The Bible often describes God as “good,” but what does that really mean? How do we reconcile a good God with our current suffering, the violence of the Old Testament, or even with the brutality of the cross? And what benefit is there in “doing good”?
What Does it Mean to Be “Good”?
Dictionaries define good as “healthy” or “not bad” or someone who is “nice;” that is, a person who gives money to the poor or helps elderly people cross the street. A good person is “an honest, helpful, or morally good person.”
When trying to apply such a tiny definition to God, we immediately run into problems. God has, at times, destroyed entire cities. He has also healed the blind and the sick. He is not our human definition of “nice” — not morally upright — but He is the one who defines morality and gives us His instructions for living obediently. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The trouble is, as Paul Tripp writes, “we are fundamentally unable to do what is right” (Tripp, Paul David. (2002). Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing). Only God can be good. In Matthew 19:17, Jesus says, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” and answers His own question thus: “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
Jesus is the answer to Micah 6. He healed and comforted without regard for race, gender, social status, or wealth. As the Pharisees sought to kill Jesus for calling “God” His Father, Jesus called out, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” (John 10:32).
Jesus, the best man in history, did as God commanded, showing mercy and walking humbly, always obediently pointing attention back to God and His goodness. Our acts of mercy and humility point to Jesus.
Why bother trying to be good if we are fundamentally flawed? Society warns us: do more good than bad or something terrible will happen. Even many Christians believe they must earn their place in heaven. The world also says that success is earned by working hard, and hard work is good.
“Successful people” are advanced in their careers, beautiful, and/or wealthy. While not bad in their own right, careers, beauty, and money rob the soul of peace and lock the doors of eternity unless one realizes that God owns these things, and no one deserves them. Isaiah says, “Woe to those who call evil good” (Isaiah 5:20).
Evil masquerades as good (Proverbs 26:24-25). For career success, beauty, and wealth, a sacrifice is required. The needs of loved ones take a backseat to long hours at the office; hours of exercise and punishing dietary restrictions; and obsessive attention to the stock market.
The result is perhaps divorce, eating disorders, financial debt, plus the mental health problems that follow. When one is motivated by the good example (Jesus) and is guided by the Spirit, skills, beauty, and money become tools for sharing the Gospel; the Good News about our good God.
The Lord invested in our eternal good by coming to die on a cross. “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say — but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’— but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).
Christ showed us that God’s idea of good is not a calculation of “effort equals results” that the world can see (temporary earnings) but one in which obedience profited us eternally and undeservedly (grace).
But if we can’t be good, and we can’t earn our place in heaven, then why do we try to imitate Christ? How can we? Christians want to be like God because they love Him. They know peace and rest today by submitting to and imitating Christ.
They experience joy when their relationship with Christ grows in the wake of this submission. They spread the Good News because believers want family, friends, and co-workers to receive these same good gifts.
If God Is Good, Why Is Life Hard?
A question frequently arises about the apparent conflict between a good God and a harsh world; pain and suffering; the question of evil. Jason Helveston at DesiringGod.com states boldly that “life is hard because God is good.”
In other words, God has “intentionally shaped the world in such a way that effort would be required to accomplish significant change, progress, and renewal.” We should “never pray away … difficulty” but “embrace it, discern its purpose, look to Jesus, and pray to be made more like him through it all.”
Another writer remarks that “if you understand the word ‘good’ to mean ‘pleasant, comfortable, enjoyable, or fun,’ then you’re going to have serious problems with Romans 8:28, which says that ‘all things work for good for those who are in Christ Jesus.’”
A common saying is that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. The Apostle Paul, however, said that Christ’s power “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The more we submit to God’s process of sanctification, the stronger He becomes in us. We become less, and Christ becomes more as John the Baptist proclaimed (John 3:30). “It’s a question of becoming different;” of allowing suffering to sanctify us the way tremendous heat refines a precious metal.
When the reason and result of pain are not clear, suffering does not feel good. We will, however, understand more when we arrive in heaven. The outpouring of God’s goodness is sometimes mysterious, especially in the form of suffering. Paul asks in Romans 11:34, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”
Tell that to someone who has just buried a baby, lost her job and her home, been raped and left with an unwanted pregnancy, or survived a natural disaster, returning to her village from a Red Cross shelter to find destruction, poverty, and death.
“Good often comes to us in a form we can’t recognize” (Ibid) because God did not have our pleasure in mind. We are taught to “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4).
Benefits of God’s Goodness
While the Hebrew “Tob” and Greek “agathopoieó” both mean “good,” “tob” relates to our modern understanding of something which is pleasant and comfortable. “Agathopoieó” digs into goodness as “inspired and powered by God” or potentially “to do good, do something which profits others” (Ibid).
After God created something and stood back to admire it, He said “it was good” which means it was perfect. He could admire the wholeness and perfection of His own creative genius which was designed for our benefit and to demonstrate His glory.
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said to his brothers, “What you meant for evil against me …. God meant… for good.” Joseph had lived through slavery, wrongful imprisonment, separation from his family, betrayal, and deprivation of all kinds before rising to a place in which God would use him to rescue an entire nation anticipating death by starvation. Joseph was not good, but through suffering he developed patience, obedience, and humility.
God enabled Joseph to participate in God’s bigger plan for the benefit of his people. In this case, good definitely did not mean creatively pleasing or attractive, but “good” meant “beneficial.” The big picture is mysterious, but God’s character is known to us. If we believe in Christ for salvation, then we have to trust in the good which will emerge from tragedy and hardship.
Being Fully Alive Is Good
The ultimate example of suffering for our benefit is Christ’s death on the cross. The disciples, distraught at the death of their Rabbi, could not understand how this gruesome and cruel mode of execution could possibly lead to good, even though Christ had foretold “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).
In Christ, we see that “good” means perfect and alive. Ephesians 5:1-2 tells us to be “imitators of God.” In other words, live fully through the Spirit which comes from Christ and with all the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Here is the Good News: as we repent of sin and seek to be like Jesus, God sanctifies us, makes us better people, and we live more fully than if we sought only to survive the next trial and to do so on our own. In the long run, we will have eternal life with God. News doesn’t get any better than that.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.