God is… infinitely good

In this eighth part of the Get to know God series, we are thinking about how God is good. Not just good – God is infinitely good. He is the very definition of goodness itself. But what does it mean for God to be good? What does that look like? And what does it mean for us in our lives and how we relate to him? Let’s start, as always, by looking at the Bible before we turn to think about what it means for us.

What does the Bible say about God’s goodness?

Only God is good

A man once came to Jesus to ask him a question. The man called him “Good teacher”, but Jesus responded: “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Jesus didn’t respond like this because Jesus was saying he wasn’t good (we’ll come onto that in the final session!). But he wanted the man to think about what he was saying. Who is truly good? Only God is truly good.

If we want to see and know what true goodness is, we need to look to the Lord. He alone has true goodness. He is 100%, pure good. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s worth making the point that the opposite of good is evil. That which is not good is evil.

You might be thinking – if God alone is good, what does that say for human beings? Are human beings not good? Or, at least, can human beings not be good? We’ll come onto that question in a minute!

Everything God does is good

“People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said.”

Mark 7:37

What does it mean to be good? One thing it means is to do good. Everything that God does is good. This comes over very clearly in the creation of the world (Genesis 1-2). In Genesis 1, the word “good” occurs seven times – e.g. 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”.

When God made the world, it was a good world. There was nothing bad or evil in it at all. Everything in the world was designed to dwell in peace and harmony with God and with the rest of creation. You can see more about this in the first session of the What is Christianity course.

God is just and righteous

Another aspect of God’s goodness is his justice and righteousness. Psalm 33:5, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love”. Righteousness is a matter of knowing and doing what is right and good. Justice is a matter of making sure that good deeds are rewarded and evil deeds are punished (like a good judge should do). God is both of these things.

I think we in society can recognise that. People can often recognise integrity and morals in someone – even if they disagree. We can respect someone so long as they are acting with integrity. For example, I find I prefer politicians who have a particular thought-through position and hold it with integrity, rather than those who simply try to jump on a bandwagon because they think it will make them popular.

If we can say that of human beings, how much more is that true of God?

Human beings are not good

As we thought about earlier on, if God alone is good, that means that human beings are not good. For example, this is how Psalm 14 begins:

The fool says in his heart,
  ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
  there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven
  on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
  any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
  there is no one who does good,
  not even one.

There is no one who does good, not even one. That’s pretty stark, isn’t it? But that is how the Bible diagnoses the human condition. By nature, we are not good. The apostle Paul says by nature we are “dead in transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

What does that mean? Let’s think about this. When Jesus said God alone is good, what he meant is that God alone is perfect goodness. Human beings may have elements of goodness, but we also have elements of evil. No human being is perfectly good.

Let’s take an analogy: pollution.

Air pollution

When pollution gets into the air, it doesn’t stop air from being air. It still contains oxygen, you can still breathe it. It might be bad for you and make you ill, depending on how badly the air is polluted. But it’s still air – it’s just not pure air.

This is a bit like how sin is with us: sin doesn’t erase the image of God in us. Rather, it pollutes us. It doesn’t turn everything good to evil, but it pollutes everything good so that it becomes a mix of good and evil! This means everything we do is a mix of good and evil. Some things may be better than others, but everything – even the best things we do – are polluted by evil. Think about our good deeds, for example: do we do them out of a pure love for others? Or do we do them, at least in part, because we want to feel good about ourselves, and we want others to see how good we are?

If you’d like to explore this further, check out Part 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

God works all things to good in the end

This question of sin and evil is a difficult one. How do we reconcile the fact that God is good with there being evil in the world? The Bible doesn’t give us a comprehensive answer to that question, but there are some intriguing clues.

One of the most fascinating verses in the Bible is Genesis 50:20, which comes at the end of the story of Joseph and his brothers. (The subject of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… they didn’t include this verse in the musical, though!). Joseph says to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives”.

Joseph says that his brothers intended to harm him. And yet, he says God intended it for good – for the saving of many lives. Joseph’s brothers intended to do something evil, and yet God intended the very same act to be used for a good purpose.

We see this ultimately at the cross: it was a moment of supreme evil, and yet at the same time it was God’s supreme triumph over evil. (We thought about this a bit when we looked at God’s power). God took the most evil thing that ever happened and made it the most good thing that ever happened.

What does God’s goodness mean for us?

We need to look to God to understand what goodness is

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent. Even though God had forbidden ,it, they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They thought that they knew what was good better than God did. They didn’t really believe God was good. This problem still remains for us, too: we still want to put ourselves in God’s place, and determine what is good and evil for ourselves.

This is why it’s important to understand that God gives good laws because he is good. As the Psalmist says:

The precepts of the Lord are right,
  giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
  giving light to the eyes.
Psalm 19:8

God’s commands are good. That doesn’t mean simply that they are morally correct, but also that they’re good for us. In God’s goodness, he has given us commands to follow because he loves us and intends the best for us. When we obey God’s commands, we are trusting in his goodness. His commands bring light and life to our lives.

When we aspire to be good, what we mean is that we are aspiring to be like God. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We need to “Follow God’s example” (Ephesians 5:1). God doesn’t just tell us what good is, he shows us! We thought a bit more about this in the first session of the How to Live as a Christian course.

We should be cautious about what the world calls good

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

Isaiah 5:20
"Greed is Good" slogan from the film Wall Street

Because the world does not know God, it tends to turn good and evil upside down. That doesn’t mean it gets everything wrong! But in any society, we should expect it to get some things wrong. For example, in the 1987 film Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko famously says: “Greed is good”. Although I’m sure most people wouldn’t agree with that in those terms, our society does tend to think that what makes us happy is more stuff. Advertisements continually encourage us to want more. The message is – “what you have isn’t enough!”

Jesus’ message is very different. As he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). God encourages us to be generous – see this session on money and giving, for example. What God says is good is very different to what the world says. So Christians need to be wise and discerning about what the world calls good or evil.

We need God to be good

And without faith it is impossible to please God

Hebrews 11:6

If God alone is good, and we are polluted by sin, how then do we do good? The answer given in the Bible is that we can’t please God without faith. We can’t be good people just be trying hard to live a good life. We need God’s help.

When Jesus died on the cross, he died in our place, so that we might be forgiven and live a transformed life. This is how the apostle Peter put it: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus took our sins, our evil, upon himself on the cross. He took the punishment that we deserve – so that we could have the righteousness we don’t deserve. When we put our trust in Jesus, we start to die to our sin and live instead for righteousness.

We can do things which may appear to be ‘good’ without God: we can give money to charity or other good deeds, we can love our family and friends. But we cannot begin to really love as God wants us to love without him. And without faith, we cannot please him.

If you’d like into this more, check out the Heidelberg Catechism, especially part two e.g. session 24 – Why are good deeds not enough?

Further Reading

As I’ve been writing this article, it has struck me that there is so much more you could say. I think God’s goodness, more than anything else we’ve looked at so far, really goes to the heart of the gospel.

I’ve pointed to a few things you might want to look at as we’ve been going through. Here are a few extra suggestions.

  • The Good God by Mike Reeves – a lovely (and short!) book about God.
  • Thomas Goodwin – The Heart of Christ in heaven towards sinners on earth – a lovely book from a puritan (written a long time ago) about the love and goodness of God.
  • Richard Sibbes – The Bruised Reed – another puritan book about God’s love and goodness towards us.
  • Dane Ortlund – Gentle and Lowly – the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers – a modern book in the same vein as the previous two.
  • Jonty Allcock – Impossible Commands – how to obey God when it seems that you can’t. If you want to look a bit more into pleasing God.
  • Sinclair Ferguson – Devoted to God – similarly, going into what it means to be devoted to goodness like God is.
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