the same kind as God, by which you could measure Him. By what would you evaluate God’s decisions as good or bad? Against what criteria would you grade Him?
Ultimately, those who protest that God is not good make themselves the measure of God’s goodness. To believe we have the right, to fancy ourselves — as creatures God made from nothing — to be in a position to assess the rightness or wrongness of God’s decisions … is the height of arrogance and the definition of rebellious idolatry. To do so is to demand that God be run out of town, to rise up against Him, to try to remove Him from His throne … to de-god God (as Don Carson is fond of saying). If I have the right to grade God’s actions, then God is no longer God, I am. It is fundamental to the very concept of God and of a created universe that it be God’s place to decide rightness and wrongness, not ours.
This is exactly what earned us exile and death in the Garden of Eden. Represented in Adam and Eve, mankind demanded that God give us the knowledge of good and evil … that we didn’t need or want God’s assessment of right and wrong. We will pronounce our own judgments, God, thank you very much! And from that moment of horrifically overstepping our authority has come every murder, rape, war, abuse, abandonment, heartache, and every tear ever shed in pain … all because we refused to accept God’s goodness as a fundamental law in the created order.
God is good because we know right from wrong
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea! than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7-10)
Every time someone demands justice or bemoans injustice or insists that they have been wronged, they affirm both that there is a God and that He is good. If there were no God, then why would there exist criteria of any kind to distinguish between right and wrong? You might alternatively point to the laws of man, but where did those come from? Our collective sense of what is right (and should be supported by government) vs what is wrong (and should be outlawed) … would ideally shape the laws of our nation. You might point to survival instinct, but then how do explain self-sacrificial behavior — which is universally acknowledged as perhaps the highest, most admirable good?
CS Lewis makes this argument in an incredibly compelling way in his timeless book, Mere Christianity.
If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. Just as, if there was no light in the universe, and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. “Dark” would be a word without meaning… The universe contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but [it also contains] creatures such as ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless.
This has many implications, but not the least of them is that if God were not just and good, we would have no concept of justice and goodness. Without a universal measuring rod with which to measure, there would be no reason for any two people to agree on any concept of morality. The concept of “measuring” wouldn’t make sense. The only law would be to benefit oneself. And every time anyone, Christ-follower or otherwise, rises above this base selfish impulse, they prove that God exists and that He is good.
God is good because He keeps His promises
Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to His people Israel, according to all that He promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise, which He promised through Moses His servant. (1 Kings 8:56)
God is a promising God. From Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham to David to Solomon to the apostles to you and me, God keeps His promises. If you think about it, it’s a sign of God’s goodness that he promises us things at all. If He weren’t good, why would He care? Why create the world at all (a promise in and of itself, really)? Why make it so beautiful and perfect for sustaining human life (another kind of promise)? Why consistently cause the sun to rise and the rain to come and the crops to grow? Sure, there are droughts and famines and floods and fires, but for every day of those, there are 1,000 days of rains and harvests and calm seas and cool breezes. And how many droughts, famines, floods, and fires are caused by man’s misuse of the world? Why does God always get the wrap for them? Even leaving sin’s breaking of the world out of it for a second, aren’t calamities often due to our abuse and neglect of nature? Not always, but often. Meanwhile, think about all the ways that the consistencies of nature are in fact God keeping His promises!
But it goes beyond that. God didn’t destroy Adam and Eve when they sinned in the garden. Instead, He promised a Savior. God didn’t destroy the whole world in the Noahic flood, instead He spared Noah’s family and promised never to bring the flood again. God didn’t give up on man when “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Instead, He chose Abraham to build a nation from whom would come a King (Jesus) who would set up a Kingdom in which we could all live in peace and righteousness and right relationship with God. Even when Lot — Abraham’s cousin, living in the wicked city of Sodom, which God destroys — presumes on God’s goodness with a fairly liberal interpretation of God’s commands and then “lingers” in his obedience, God literally forces Lot to obey in order to save him (see Genesis 19:12-16). This is for the sake of God’s good reputation, because He promised Abraham — first in their covenant in general (Genesis 15:7ff) and second that He would specifically rescue Lot (Genesis 18:22ff).
And God promises His presence, His counsel, and His shelter when life is hard. On and on! It would take a year to map out all the promises God makes us in Scripture. And you won’t find an instance in which God fails to keep His promise to His people and His creation. This faithfulness demonstrates the character of a good, good father.
God is good because of Jesus
Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)
Speaking of God’s fatherhood, the fact that God sacrificed His one and only Son for us surely speaks to His goodness. Jesus is the ultimate “good thing” God has given us, and the foremost proof that God is good.
Jesus is God’s agent of creation, the means by whom God created the universe (John 1:3) – we exist in the first place because of Jesus.
Jesus is the word and image of God, revealing God to us (Colossians 1:15) – the only way we can truly know God is through Jesus.
Jesus is God’s great agent of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Romans 8:15-17) – God wants a loving Father-child relationship with us, sacrifices His son to acquit us of horrific guilt before Him, and adopts us into His family so we can no longer be left as rebellious orphans … all through Jesus.
We will get new perfect bodies, free of pain and sorrow and aging and death, because of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:40-49).
These are some pretty amazing things, and I could probably go all day. Suffice it to say that Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s goodness.
God is good because He gives good things
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
The Bible says that “every good and perfect gift” comes from God. But this doesn’t mean that everything you could conceive of having will be FedEx’d to you from heaven on your timetable. It means that if it’s good, then it comes from God. There is no other ultimate source of goodness in the universe. And any secondary source of goodness is reflecting God’s goodness the way the moon reflects the sun. There is no other light source in the solar system.
It also implies that what God gives us is good. Even things we don’t perceive as good or can’t explain or don’t understand… God is giving us “good and perfect gifts”.
Great, but I have questions…
I am very aware that all this naturally leads to bigger questions, as mentioned above. I’m going to hold off addressing these for another day, each in their own post. Here’s the list I think need discussing. If you have others, please post them in comments below.
- If God is good, why didn’t I get what I wanted?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Where does evil come from?
- How can a good God directly cause suffering?
- Should we actively avoid suffering?
- How can a good God send people to hell?
- Does God change His mind?
Go in peace!
Even without the answers to these questions, we have a significant point of application to contend with…
God is good. God seeks our good. God gives us good things. God sends us Jesus. With or without the answer to every question, our role is to trust His goodness. So, I challenge you to do just that… Will you trust this good God even if you don’t understand Him?
When ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.
“What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.”
She said firmly, “No, I will not do that… I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Why? How? Because God is good!