Monday, March 23, 2009

The Goodness and the Greatness

Steven Curtis Chapman's 1994 song Still Listening has been rolling through my head off and on for months. In it, he explores prayers such as "God is great; God is good...," and "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," expressing a desire for a simple childlike faith. "God is great and God is good, and He is love," he sings.

I've always been convinced of the greatness of God. Just look at the intricacies and grandeur of creation. That's power, bigness, wonder, amazing stuff. In a quick review of scripture, I counted no less than 40 references to God's greatness in the Bible. I'm pretty settled on this issue.

And while I'm cognitive of the goodness of God through personal blessings and answered prayers, there's a part of me that struggles to be assured of that goodness because of the "unanswered"/"no" prayers I've seen. Oddly enough, I found only six verses that directly spoke to God's goodness. Is that because he's more great than he is good? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Here's what I found:
"...may your saints rejoice in your goodness" (2 Chronicles 6:41).
"Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart" (Psalm 73:1).
"Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground" (Psalm 143:10).
"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone" (Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19).
"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3).

So what do I do with these few small verses? Do I build a whole theology of the goodness of God around so little? Do I base my belief in his goodness around my experiences alone? Even now, I'm begging God to help me be firmly and finally convinced of the goodness of his character. I know mine isn't perfectly good. I'm human. I have reasons and motivations for my thoughts and behaviors. (Not that he doesn't have purposes behind what he does. He's not a willy-nilly, chaotic God.) It's just that to comprehend perfect goodness without any shade of manipulation or impurity is more than I can even imagine. Jesus said it himself, "No one is good - except God alone."

As much as I want to start by defining "good," has 41 definitions, and that's just for the adjective usage! Furthermore, can I realistically impose human understandings of goodness upon a holy God? I don't think to do so is even reasonable; they're so flawed. Just think about interviews on the news after a murderer is caught. Every neighbor always says, "We're so surprised. He/She was such a good person." By what standard?!? Notice, too, the goodness becomes past tense. In each of the verses above, however, God's goodness is ever present-tense.

Nevertheless, human experiences, understandings and definitions are all I have to go on. I have seen his goodness through blessings and answered prayers. I have to mark them down (because I have a bad memory about such things) and combine them with those six scriptures of truth above. Then, I have to look for evidences of the goodness of God (as they relate to human definitions) in the pages of the Bible.

Since Jesus came to show us God in the flesh, I guess for me, Mark 4:35-41 holds one of the best pictures of the goodness and greatness of God combined. Asleep in the back of a boat, the Disciples wake Jesus, asking him if he cares that they're going to drown. Now, first of all, isn't that a stupid question? Does Jesus care? At this point they've seen him heal all manner of sickness, help the demon-possessed and hang out with tax-collectors. I think he's safely established a compassionate nature! Secondly, what do they expect him to do after they wake him? Apparently not calm the wind and sea, because when he does, they are terrified and ask, "Who is this man...even the wind and waves obey him!" (I'm thinking, if you didn't believe Jesus could fix the problem, why didn't you let the poor guy sleep?! But that's just me.)

Yet here's where we see God's goodness and greatness in tandem. While a great God can control and overpower a storm, only a good God would do so ( definition #12: reliable, dependable, responsible). While a great God can cast out illness and demons, only a good God would (def. #6: kind, beneficent, or friendly). While a great God can meet our needs of shelter, food, and clothing, only a good God would (def. #2: satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree). While a great God impresses us with power, only a good God deserves our worship (def. #7: honorable or worthy). While a great God amazes us with holiness, only a good God would desire and make a way for intimate personal relationship with imperfect creations (def. #1: morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious).

God knew I (and maybe you, too) would struggle to believe in his goodness; that I'd doubt the truth of his good character when things didn't go the way I'd hoped or expected. I guess that's why over and over in his Word he assures us of his love (I counted 97 times). Clearly, I'm never going to understand his perception of goodness, so I'll have take it on faith. Just like I did salvation itself.
I will never understand
How the words of mortal man
Can reach the ears of One so pure
And touch His heart, but they do I'm sure
For God is great, and God is good
And He is love
Lord, Your "divine power has given [me] everything [I] need for life and godliness through [my] knowledge of [Christ] who called [me] by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3). Help me to believe this every moment of every day.

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