By Cheri Lynn Cowell
Just what do we mean when we say something is good? We tend to throw that word around with little thought. When we call something good we could be making a moral judgment, such as when someone performs a good deed. We could also be talking about choosing good over evil. But when the Bible speaks about goodness in the context of the fruit of the Spirit, we must ask ourselves if God’s definition is somehow not broader and at the same time more specific than our casual use of the word suggests.
The words good and goodness appear more than 600 times in the Bible. Most times it refers to doing good in light of God’s commands. Yet time and again we see how far humankind has fallen from that mark. We simply cannot “do good” on our own.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explained that goodness is not one of our works, but is, in fact, a gift from God. This seed of God’s character is planted in every person, but it is only a seed. Like other spiritual traits, goodness must be nurtured so the seed will produce the fruit we are intended to bear. Said another way, you and I won’t show evidence of goodness simply because the seed is planted in our hearts. So the question becomes, how do we cultivate goodness, while recognizing it is not due to our efforts?
Goodness Is Godliness
First, we must accept the biblical definition of goodness. As children we sang the song, “God Is So Good” because God is entirely good. The Psalms tell us to “Give thanks to him and praise his name; For the Lord is good” (Psalm 100:4, 5). We are to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8). God is our definition of goodness. If God is our definition, then the Bible’s story is our explanation of how to be like him. This story begins with God’s creative goodness.
The earth was a formless void and filled with darkness when God created light and “saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:1-4). All that he created was good. Then God created man and woman and they were “very good” (v. 31). There was only one thing God deemed not good, and that was for Adam to dwell alone (2:18).
We can learn a great deal from this part of the story. First, everything and everyone begins in goodness. Second, God and God alone declares what is good. We don’t choose; God has done that. Third, God created diversity, harmony, order, work, rest, and the power to reproduce all of this—and this is good. Finally, God deemed that we must live in relationship, that we need each other.
So just what does God’s creative goodness tell us about reproducing this type of goodness in our lives? First, we accept that we, and all those around us, are God’s creation. We may not always act like it, but in the center of our being is God-like goodness. This has implications for how we treat ourselves and how we treat others—especially those society has deemed “bad” or unworthy of respect and care. We don’t get to choose. God has already declared each person not only good, but very good.
Second, we’ve been given the power to reproduce and create, based on the creativity of our Creator. As we take up this task, we must follow his example in the use of our creative powers and reestablish our biblical calling to diversity, harmony, order, work, and Sabbath rest. These ideals are not tenets of a liberal or conservative agenda; they are foremost God’s agenda.
For example, to be good as God intended, we are to heed the call to diversity in the communities we create, in the families we build, and in the churches where we assemble. Likewise, work is good, and having work to do is a means to goodness. Helping people find meaningful work fosters goodness in the world. Goodness as seen in the creation story helps us understand that how we view and use our own creativity and the creativity of others is truly next to godliness.
As the story goes, God’s good world did not stay good. Sin corrupted that goodness, and from the beginning God’s saving goodness was present. Out of Egypt we were saved from bondage. “And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’” (Exodus 33:19). As God’s people continued down a path of destruction, his messengers cried out, “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst” (Nehemiah 9:20).
Again and again, God’s people turned away from him. But in spite of their sins, and with his saving goodness, God gave them a place to hide. “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him” (Nahum 1:7).
So how does God’s saving goodness lead us to fruit-producing goodness in our own lives? First, we acknowledge with Paul “that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Roman 7:18).
Sin corrupts the goodness in us. Try as we might, we can’t be good on our own. This means we must learn to cut others and ourselves a break when we fall short of what is good. Second, God saw the nakedness of our sinfulness and instead of turning his head in repulsion, he spread his wings and gave us a place to hide. He sent manna from Heaven to feed us and he opened a rock to pour forth water for our thirst. God saw our need and acted in compassion and mercy.
How do we respond to sin-stained people? Do we point fingers and turn away, or are we moved by saving goodness to alleviate the suffering, even while they (and we) are yet sinners?
As David Gill says in Becoming Good (InterVarsity Press, 2000), “The Incarnation was God bringing his goodness close to us, right into our history and our daily, ordinary life.” The rich young man who approached Jesus addressed him as “Good Teacher.” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). This was the point; only God is truly good. Jesus is good because he and God are one.
Jesus lived goodness. His followers are called to be good because we have the Spirit of God within us. John put it this way: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God” (3 John 11).
So what does God’s incarnational goodness tell us about becoming good? First, it means we are imitators of Jesus and that the way Jesus lived, in all dimensions, is how we are to live. How Jesus treats others, how he responds to evil, and how he gave his own life as a sacrifice is goodness personified. Second, incarnational goodness goes into the world to live God’s goodness. We are to go and do likewise, living God’s goodness in the world where God’s goodness needs to be seen, felt, and believed.
For Goodness’ Sake
When she heard tragic news or learned about a difficult situation, my grandmother used to say with a shake of the head, “For goodness’ sake.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but this was actually a simple prayer. She was saying, “Lord, for your sake have mercy,” or ”For your sake intercede.” She was a spiritually minded woman who practiced creative goodness, saving goodness, and incarnational goodness throughout her life. I doubt she gave a second thought to what fruit grew on her tree because she nurtured God’s goodness or godliness in her daily life and the fruit was simply a byproduct. And she knew why she did it; it was for goodness’ [God’s] sake.
Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
Five Excellent Studies on God’s Goodness
The Utter Relief of Holiness: How God’s Goodness Frees Us from Everything that Plagues Us
by John Eldridge (Faithwords, 2013)
The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering
by Randy Alcorn (Doubleday Religious Publishing, 2010)
Becoming Good: Building a Moral Character
by David W. Gill (InterVarsity Press, 2000)
God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, and Love
by Donald G. Bloesch (InterVarsity Press, 2005)
The Beauty of God’s Holiness
by Thomas L. Trevethan (InterVarsity Press, 1995)