“And as he was setting our on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'” And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
— Mark 10:17-18 —
Knowing the difference between good and evil is fundamental to being made in the image of God. When God created Adam and Eve, he put them in a garden filled with delights and with a solitary tree that would instruct them how to know good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Likewise, knowing the difference between good and evil is essential to maturation and becoming a responsible adult. Isaiah 7:15, uses the idea to describe the difference between young children who do not know the difference between good and evil, and then those children who mature and begin to understand that difference.
Sadly, it is possible that many Christians fail to know what “the good” is. If we learn anything from the Rich Young Ruler, we learn that we can too easily christen something good, when in fact we don’t know what we are talking about. How often do we employ flattery—calling something good—for our own personal benefits. The statement of value is not based on any kind of objective reality or blessed commitment, rather, it is a pragmatic means of speaking. It is good because it serves my purposes. It is “good” because I feel favorably towards it today, but tomorrow it may be less than good. So it seems with the Rich Young Ruler: Did he simply use the title “good teacher” to ingratiate himself to Jesus, or was something more being said?
Obviously, Jesus turns around and rightly posits the truth that God alone is good. As Psalm 119:68 says, “The Lord is good and does good.” In the most basic and absolute sense, only God is good. And while his goodness is profuse—the world he has made is filled with goodness (cf. James 1:17)—goodness in its most proper sense is only attributable to him. All other goodness is derived from him.
What is Good?
This is an important question and one that is often misunderstood. Especially in Western Christianity, goodness is physical well-being or a personal security that comes from living an upstanding life. Even for those who repudiate the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, it is easy to think that if I do good, if I love God, if I go to church and help people. If I do all the ‘good’ things that I am supposed to do, good things will come my way. Whether, we recognize it or not, this way of thinking is closer to Eastern notions of karma, than it is Christianity’s view of grace.
How we answer the question “What is good?” is desperately important, especially in times of personal tragedy and suffering. D.A. Carson makes this point in his helpful treatment on suffering, How Long, O Lord?. In a section on false understandings of good and evil, he writes,
Some of us thoroughly misunderstand a number of important texts. For instance, Romans 8:28 reads: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” If we interpret “the good of those who love him” in selfish, materialistic ways, we shall entirely miss the point of the passage. In the context, it is the bad things of the world that are befalling God’s people, part of the groaning of the entire universe still given over to death and decay (8:22ff.), and climaxing in the perseuction of God’s people (8:35ff.). What the passage promises us, then, is that in the midst of such misery we may be assured that God is at work “for the good of those who love him.” That sort of promise has to be taken on faith—faith that is strong because of the proof that is nothing less than the gift of his Son (8:31–32). There is nothing in the text that promises us an easy time, or a quick way out of the groanings to which the entire universe gives vent. (How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 26)
Carson’s corrective should be a lesson to each of us that we need to let Scripture teach us what good is. And sometimes God’s “good” for us is at odds with the good we desire. Sometimes, God’s goodness for us is a kind of suffering that comes from a horrific violation of his inviolable word. To put it another way, if we learn anything at all from the cross, we see that God ordained (i.e. Christ’s death) what he condemns (i.e. murder). In other words, the cross teaches us that in order to accomplish the will of God—our salvation and sanctification—he permits (and even causes) a series of events that inflict pain in our lives but that result in our good.
So the break-up of a thirty-year marriage is not a waste, if in the process the grieving spouse finds salvation in Christ. Or consider, a rebellious teenager whose wreckless car accident kills a friend but results in the re-commitment of his life to Christ and the work of the Lord. Or perhaps, MS leaves a star athlete incapable of performing at a the collegiate level, but in time comes to find that sports were his god. He is liberated from idolatry by debilitating effects of this degenerative disease. In all of these ways, tragedy results in good. This is not to confuse good with evil, or to call evil good. Rather, it is to let the dark night of the soul be reminded that for the Christian, there is always the promise of dawn.
As Carson points out in his book, the cathartic rhetoric that follows suburban school shootings is often laden with the language of lost potential, while inner-city gun fights simply result in the sad death of another gang-banger. The problem with both of these responses, is the failure to see that the lives that were lost were of equal, eternal value in the eyes of God. The tragedy is the destruction of the Imago Dei, not just the loss of a child who might grow up to a third-world physician.
We need to have our minds renewed by Scripture, and we need to learn what “the good” really is. Such perspective is lost without the wisdom and illumination of God’s word, and serious meditation on what is truly good. And there is not better place for that than in Psalm 73.
Recalibrating Our Good: Psalm 73 and Psalm 27
Psalm 73, you may recall, laments the prosperity of the wicked until Asaph returns to the temple of the Lord (v. 17). In the temple, he recognizes the eternal misery of the worldly-wise. Those who do not have God will suffer eternal torment. They are no better than beasts. They will meet their maker and all their earthly pleasantries and defense mechanism will be removed.
As he meditates on God, the only good one, his vision is restored and his sullen heart is lifted. He concludes, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 24–25).
And then he concludes with his definition of what “the good” is and it is here that we should take note. Asaph simplies defines God as our good. He finishes, “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord my refuge, that I may tell of your works” (v. 28). The NASB puts it slightly more rigidly, but also more profoundly: “God is my good.”
That is an inmovable foundation. If everything else in this world is taken away. If we suffer and fall. If we, like Job, lose our family and our fortune in one single day—as many do in war-torn countries, we still have hope, reason for living, and the promise of goodness from God.
Another Psalm that recalibrates our understand of good is Psalm 27. As David sets his sights on God, his conclusion (v. 13) reminds us that we shall yet see the goodness of God in the land of the living, because in truth, God who is our unshakeable good is the Lord of heaven and earth. All those who trust in him will find comfort in him. Through the mediated presence of his word, the fellowship of suffering with his Son, and the promised Holy Spirit who lives within us, we can hear and how experience his good—if he is our good.
Our Pain and God’s Goodness: How Resurrection Reclaims Affliction
In the end, these blessed promises do not protect us from pain—if anything they may increase our suffering (see John 15:21). Yet, they do help teach us what “the good” really is, and they help us to walk victoriously through the devastating loses of this life. We have victory, not because we will be triumphant in this life, but because of the promise of resurrection life. This reality has the power to reinterpret any tragedy. Though we will experience the suffering of a sin-cursed world, we have victorious hope because of the resurrection that we await.
The truth is, in our day, the resurrection has very little meaning to us. It means so little because we love our lives so much. God gives us suffering for many reasons, but one of them is the goodness of separating our hearts and our hopes from the things that are visible and setting them on the invisible things of God that only come to those who will one day be resurrected. Though evil befall us, Christians ought to know from Scripture, that God works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his eternal plan.
That is our good. God is our good. The resurrection is our good. And the more we trust in this truth and treasure him, the more we will be able to praise with the Psalmist,
You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you…The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance… I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:2, 5–6, 8–11)
May the Lord teach us what goodness is, and to treasure him as superlative to any created thing.
Sola Dei Gloria, ds