But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22, 23, English Standard Version).
Perhaps more than any of its fellow traits, goodness is a tricky attribute to pin down. It’s one of those things we know when we see it in someone, but it’s hard to define objectively. Try explaining it without using the other fruit of the Spirit.
To add to the confusion, goodness encompasses a whole history of misuse and expectation. We’ve all heard the old excuse, “But I’m a good person.” As if a general trait of evading murder and adultery should somehow be enough justification for God’s favor. Even followers of Christ get caught up in this idea. We have an understanding of what “good Christians” look like and do, and a long list of sins they avoid and judge. Our righteousness becomes synonymous with our salvation.
Many religions are based on the idea that your goodness can outbalance your badness, and that will be enough to secure your place in eternity. But we know this isn’t true. No one can use his or her own goodness to inherit the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19, ESV). If goodness is a trait reserved for God alone, it should seem pretty intangible to mere mortals!
And yet, here is goodness, listed with the fruit of the Spirit as a gift that can be expressed in humanity. So surely it can be defined and experienced without the old works-based mindset that is so dangerous to our faith.
What Is Goodness?
Let’s start with the Greek word used in Galatians, agathosune. It refers to an intrinsic or inherent quality of goodness, with more emphasis on kindness than righteousness.
Agathosune is used only four times in the New Testament, occurring in these verses:
- “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14, NIV).
- “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8-10).
- “With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
In each case Paul called on believers to use the virtue of goodness in an action for the kingdom: to care for one another, to please the Lord, and to display God’s power.
Because goodness is included in lists with both righteousness and kindness, it’s clearly distinct from both. It’s neither right moral behavior nor a way of interacting with others. But goodness also embodies each of those things. It’s how God empowers us to think of others selflessly and sacrificially, and then act rightly on their behalf.
It’s also noteworthy that it’s not a word found in secular Greek texts from the same time. This goodness exists only in the realm of God’s anointing as a virtue unique to Christ followers. It’s a trait that comes from God and applies toward and for other people. Not from ourselves. Not for ourselves.
What Does Goodness Look Like?
Let’s consider the parable from Matthew 25 where Jesus talked about three servants who were given bags of gold by their master. The first and second servants, who had earned for their master twice what they’d been given, were told, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (v. 23). The Greek word Jesus used for good in the parable is derived from the same root word that we see in Galatians.
The parallels with this story and agathosune are clear. The two servants who acted boldly and wisely out of their devotion to another, their master, made decisions that were considered good. The third servant was thinking only of himself, and his decisions reflected a clear absence of that others-serving thoughtfulness and action.
In our everyday lives, goodness looks like a lot of different things. Sometimes, it’s generosity when no one is looking. It can be confronting sin in a brother or sister, even though it gives us great pain, because we care too much about them to look the other way. It’s wrestling in prayer for the lost, anguished to our core because the brokenness is so heavy on their shoulders.
Goodness is when compassion for others collides with hope in God and results in action.
How Do We Attain Goodness?
Like the other fruit of the Spirit, we cannot manufacture goodness. Just as love and peace don’t come from within us, or as a result of our efforts, self-control, status, or searching, neither is goodness something we create.
If you want to grow peaches, you don’t focus on the fruit. You put all of your effort into the tree. Cultivate the soil. Prune the branches. Vigilantly guard against disease and pests. Take care of the tree, and in time, it will produce delectable fruit.
Of course, this is why Paul used this wording in Galatians. The Spirit is the tree in our lives. He produces fruit in us. If we want to see more of his fruit, we need to focus on our relationship with him.
Jesus made this abundantly clear in John 15. He said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5).
Goodness can be especially tricky because it’s particularly easy to fake. We see people all the time who feed the poor, fight for the oppressed, bind up the wounded, and speak kindly to children. These things are all good, but they don’t necessarily reflect goodness.
The Scripture is clear: goodness is a state of the heart. It’s only from God’s Spirit, and it’s not dependent on the situation. To see true goodness in our lives we must cultivate our relationship with our Savior.
The first step is to recognize the absence of goodness and its fellow fruits in our lives. When we identify those areas where we’re acting out of self-preservation, revenge, frustration, pride, or brokenness, we can immediately begin praying for God’s intervention. Ask him to transform your perception of the situation. Find grace in his faithfulness to you and invite him to teach you how to reflect him better.
Next, intentionally guard against the invasions of evil. If your life is to bear the Spirit’s fruit you must identify and banish sin in all its forms. Challenge the lies in your life. Remove temptations that easily ensnare you. Walk with others who will challenge and love you with the grace of Christ. Repent from your sin and cling desperately to the King who rescued you.
As we go through this cycle of pruning, growth, and transformation, remember that God is the source for all goodness. He changes our hearts and his Spirit bears the fruit in our lives. It’s not for us or because of us, but through him and for his mighty purposes.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
Carla Williams is the Story Curator/Writer for Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where she lives with her husband, JC, and their two toddlers. She loves the power of a good story, and the compelling power of the gospel to change the world.