Sunday, February 08, 2009

How Can I Believe That God is Good?

As we look at the world, you might be tempted to ask – what’s going on? You only have to look in the newspapers or on TV to see bad things happening. War. Famine. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Or maybe we don’t even have to go to outside. We see bad things happening in our families, friends, or even our own lives.

Why do bad things happen? Or rather, why does a God who is meant to be good let bad things happen? Does God not care? Is God not powerful to stop them from happening? Or is God simply not good?

The first thing we have to do is sort out what we mean by good – and where it comes from in the first place. When we say that something is good, what do we mean? Is it just what feels good for us, or is there an ultimate standard? Is ‘good’ a subjective thing – what’s right for me is good? Well, surely not. Just think of two children being given sweets. If there’s a difference between the two, then you’ll probably hear ‘that’s not fair’ – from we’re no height, we appeal to a standard of fairness – we know good and evil, right and wrong.

So where does this standard of good and evil come from? Is it just something that evolved – evolutionary principles? Or is it implanted deep within us – a shadow of the divine image we were created with – an echo of the goodness of God?

Yet, when we hear that phrase – the goodness of God, some of us may well doubt it. How can God be good when … You fill in the blank. You know how it ends.

Humans have always been questioning God’s goodness. Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They had all they needed; they enjoyed God’s company, truly they were in Paradise. Even in Paradise, God told them not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The serpent comes along and asks Eve about this. Why was it God had told them not to eat of it? ‘Did God actually say…?’ Surely God was holding something back – or in other words, God wasn’t truly good. If God was good, so the devil’s lie goes, he would have given them all things without limits. ‘You will not surely die…’

So Adam and Eve take the fruit, eat it, and suddenly everything changes. Banished from the garden. Cut off from God’s company. Turned against one another. Perhaps God was good all along – knowing what would happen when Adam and Eve – and us – want to make our own decisions; try to be god ourselves.

Now you might be thinking that God can’t be good if he removed Adam and Eve from the garden. Surely he was being bad there? Yet even in this, God was acting according to his character of goodness, holiness, and love.

Later, Moses is granted a vision of God’s goodness, and the name of the LORD is proclaimed: ‘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 sin and 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.’ (Exodus 34:6-7)

So you see that a vital part of God’s goodness is his being merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Rather than judging Adam and Eve straight away, he graciously allows them to live and produce children, as well as promising the one who will deal with their sin.

When Moses first encountered the LORD, Moses asks what his name is. “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14) – which speaks of God’s unchanging nature, as well as his endless existence – always present tense. In this again, we see something of God’s goodness – because he never changes.

You see, when the Israelites went into the promised land, they were warned not to turn and follow the idols and false gods of the natives of the land. In and around the area you had Baal and Asherah – husband and wife farming gods, who needed sacrifices to be kept on your side to boost your crops. Molech was another false god – to keep him happy, you had to sacrifice your son or daughter. Do you see the problem? These gods were so unpredictable – you had to keep giving them things so they would like you and help you.

In contrast, the Living God never changes – his nature is as it always has been – that of mercy, love, grace, slow to anger. I’m not saying that we can take God for granted as a result – but he is not capricious or likely to suddenly change his mind.

So if God never changes, then can we see how he is good? Theologians talk of ‘common grace.’ What they mean by this is a practical, permanent grace that God extends to the whole of the world, both saved and unsaved. Jesus speaks of it in the Sermon on the Mount, calling for his followers to love your enemies ‘so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ (Matthew 5:44-45)

The sun and the rain (and even the snow), are God’s good gifts to everyone – not just those who follow him. Even the rebellious benefit from the sun and the rain. As James says, ‘Every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1:17)

However, a wider application of common grace can also be seen. Earlier I mentioned that God graciously allowed Adam and Eve to live and have children, rather than immediately judging their sin.

Does God not do the same today with us? Imagine that there was immediate judgement for our sins, so that as we committed a sin, we were struck down. How long would anyone survive? As the Psalmist says: ‘If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?’ (Psalm 130:3) God’s goodness in his common grace not only gives us things we don’t deserve like sun and rain, but also withholds judgement until the proper time – giving us the opportunity to repent and believe.

As Don Carson says, ‘Acts of kindness and self-sacrifice surface among every race and class of human beings, not because we are simple mixtures of good and evil, but because even in the midst of our deep rebellion God restrains us and displays his glory and goodness.’

But maybe the sun and rain just don’t cut it for you. The rain seems to complement your tears of pain and suffering. If God was good, then this wouldn’t happen. Let me take you to a prison cell. A man has just been thrown into jail accused of assaulting his boss’ wife. It’s the low point having been attacked by his brothers and sold as a slave far away from home. Joseph (minus his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) languishes in prison, but ultimately ends up as Egypt’s Prime Minister to guide the country through years of famine. After his father dies, his brothers are fearful of what Joseph will do to them. But here’s what he says: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50: 20).

Or let me take you to the town of Bethlehem as two women arrive after a long journey. The older of the two had left ten years before with a husband and two sons. Now, she just has one daughter-in-law, and she wants to be called Mara (which means bitter), because the LORD has brought her back empty, and the Almighty has afflicted her. Yet for Naomi, God’s goodness is always with her, and is completed when she has a grandson. Her suffering was bitter, but God’s goodness did not fail her or Ruth.

Let me take you on to a hill outside a city. Three crosses stand waiting for their victims. The men are nailed to the crosses, and the crowd watches to see what will happen. The man on the middle cross had been making deaf people hear and blind people see. Lame men had been walking, and he had even raised the dead. But now he hangs on the cross, his back lacerated from the flogging, his head pierced with the crown of thorns, struggling to breathe, in agony.

He saved others – let him save himself. Yet he dies, a cruel death on a Roman cross. Where was God in this? Was it a mistake, after everything had been going so well? No, even in the death of the cross, God was working his purpose for good – demonstrating his goodness and his love for the world.

‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6-8)

Can you imagine it? While we were still God’s enemies, Jesus died for us to make us his friends! When we’re tempted to think that God is not good, that God does not care, we can look and see the Lord Jesus, who still bears the marks of the cross – the wounds of love. Jesus lives, assuring us of God’s goodness, and his love.

How can I believe that God is good? We see it in his common grace, but we also see it much clearer in Jesus. Throughout the Psalms we see a theme being repeated: ‘Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!’ (Ps 118:1). ‘Oh taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!’ (Psalm 34:8).

This talk was presented at Open HouseDundonald on Sunday 8th February 2009.

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