God is good: the comfort of goodness

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Trusting in the Goodness of God.” Part 2; part 1 here.]

Nahum 1:7 says:

The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble;

he protects those who take refuge in him.

God is good, and the Bible makes it clear that to those who are turning their backs on him, this goodness is manifested in challenge and in judgment (see yesterday’s piece: “Part 1”). But what the Bible makes even more clear is that God’s goodness means he will be present:

  • to those in need of help who call on him, God is good and he will rescue;
  • to those in trouble who put their trust in him, God is good and will be a place of safety;
  • to those in the midst of trial and difficulty and suffering and struggle who cry out to him, God is good and he will be with them.

We see this in the psalms:

  • Psalm 31:19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
  • Psalm 100:5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We see this in the story of Joseph in Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers and thrown into jail for not sleeping with his master’s wife. He trusted in God, and the Bible tells us, “The Lord was with him.” And toward the end of his story, he’s able to look back and say to the same brothers who sold him into slavery, the brothers whom he has forgiven and with whom he has made peace: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

We see this in the story of Paul, the man whose life God turned around. For the sake of the gospel, to share the good news of life in Jesus, Paul endured shipwrecks and beatings, stonings and starvings, trials and tribulations. And in spite of all that, he was able to say, We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

We see this most clearly in the life of Jesus, who is called Emmanuel (which means “God with us”): on paper, a plan to rescue the world by giving up your life doesn’t make sense. And yet, Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Sometimes we can fall into a mindset that says that God is good only when I’m good—in other words, God’s goodness (how good he is) is must always be reflected in the goodness of our lives (how well things are going for us). But if God is good only if things go well for me, what happens when things stop going well for me? What happens when things get difficult? What happens if I suffer? It’s common to wonder if God can be good because of how things are going in your own life:

  • wondering if your kid turned away from you or from God because you didn’t pray hard enough,
  • wondering if your loved one didn’t beat cancer because you didn’t believe hard enough.

And, in some ways, this is understandable because we think God’s goodness must translate itself into God’s goodness to us, God’s blessings on us. We have the mindset that something must be true at all times for us in order to be true at all; we can be a rather self-centered and short-sighted people sometimes!

This understanding of God’s goodness is entirely dependent on good circumstances, and specifically on your good circumstances, rather than any objective truth. And if God is good only if things go well for me, not only is the goodness of God dependent on your circumstances—which may change from day to day—it is, even more than that, dependent on your feelings—which may change from moment to moment! Take a Sunday morning as an example:

  • You didn’t sleep well so you woke up grumpy—God is not good.
  • But your husband or your roommate had a pot of coffee ready and maybe even some breakfast—God is good.
  • But they left a mess in the sink—God is not good.
  • You still got everyone, kids included, out of the house on time—God is good.
  • Delays on the Metro, couldn’t find parking—God is not good.
  • You still managed to get to church on time … ish—God is good.
  • The coffee wasn’t great, you hated that last song, the pastor is wearing that shirt you don’t really like—God is not good.

That’s how quickly our feelings and our circumstances can change, right? And if we’re honest, that can be how quickly our perception of God’s goodness can change. Because of our circumstances, because of how we’re feeling, it can be really hard for us to say, “God is good.”

But that doesn’t make it any less true. There are some things that hold true no matter how we feel and no matter what our circumstances, like gravity and God’s goodness. The message of Nahum—a word about God’s goodness, which afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, which challenges the sinner and offers hope in the same breath—came at a time when the people of Israel, under threat from being wiped out by the Assyrian Empire, would have felt it the least, when their circumstances didn’t lend themselves to supporting that proposition.

And while there is a lot of value in being honest with God with where you’re at and what’s going on—there’s a lot of that in Scripture—there’s also a lot of value—maybe even more value—in speaking truth over your life, whether you feel it or not, whether your circumstances support it or not. And there’s a lot of this in Scripture, too.

Jeremiah 17:7-8 says:

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Our greatest trials, our most challenging moments, our seasons of exile and drought, can be the most difficult times to trust in the goodness of God; and because of that, they are also the most important times to speak truth over your life about the goodness of God, to trust in the goodness of God. And as we trust, they can become the greatest testimonies of the goodness of God, the greatest opportunities for God to demonstrate his goodness, and they will become the greatest reminders to you of the goodness of God, so that whenever you find yourself once again anxious and fearful and uncertain, whenever you feel once again the weight of the world upon your shoulders, whenever you think that you can’t make it, that there’s no way out, that there’s nothing you can do to get yourself out of this situation, you can say to yourself, “God is good.”

There will also be times when, quite honestly, we don’t have the energy to speak the truth over our own lives, where no matter how often or how loud we say something, it doesn’t seem to change anything. This is why God gives us the gift of community; he didn’t create us to live life on our own. This is why we encourage everyone at The District Church to be involved in a small group—and over 400 people in our church are. And I’d encourage you, if you’re not connected with friends who can speak the truth of God’s goodness into your life, please get plugged in to a local church. It’s a first step to building relationships where God’s goodness can be spoken and demonstrated to one another and lived out together.

The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble;

he protects those who take refuge in him.


Guest Post: A Good Kind of Uncomfortable

My friend Jason’s started up a new site called Jabberbox, and I wrote a post for it entitled “A Good Kind of Uncomfortable,” about my experience with urban Young Life kids. Here’s an excerpt:

That night last week, God broke my heart for those kids: for Delonta, Antoine, Jamal, Will, ‘Twaan, and D. Because now they have faces; they have names. They’re not just “the kids at the local high school” who need help or charity or mentoring. They’re boys with names and futures; they’re kids whom God loves with every fiber of his being.

And he’s called me to do the same.

Check out the full blog here.

Summing up my life with a painting

[Click to enlarge]

A few weeks ago, I went to the National Gallery. And while I was there, I came across Thomas Cole, a British-born American painter, and his four-piece series, “The Voyage of Life,” which really spoke to me. In particular, the third painting, depicting “Manhood,” and its accompanying explanation:

Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape. Bare impending precipices rise in the lurid light. The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine, whirling and foaming in its wild career, and speeding toward the Ocean, which is dimly seen through the mist and falling rain. The boat is there, plunging amid the turbulent waters. The voyager is now a man of middle age: the helm of the boat is gone, and he looks imploringly toward heaven, as if heaven’s aid alone could save him from the perils that surround him. The Guardian Spirit calmly sits in the clouds, watching with an air of solicitude the affrighted voyager. Demon forms are hovering in the air.

Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. In Childhood there is no cankering care; in Youth no despairing thought. It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life; that we feel deep and abiding sorrow; and in the picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; and the Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, to which the voyager is now approaching. The demon forms are Suicide, Intemperance, and Murder, which are the temptations that beset men in their direst trouble. The upward and imploring look of the voyager shows his dependence on a Superior Power and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.

I was there with a friend, and in reflecting on why it grabbed me so, I said,

I think this is where I’m at, knowing the troubles of the world, but having faith also in God, who is bigger by far than any and all of those troubles.

"It means getting in trouble"

I’ll update more in full from the Sojourners Mobilization to End Poverty Conference (M2EP) when I have more time (and I’m more rested), but for now, here’s this awesome little tidbit.

On Sunday night, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) gave the message at Shiloh Baptist Church, encouraging us to stand up for what we knew was right, namely the fight against poverty. He said, and I paraphrase, “When God tells you to do something, often it means getting in the way, it means getting in trouble.”

Well, John Lewis, a veteran of the US civil rights movement, isn’t just one for words. He leads by example and on Monday, after speaking at the first plenary session at M2EP, he picketed the Sudanese embassy in DC in non-violent protest, calling for a reversal of Sudanese President al-Beshir’s decision to expel international humanitarian groups from Darfur, and he (along with a number of other protesters, including four other congresspeople) was arrested.

You want an example of talking the talk and walking the walk? Look at this 69 year-old congressman, whose faith inspires him to get in trouble.