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God is good. Christians say this all the time, but what exactly does this mean? Because while they claim that God is good, Christians also have a long list of things that their “good God” wouldn’t do. When terrorists capture civilians and torture them to death, is that our good God at work? Most Christians would say no. God says yes. Clearly there’s a problem when what we say about God doesn’t line up with what He says. A lot of the trouble starts when we don’t understand how God justifies the statement “I am good.” Let’s now look at four arguments we can make to explain God’s goodness and learn why only one of them is valid.
1. WHO GOD IS: His Attributes
One common theory is that God’s goodness can be proven by His attributes or characteristics. When we go down this road, we say things like:
God is gracious because He is good.
God is loving because He is good.
God is patient because He is good.
Fine, but we can hardly stop here. God is also ragingly jealous. He has terrifying wrath and an insatiable appetite for self-exaltation. What do these qualities have to do with goodness? Not much. When we try to use the attributes of God to prove that He is good, we end up saying really stupid things like:
God never gets angry.
God never wants anyone to suffer.
God never wants people to go to Hell.
Yes He does—all the time, in fact. The truth is that God has an infinite variety of attributes, many of which directly oppose each other. When we try to use His attributes as evidence of His goodness, we end up denying much of who He is and of course this only sets us up for major disillusionment down the line. We need a better system.
2. WHAT GOD IS CAPABLE OF: The Extent of His Power & Reign
This second theory attempts to use God’s abilities as evidence of His goodness. Here we might say things like:
Because God is good, He has nothing to do with evil.
Because God is good, He cannot lie.
Because God is good, He can’t be in the presence of sin.
Because God is good, He can’t enjoy seeing His own creations suffering.
What’s wrong with these statements is that they are all reducing God to a limited being. God says He is unlimited. God says He is the origin of all things—and that includes evil. He says He does things that we would call evil all the time. In the Bible, we find Yahweh boasting of raising up mighty armies to come and bash the heads of infants on rocks, cut open pregnant women, rape, pillage, torture, and molest people. As far as lying goes, God constantly deceives us in a variety of ways. He gives false prophecies and empty promises. He raises false expectations and hopes only to later dash them to pieces. He intentionally disillusions us. As far as sin goes, Yahweh was standing right there with sinful Adam and Eve making them a set of clothes to wear after He’d cursed them in Eden. All throughout the Old Testament we find Him interacting with sinful human beings. In the Gospels, we find Jesus walking around in a nation where most people were defying God. Can God be in the presence of sin? If He couldn’t, we’d all be dead. It’s only God’s hands on involvement in our sinful, sordid little lives that keeps this world from being torn apart.
When it comes to God and suffering, we can hardly say He doesn’t enjoy seeing His own creatures writhing in agony. God made Hell for the primary purpose of showcasing the misery of creatures He was tormenting on a continuous basis. In Revelation we find Jesus presenting Himself as kicking back in Heaven enjoying the public show of souls suffering in Hell. At the end of Isaiah 66, we find Yahweh describing a metaphorical heaven in which He showcases the misery of those who defied Him. In both the Old and New Testaments, we find Yahweh and Jesus stomping all over human beings in the figurative winepress of God’s wrath. Our blood is described as spattering Their garments. So does God enjoy our suffering? In certain contexts, He absolutely does. Trying to prove God’s goodness by what He is capable of doesn’t work at all.
3. WHAT GOD ACTUALLY DOES: Observing His Actions
Because God is good, He gave us the ability to experience joy and pleasure.
Because God is good, He heals us from diseases.
Because God is good, He protects us from harm.
Because God is good, He always provides for us.
According to this third theory, we can find evidence of God’s goodness by observing what He does and how He manages this Creation. This theory is fraught with problems, because God doesn’t just give us rainbows and sunshine, He also gives us trials and sorrows. It’s true that God gave us the ability to experience pleasure, but He also gave us the ability to experience pain. He created both laughter and heartache. He is the One who inflicts us with diseases and causes us to get hit by cars, gunned down in the streets, abused, and abandoned. He is the One who prevents us from gaining access to basic essentials, like food and clothing. We can’t possibly prove God’s goodness through His actions without saying a lot of really dumb things like:
It wasn’t God who caused your child to get hit by that car.
You brought these hardships on yourself—it isn’t God bringing these trials into your life.
God never tempts people.
You can’t blame God for your illness—it’s your own lack of faith.
But according to God, He is the Source of both our blessings and our troubles. As Yahweh once said:
I kill, and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is no one who can deliver from My hand. (Deut. 32:39)
I have created the blacksmith who fans the coals beneath the forge and makes the weapons of destruction. And I have created the armies that destroy. (Isa. 54:16)
Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes the dumb, the deaf, the seeing, and the blind? Is it not I, Yahweh? (Ex. 4:11)
The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am Yahweh who does all these. (Isa. 45:11)
Clearly this third proof for God’s goodness doesn’t work at all. So if we can’t find evidence of God’s goodness by examining His many attributes, or by pondering His abilities, or by studying His actions, where can we go? How do we really know that God is good?
4. GOD’S MOTIVATIONS: Why He Does What He Does
God teaches us that there is only one way to accurately assess character, and that is by examining motivations. Suppose someone calls the police and reports that there’s a place in their neighborhood where a bunch of grown men have been observed picking up infants that are covered with blood, cutting pieces off of them with knives and injecting them with chemical substances. It all sounds pretty horrific until you learn that what’s being described is the labor and delivery floor of a hospital. Those babies are covered in blood because they’ve just been born. The men are doctors who are cutting umbilical cords and injecting lifesaving medications. Before you were given more details, it sounded like some horrific torture chamber was being described. The person who called the police assumed these men were trying to harm the babies. When you investigate and learn the men are helping the children instead, you go from feeling alarmed to feeling comforted. Understanding motivation is what puts your mind to rest in this situation.
Motivation is the key to judging character—in fact, it is the only way we can accurately assess whether what someone did is good or bad. If a man says, “I saw someone light the forest on fire”, you don’t know if he witnessed a pyromaniac at work or a fireman setting up a controlled blaze in order to prevent lives from being lost during the dry season. If someone says, “I saw a cop shoot someone,” you have to look into motivation before you can make a judgment. Why did the cop fire his gun? Was he acting out of hate? Was he trying to save someone else from injury? When we don’t take the time to learn about motivation, we end up drawing wrong conclusions about both people and God.
How can a good God let innocent children be gunned down at school?
The way this question is phrased, it’s focused on ability, not motivation. How can God do something? The answer is “Very easily, He’s all powerful.” The real question we need to be asking here is not how, but why.
Why would a good God let innocent children be gunned down at school?
There are all kinds of good reasons. God often kills children before they become morally accountable to Him as an act of grace. When children die before they are accountable, they end up in Heaven, protected from ever getting the option of defying God and ending up in Hell. He separates us from our loved ones on earth in order to help us mature in our own walks with Him. As wonderful as human relationships can be, they often become obstacles to our own maturity. We become so focused on people that we forget we are here to develop our relationships with God.
God tells us that nothing happens in this world without His approval and help. He tells us that everything He does with us is about helping us thrive in our relationships with Him. He doesn’t force us to submit to Him, He doesn’t force us to get saved. He says a two-way relationship is the only kind He is interested in having. But He then takes it on Himself to educate us about who He is and what He wants. He pursues us before we even know to search for Him. He says that He pursues us out of love. He says He wants us to experience His best. He says that He never abandons the works of His hands because He is a very invested Creator who cares very much about helping His own creations experience His best for them. God says that pain, suffering, and sin are all tools which He uses to motivate us to pursue Him. Yes, He hurts us, but His motivation is to help us. Yes, He does things which we would call evil, but His motivation is to bless us.
God says motivation is what matters in assessing character. Because His motivations are always good, His character is good. Once we know His character is good, we can feel secure in trusting Him wholeheartedly. We can feel safe in His care and we can remain confident in His love for us even when He is putting us through hard times. Everything comes down to God’s character. If He is not good, there is no hope at all, no basis for trust. But if He is good, then the things He says mean something. His promises have value. We don’t need to be paralyzed with fear by His awesome power.
It’s of no use to say that God is good if you can’t back that statement up with any evidence. God does not call us to put our trust in some meaningless cliche. He teaches us that character can only be assessed by motivation, and then He explains to us what His motivations are. Ours is a communicative God who does not leave us drifting in a sea of unanswered questions. He gives us answers. He might take His time in doing so, and the answers might surprise us, but they are there, and He will lead us to them if we sincerely desire to grow closer to Him.