Monday, July 9, 2012

The Goodness of God for the Soul of Man: A Reflection on Its Transformative Power

Words are powerful. What we say affects other people, and what we hear affects us. There are words that hurt by cutting, while other words erode confidence by picking, and some construct walls between people by offending. Words can also have a positive effect to those who hear them. They can encourage, strengthen, and invite people into relationship. So much of this happens unwittingly in casual conversations. The truth is, we hardly think about the power of words, except in terms of their instructional value.

There is another way that words function in our lives that seems to just happen. It is as if some words fall on us; they are formative—going beyond just relating information. They shape how we think, feel, and respond to things in our lives. These words often reach in and connect with beliefs and hopes that we have. They draw them out.

This formative role of words is particularly significant in the Christian community. Words are used to express the reality of what is already believed, and when we hear our beliefs and hopes expressed, faith reaches out and grabs it. Our faith is stirred and then grows. This is one of the primary purposes of the New Testament book of Hebrews. It is not primarily instructional, it is constructive, and is intended to root and build faith (Col. 2:6). So, the writer says, “pay even more attention to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away” (Heb. 2:1).  

Today, there are a few words that seem to be very constructive for Christians. Grace. Mercy. Gospel. With a resurgence in gospel-centered thinking, these terms are feeding people as they seek to live their lives in response to what God has done for them in the death and resurrection of Jesus. These words are shaping their identity and calling out their faith in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation.

There is one word, however, that is central to the biblical story that appears to be missing in this discussion, and its absence might be hindering our progress towards spiritual transformation. That word is good, or in a slightly different grammatical form, goodness

What is Good?

Terrence Malick’s film Tree of Life is perhaps this year’s most puzzling movie. One reviewer admitted he walked out of the theater asking the question, “what just happened?” That was my first response to the movie, too.

Because the movie is about the meaning of life, the viewers understandably expect (at least those unfamiliar with Malick’s work) that they will be confronted with a message on life’s purpose. But, what they get is an experience.

Malick’s movie does not answer many questions, if any. It engages its viewers in a visceral experience on how through the passing of time, events and relationships develop our understanding of life’s meaning. One of the most poignant moments in the movie is when the central character, Jack, while still a boy, watches a friend drown. After this, he asks—through the voice of the narrator—looking to the heavens, “If you are not good, why should I be?”

It seems to me that Jack’s question is the same question all of us are asking. We may not express it in the same way, but the question remains the same, “What is good?”

Many do exactly what Jack did. They look (perhaps just in their minds) to the heavens and say, “Are you good?” Some people are so jaded they deny anything is good, but they still live for something; the smile of a loved one, the expression of their angst, the enjoyment of culture. Ultimately, the question for everyone becomes specific and directed, “What is good for me?”

The question, “what is good?” is the persistent moral and emotional question of our soul. It is moral in part because it raises concerns over the nature of God. It is also moral because the answer to the question affects our moral decisions, as much as any other single question. It is emotional because the anticipation of finding something good gives life to our hope, unlike any other anticipation.

We Were Created for Goodness     

Our pursuit of goodness is natural. We were made for it. God created a good creation.

The first words that Adam and Eve probably heard were, “It is very good.” This was God’s statement of pleasure at the end of creation. It was more than just saying, “It is uncorrupted.” He was saying, “It is as it should be.” There was order. There was beauty. There was abundance. Through these things, God’s goodness for His creation was known. The Garden of Eden was a place where humanity dwelt with God, and they enjoyed God’s abundant provision. It was a place where God’s goodness was on display and where humanity knew God’s goodness was for them.

But in the garden, God allowed the opportunity for goodness to be explored without him. A tree was planted that was not good for food, for eating it would introduce death. He permitted the serpent to enter the garden, who was his enemy. The serpent approaches Eve, and goes to the heart of the issue--questioning God’s goodness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this conversation was the first theological conversation because the serpent suggests that he knows something about God that Eve does not know. He raises doubt about whether God can be trusted. It is at this point, Eve looks at the forbidden tree and sees that, what once was not, is now good for food. She eats, and Adam follows, eating after her.

The serpent’s words were a lie, but in a strange turn, they become a truth. They knew their creator. He walked in the garden with them. He spoke to them. But, after eating of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve’s knowledge of God’s goodness changed. God’s goodness did not change, but their understanding of it and trust in it did. They became unfettered from God’s goodness for them, and set out to find goodness on their own.

Adam and Eve demonstrated this by hiding from him and covering themselves up. Their actions are reasonable on the one hand, for God’s goodness is no longer for them. God is still good, and he has a good plan. He will display his goodness to his creation in general ways, and use his goodness to preserve his creation for his redemptive plan. But, the face of God is no longer towards humanity. Death has entered the world, and with it came fear. Fear changes our pursuit of and hope in goodness.

Humanity now is on a constant pursuit for what is good for them as finite creatures with the looming reality of death—looking for promises to believe that offer compelling goodness.

But, God Re-expressions His Goodness

God demonstrates his goodness for us in redemption. Athanasius wonderfully connects God’s goodness and the work of salvation in On the Incarnation. He writes,

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures who He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? (1996)   
God loves us because we derive our value from him and from his purpose for us. Richard Bauckham (2004) echoes this when he writes, “The good of God’s human creatures requires that he be known to them as God.” He demonstrates his goodness in love and mercy for sinners, so that we might know him and give praise to his “glorious grace” (Eph. 1:3-6, 2:4-8). In knowing God and praising him, we know our great good—God himself.

In the redemptive work of God, He becomes our good, and His goodness is now turned towards us. 

Here is how Jesus says it: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matt. 7:11)

Paul has his own take on the significance of knowing God’s goodness for us: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

John has a slightly different way of speaking to this truth: “Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has been born of God conquers the world.” (1 Jn. 5:3b-4a)

We live between two promises

Now, we live between the promise of God being our supreme good, and the promise of finding our own good separated from him.

Spiritual transformation is the process of believing that the things of this world are passing away, and the things of God remain forever (1 Jn. 2:17). The point of decision does not hinge on information, but rather on belief.  And this belief does not hinge on will-power, but a compelling promise. Every decision and action is a response to a belief in a promise.

Anger believes the promise that goodness is found in might makes right. Lust believes the promise that the greatest pleasure comes from what it can control. Greed believes the promise that security comes from what can be gained. 

The pure in heart are responding to the promise that they will see God (Matt. 5:8). Those who hunger for righteousness believe they will be filled (Matt. 5:6). Those who are gentle believe they will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:55). They believe these things in response to trusting that God’s goodness is for them.

We ultimately trust in “the promise” that we believe is for our good. We don’t make decisions arbitrarily. We do what we most desire. What we desire most is what we ultimately trust is for our good.

So, one key piece to spiritual transformation is belief that God’s goodness is for us. This belief must exceed wishful hope or spiritual excitement. It must be based on objective work, where the promises of God’s goodness for us are secure.

We find this security in the gospel. Romans 8:32 says, “He did not even spare His own Son, but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything?” With this, the knowledge of God’s goodness for us is found in what God has done for us in offering his Son up on our behalf that we might be reconciled to him. This great truth stirs our faith in God’s promises and produces transformed (lives, hearts, people, believers) that deny the promise of lesser goods for the promises of God, which are for our greatest good. 


Bauckham, R. (2004). Bible and mission: Christian witness in a postmodern world (p. 37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 

St. Athanasius (1996). On the Incarnation (p. 32). Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Keith Whitfield
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

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