Monday, 11 November 2013

The Goodness of God (1)

We may be aware that the well-known answer in the Shorter Catechism to the question, ‘What is God?’ does not include ‘love’ among the list of divine attributes – love is there, but it is found under the term ‘goodness’. The Catechism’s answer also reminds us that each of God’s attributes, including goodness, are infinite, eternal and unchangeable.

The term ‘goodness’ has more than one meaning. It can mean excellence of character or ability, righteous behaviour (live good lives), and benevolence (kindness to others, especially the needy). These different meanings do not only apply to human goodness, they also are included within the divine attribute of goodness.

It is possible to argue that goodness is the sum of all God’s attributes. When Moses asked the Lord to reveal his glory, he replied in Exodus 33:19: ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ In a further answer to Moses’ prayer, the Lord amplifies the meaning of his goodness in Exodus 34:6-7: ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

God’s goodness and love are intimately linked. God loves because he is good, and he does good because he loves. Often the terms can be used interchangeably. One of our difficulties is caused by the reality that we can do good without loving the recipients (e.g., giving to charity), and we can love people without being able to do them good (because of our lack of resources). This cannot be said of God. He only does what is good.

The goodness of God is displayed in his creation and providence. We can see his goodness in Genesis 1 as he prepared an ideal environment for his creatures (animals and humans). Although human sin has resulted in the effects of the curse, it is still the case that the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 24:1), whether in its scenery or in his provision for the needs of his creatures.

As far as humans are concerned, God’s goodness to each of them is revealed primarily in each being created in the image of God. This image includes character (holy) and status (rulers of creation). Although all humans have rebelled against God, none of them has lost his image and each expresses it in a range of ways. Humans can think, investigate, discover, understand, relate, discuss, develop, and do these for the benefit of others (sadly they can also use them for the destruction of others). Similarly, humans have been gifted with many natural talents, such as composing appropriate music; painting or drawing images that help us understand ourselves and our environment; writing absorbing, accurate and enchanting literature; designing useful and convenient technology that betters the human situation; and creating beautiful things in general so that life is pleasant and enjoyable. (Sadly, these talents can also be used to produce what is unhelpful, ugly and pointless.) These talents have come to us, individually and corporately, because of the goodness of God.

Considering this activity of God is good for our souls. This is what the Lord used to give Job a sense of perspective in his troubles that all the advice of his friends could not give. The Lord took his suffering servant on a rapid tour of his creation, pointing out the various ways in which he was involved in the control of the elements, in giving food to animals, as well as in other ways (Job 38–39). In these chapters, the Lord reveals his power, his wisdom and his goodness, and it was part of the process of Job’s restoration.

This activity of God is also an effective aspect of evangelism. In addressing the citizens of Lystra, who wanted to worship Barnabas and him, Paul informed them that the true God had not left himself without a witness and instead ‘he did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with good and gladness’ (Acts 14:17). In Romans 2:4, Paul writes that grateful response to the goodness of God should lead to human repentance.

God’s goodness to the human race in making each of them in his image is a reminder that each has to be good to the others. This is why abortion (whether of the healthy or the handicapped) and euthanasia (whether of the handicapped or the aged) is more than disobedience to one of God’s commands. It is a denial of our corporate responsibility to live as God’s image-bearers in a human society that should reflect his values.

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