God is good: the challenge of goodness

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Trusting in the Goodness of God.” Part 1.]

When we encounter passages in the Bible that talk of the  desolation and devastation that God is going to bring, or that speak of the jealous and avenging wrath of God, we can get a little uncomfortable. And I think wrestling with these issues and our discomfort is a really good thing, but I think a lot of it has to do with our more nuanced understanding of good and evil.

  • We realize that it’s usually not a simple case of “I’m good; you’re bad”—Jesus addressed this when he said, “Take the plank out of your own eye before you try to point out the speck in someone else’s.”
  • We understand that good and evil are not always as clear-cut as we were taught through fairy tales and nursery rhymes and Disney movies.
  • We understand that people have differing motivations—that even the best person may do awful things and that even the so-called ‘worst’ person may be redeemed.
  • We understand that seeing from another’s perspective is at the heart of Jesus’ commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We think that we understand good and evil better. Which can be dangerous, because I think our generation, with all of the information available to us, is actually more in danger of falling into the same trap as Adam and Eve in Genesis, thinking that we are the arbiters of what’s right and wrong, thinking that we know enough of the story of the world to be able to judge between good and evil.

We take our standard of good and evil, and measure God against it, rather than the other way around. God, not us, is the standard for goodness.

Here’s what I think: if goodness is really goodness, it will challenge us; specifically, it will challenge the parts of us that are not good.

Sin and evil are real; they’re not just value judgments made by individuals. We see them in different forms all around us:

  • when someone goes on a shooting spree in an elementary school
  • flies a passenger plane into a building
  • tries to exterminate an entire population
  • forces a young girl to have sex for money or a young boy to be a child soldier
    treats someone poorly or refuses to help someone in need
  • acts in such a way as to exacerbate or even just ignore the gap between the rich and the poor.

These things are bad; these things are sinful; these things demand justice; these things must be challenged by goodness.

Let’s use love as an example. I define love as “seeking the good of the other.” A parent who lets their child do whatever the child wants to do—whether that may be eating junk food all the time, refusing to share, wanting to stay up super late, hitting other kids—is not loving the child because the child doesn’t always want to do what is good for them. Instead, a good parent will challenge their kid to eat their vegetables, to share with others, to get enough rest, to express themselves in more constructive ways.

Similarly, a good friend will not simply let their buddy get wasted all the time, make self-destructive decisions, feed their addictions, and date all the wrong people; a good friend will love that person not just by supporting every decision they make but by challenging the not-good habits and decisions, by saying, “Can’t you see where this is going? Can’t you see what this is doing?”

That’s how I understand God’s hatred of sin. In our day and age, we may have become desensitized to sin, treating it as a little mistake here or there. Sin is like cancer: it’s killing us. One of my best friends died a couple years ago from a brain tumor. I loved Ashley, and so I hated the cancer that killed him.

If God truly loves us, then he must hate the sin that is killing us; he must challenge us when we sin.  Even if we think our sin isn’t hurting anyone else, it hurts us; and God cares just as much about us, God wants life for us, God wants to be in a life-giving relationship with us. Sin—being apart from God—leads to death, and that’s why God hates sin. The goodness of God requires that God challenge sin and evil; the goodness of God requires that God get angry.

I’m not talking about anger like when someone cuts you off in traffic or when you have to wait in line for longer than you’d like to—there are some situations where we need to learn patience! But there are times when I get angry, and I think God does too. I get angry:

  • when I learn that last year, almost 40,000 people in the United States felt like the only option left to them was to take their own life;
  • at the fact that every year, 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste while 870 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition;
  • that right here in our city, 1 in 5 people is poor;
  • that we treat each other with such carelessness, in our friendships, in our dating relationships, in our encounters with people who are different from us;
  • that we don’t take better care of all of the things that God has entrusted to us: our bodies, our money, our time, our relationships, our world.

And I think God gets angry too because God is good; and if God wasn’t a God of justice, if God didn’t care about what was good for us, if God didn’t challenge us on our sin, by logical extension, that would make God a not-good God.

Sometimes, “God is good” means a hard word for us, a challenging word for us, because the goodness of God will meet us where we are but it can’t let us stay where we are.

God loves us too much to do that.