Author: Phillip Jensen
There are many characteristics of God, each of which is important to study and understand. For as we understand God and his character so we understand the way of the world and our lives and the way we should live. At first glance the study of the character of God seems a dry and academic exercise. More is the pity if Christians turn away from a careful examination of what God has said about himself. It is on the basis of the goodness of God that much of our understanding of life and our Christian practice depends.
‘Goodness’ and ‘good’ are funny words. They are too basic to define. Complex, unusual, technical words are easy to define accurately. But words that are in common usage like good, love, true, etc. are hard to define. God is good in his very character and nature and also in what He does. The things that He does are good in fact – as well as in their effects upon us. Certain things can be said to be good and also to do good.
Jesus, when called good in Mark 10:17 said that God alone is good, for goodness is derived from God himself; goodness is part of his essential nature. So we can read – “…the Lord is good” Psalm 100:5. Goodness is not something extrinsic to God but something intrinsic. Therefore it is not surprising to see that the works of God are also good. James 1:17 says that: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.” When God had created the world in Genesis 1 he looked upon it and saw that it was good, in fact very good. Thus Paul can write to Timothy in I Timothy 4:4 that everything that God has made is good and is to be received with thanksgiving, sanctified by the Word. In fact it is the doctrine of the demons to forbid eating certain foods or to enjoin abstinence from sexual enjoyment. Not only are things good but they are also good for us. In creation Psalms such as Psalm 145:13-16 or Psalm 104:14ff we see that God has created a good world for us to enjoy for he has given us the benefits of wine, oil and bread. That is, God has created, not only a world that it good but one that is good for us. Furthermore, God not only has created a good world in the beginning, but also continues to provide and sustain us, giving us rain and sunshine, food and beauty.
Already then we have five temptations to pervert or ignore the teachings of Scripture. We are tempted to despise the goodness of creation under the devil’s prompting, calling it evil. The Hare Krishna devotees and the Christian Scientists do exactly that. Bruce Springsteen, at a concert declared that spiritual ecstasy and sexual ecstasy were two incompatible things, that is why there was no sex in the Garden of Eden. There are so called Christian ascetics or Evangelical wowsers who will tell us that certain things, like alcohol, are bad. God teaches us that he made wine to make glad the heart of man. Even money is good. The silver is God’s and the gold, the prophet says. Music is not the creation of the devil because the devil does not create; it is the creation of God and it is good. Any of the things of the creation may be used of the evil one but they themselves are not bad; they are misused.
A second temptation is to take the goodness of God for granted. It is only when a part of the creation malfunctions that we notice it. We do not thank God for the stability of the earth. We curse him for the occasional earthquake. We do not thank God for the years and years of faithful service that our teeth give us. We curse him for the momentary pain that we have received when the tooth aches. We expect and demand the good earth to work properly and have lost some of the wonder of God’s generous provision.
Related to this second temptation is a third; that is, to be so overwhelmed by the goodness of creation to forget the creator and wallow in the pleasures of it instead of him. So in Nehemiah 9:25 and 9:35 as well as in Deuteronomy 8, especially verse 14, we find the people of Israel arriving in the promised land and forgetting the God who has given them so generously a land flowing with milk and honey. They came under the condemnation of God for they didn’t thank him for the good creation but just wallowed in the pleasures and delights of the land.
The fourth temptation follows from a third. Overwhelmed by the goodness of the creation and undermined by our own sinfulness, we suppress the truth of the Creator and worship the creation instead of the creator. This is the argument of Romans 1:18ff. It is part of the Bible’s argument against idolatry. For in idolatry we worship the creatures instead of the creator. So we diminish God, for he is always infinitely greater than his creation and we diminish humanity, for only we are in the image of God.
This failure to recognize the place of humanity in the goodness of God brings us to a fifth temptation. It is the failure to see God’s goodness in creating us in his image. For when he created us in his image, we were part of that which he declared to be ‘good’. Now, under sin, instead of seeing ourselves as the guardians of God’s good creation we see ourselves as the guilty destroyers of a pristine and pure environment. There is a truth in this, for it is our sin that took us out of the Garden, into a hostile environment. But, instead of seeing the creation as under the just bondage of God and needing redemption along with us (Romans 8:20f) – people see humans as part of nature with no special status other than mass polluters. The argument runs that there is no God and so we cannot be in the image of God. In this view, nature, not God and not humans, is everything. Therefore we are no different to the other sentient beings, except we have a larger carbon footprint.
However, these temptations highlight for us the greater work of God’s goodness – his work of salvation. In Exodus 33:18,19 Moses asks God to show him his glory. God replies that he will show Moses all his goodness – for the goodness of God is his glory. The word glory means splendour ~ display of magnificence. We could expect God to show his splendour in his wealth or in his power, in his militaristic force and might. In fact God shows his splendour in his goodness and so he reveals himself to Moses as the Lord who is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in generosity. It is this glorious goodness of God that the Psalmists over and again appeal to when they are in trouble and need salvation. So we look at Psalm 116:5-12 or Psalm 34:6 or Psalm 106 or 107. It is this goodness of God that the prophet Jeremiah speaks of in Jeremiah 33:10 ff; as he tells of the future, when God in his abundant mercy and generosity and goodness will rescue his people and restore the barren land to its fertility once more. It is this goodness of God that the author to the Hebrews says is coming in Jesus, and we look forward to in Hebrews 9:11 and 10:1. We read in the Gospel of John, in the first 18 verses, of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us and dwelling among us we beheld his glory (in verse 14) and that glory is the glory of the one and only, of the Father. It will be the glory of God that is revealed and that glory is revealed to be full of grace and truth. The very glory of God that was revealed to Moses in God’s goodness, i.e. his graciousness and faithfulness, is the glory that is revealed in Jesus, in his grace and in his truth. For it is in Jesus that we receive God’s gracious, generous pardon and forgiveness.
This goodness of God for salvation does not exclude God’s judgement and justice;for part of his revelation of himself to Moses as gracious, is his slowness to anger. His anger is slow because it is just and so in his anger he will punish the guilty and will not allow the guilty to go free. Therefore Paul wonders in Romans 11:22 at the sternness, the severity, as well as the goodness and kindness of God. For God’s goodness is to be concerned for his world given over to injustice and corruption; concerned to punish those who destroy and pervert. Yet the character of God’s goodness is to be slow in his anger; a slowness that will allow people time and opportunity to repent. We see it in 2 Peter 3:9,10, but also even using the words ‘goodness’ and ‘kindness’ in Romans 2:4ff. Unfortunately people presume upon God’s goodness and kindness in being slow to anger. Thus people ignore the coming judgement day, assuming that because God is slow in anger he has forgotten.
What then is the response that we need to make to the goodness of God?It is more than just that we praise and thank him. It is more than taking his goodness as an opportunity for repentance to find mercy and forgiveness. It is more than rejoicing and shouting and proclaiming his greatness. All these things are right and proper and we can find them in the marvelous Psalm 100. But more than these, it is the goodness of God, which also must be the foundation for praying to him and having faith in him. It is because he is good that we can know he will give us good things. It is because he is good that we can trust him for salvation and call upon him in our times of need.
The goodness of God is so fundamental to the whole Christian faith and life that unfortunately we can take it for granted.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.