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8. The Goodness of God

– Chapter 8 –

The Goodness of God

For God or against God?

When you are confronted with a choice but don’t make one, you have already made a choice. If it is a choice between good and evil, and you don’t choose good, you have chosen evil. There is no middle ground between the two, neither in real life nor in the Bible. Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).

Every­where in the Old and New Testa­ments, choice con­fronts us. Right from the start, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had to choose between obedience and disobedience. Israel too was confronted with a choice again and again, even that between life and death:

Today, I call heaven and earth to witness against you: I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live. (Dt.30:19, New Jerusalem Bible)

Moses, as God’s spokesman, put before Israel the choice between life and death, bless­ing and a curse. We don’t nor­mally choose death, but if we don’t choose life, we have chosen death. Not long afterwards, Israel was called again to make a choice, this time between Yahweh and the false gods of the nations, when Joshua said:

But if serving Yahweh seems a bad thing to you, today you must make up your minds whom you do mean to serve, whether the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now living. As regards my family and me, we shall serve Yahweh. (Joshua 24:15, NJB)

Then all Israel declared their decision to serve Yahweh their God:

Far be it from us to desert Yahweh and to serve other gods! Yahweh our God was the one who brought us and our ancestors here from Egypt … And Yahweh has driven all the nations out for us, includ­ing the Amorites who used to live in the count­ry. We too shall serve Yahweh, for he is our God. (Joshua 24:16-18, NJB)

But Joshua did not believe them:

You will not be able to serve Yahweh, since he is a holy God, he is a jea­lous God who will not tolerate either your misdeeds or your sins. If you desert Yahweh and serve the foreigners’ gods, he will turn and maltreat you anew and, in spite of having been good to you in the past, will destroy you. (Joshua 24:19-20, NJB)

The people pledged to serve Yahweh and not foreign gods, yet Joshua knew that they were still attached to the world, a world signif­ied by the false gods of the region: the gods of fert­ility, harvest, and prosper­ity.

We don’t need to read far into the Bible to see that their commit­ment was flimsy. By the time of 1 Kings, Israel had long turned away from Yahweh God. Chapter 18 records the con­frontation on Mount Carmel be­tween the prophet Elijah and 450 pro­phets of Baal. Elijah told the peo­ple of Israel to choose between Yahweh or Baal:

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver be­tween two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. (1 Kings 18:21)

In keeping silent, the people had already rejected God. Their ear­lier pro­fession of commitment to God turned out to be no com­mit­ment, so Elijah said they were of two minds, wavering between two opinions. The rest of the story is well known, with Elijah calling down fire from heaven to con­sume the sacrifice on Mount Carmel.

Centuries earlier, in the time of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were told to choose life, but they eventually wavered between two opin­ions and ended up in death, even death of the nation. Centuries later, the north­ern king­dom was des­troyed in 721 BC, and the southern king­dom in 587 BC. God’s words are not empty utterances. When He tells us to choose life or death, good or evil, we have to take His word ser­iously.

Good requires more than right intention

One can be moral without being spiritual, but one cannot be spiritual without being moral. That is to say, one can be a so-called “good” per­son in society with­out being spiritual, but one cannot be spiritual in the true biblical sense without being a good person. It is parallel to what we said earlier, that you can be poor with­out being spirit­ual, but you cannot be spiritual without being poor. By “poor” we mean an attitude of not regarding our possess­ions as our own but as belonging to God.

Even if you are not committed to the good, it is still possible for you to mentally choose the good with your mind and de­clare it verbally with your mouth, as in the case of the Israelites when they stood before Joshua. They publicly declared their decision for God but Joshua knew it was just a mental choice, for in all the things they had been doing, they showed a strong attach­ment to Egypt, the sym­bol of the world. In the wilderness they were always han­kering after the things they had left behind in Egypt. They had indeed left these things behind literally and physically, but their hearts had not aban­doned them. Joshua knew that they hadn’t broken free from the grip of the world, nor moved from evil to good, despite their public declar­ation of choosing the good.

Commitment takes more than right intention. Intention alone will not take you from evil to good. If you can do that by your own power, it would mean that you can save yourself by sheer deter­min­ation. With sufficient will power, you can quit something like smoking, but no human effort can ever set you free from the power of evil. In your own strength it is impos­sible for you to be a Christian in the biblical sense, for it is a work that God does in you. Many are keenly aware that only God can rescue them from evil, yet they don’t yield their lives to Him. If indeed we are able to break free from evil in our own strength, we would be able to save our­selves and be the master of our lives. But because we cannot save our­selves, we are not our own masters.

A wrong concept of God as a killjoy

We are afraid that if God becomes the Lord of our lives, He will tell us to do what we don’t want to do. We feel that the cost of passing from death to life, from evil to good, is too high because it involves surrend­ering the lordship of our own lives.

I once talked with a woman who was heartbroken after her boy­friend had ended their relationship. She felt she could still do some­thing to win him back, but realistically she was deluding herself. Living in self-delus­ion is sad but at least it makes you feel that you still have some control of the situation.

She wasn’t willing to trust in God for the future on this matter. When I asked why, she said, “What if God wants me to be single?” The thought of remaining single quite terrified her. It escapes me why she would think that God wants her to remain single. We often think that God wants the worst for us, and that if we put our lives into His hands, He will send us off to Alaska or the Sahara.

We have a strange concept of God, thinking that He delights in giv­ing us the worst. Why do we think of God like this? I have spoken with many who are afraid to surrender their lives to God in case He might say, “The girl you like very much? Sorry, she’s not for you.”

To many Christians, God is a killjoy who takes away the things you like and gives you what you don’t want. He takes away our money and reduces us to beggars (for the poor are blessed). Com­mitting to God is risky, it is believed, because you will end up losing your girl­friend, your money, and everything you have, and then get some­thing called eternal life that you can’t see or touch. God forces you to give up the things you hold in your hands in exchange for some­thing you don’t see. But is God really like that?

I have counseled many who are afraid of what God might do if they should commit to Him. In their view, when you pray to God, He may tell you to get up and go to the Sahara. A common concept of God is that of a God who has nothing to do in heaven except to make life hard for you on earth, depriv­ing you of nice things. If you think that God delights in depriv­ing you of a wife or husband, or that He wants you to be clothed in rags, do you really know God?

Embodiments of good and evil

Like the Israelites, you may have made a commitment only with your mind, but you cannot serve God because your sense of values is dis­torted. If God takes you out of Egypt, you will com­plain in the wilder­ness, “Why did God take us out of Egypt, and what are we doing in the wilder­ness? In Egypt we had gar­lic, onions and leeks, but now we have this food called manna. God promised to give us a home­land but leaves it to us to con­quer it with our blood, sweat and tears. How is this a free gift? We didn’t come here to die.” Then your spiritual per­cept­ion becomes distorted, call­ing evil good and good evil (Isa.5:20).

Good and evil do not exist as isolated entities but are qualit­ies that ex­ist in people. There are good people and bad people, not isolated entities called good or bad. There is no such thing as a good place or a bad place in the mor­al sense. When we say a place is good, we mean it is nice and comfortable. A place is morally good or bad only if a good or bad person exercises his influence over it.

Good and evil exist in people but we are not the supreme embod­i­ment of good and evil because we are not the highest order of spirit­ual beings. In the creation, we are the highest physical beings but not the highest spiritual beings. Hebrews 2:7, quot­ing Psalm 8:5, says that God made man a little lower than the angels. In the present age, angels are higher spiritual beings than us humans. And even among angels there are differ­ent ranks.

But we won’t remain lower than angels forever, for it is God’s plan to elevate those who have chosen good to be higher than the angels, even to the level of judging them (1Cor.6:3). That is because our adoption as child­ren of God will by then be complete (Rom.8:23).

God, the supreme embodiment of good

The supreme embodi­ment of good or evil is found in spiritual beings higher than angels. The supreme embodi­ment of good is of course God himself. Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Mt.19:17) Here Jesus is implying that only God is good, but this is made explicit in a par­allel pass­age, Luke 18:19: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Jesus is saying that only one person in the universe, God Himself, can be properly called good. Indeed, God our Father is the source of all good things:

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. (James 1:17, NASB)

God is the Father of lights. Genesis and the Psalms speak of the greater lights and the lesser lights, which are the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, the stars. God is the Father of lights because He is the Creator of all things, including earth, which is one planet among many. From an­other planet, earth looks like a star in the sky, a lesser light but still a light.

Just as God is the Creator of all things and the source of physical life and blessing, so He is the source of every good thing in the spirit­ual sphere. He is the Creator of physical life and the Giver of spiritual life, with the material sphere being a parallel of the spiritual sphere. There is no physical blessing that doesn’t come from God: the beau­tiful flow­ers, the life-giving sunrays, and the foods we enjoy every day. Just as God gives us physical blessings, He gives us spiritual blessings.

There is no “variation or shifting shadow” in God who is the source of all good. God never changes. The heavenly lights such as the sun and the moon will eventually fade, but God’s kind­ness, goodness, and faith­ful­ness remain forever. People change but God never changes. People may be nice to you today and hate you tomor­row.

In committing to God our Father, we need to see His good­ness and unchanging character before we can place our full confidence in Him. It is odd that humankind, so inconsistent and fluctuating, does not trust in God who is consistent and unwavering. The evil person reads his own charact­er into his understanding of God’s nature. Just as a cri­min­al is suspi­cious of everyone, so the sinner reads his own character into God.

Good and evil, life and death

In Scripture, good and life are the two sides of a coin, and the same can be said of evil and death. Where there is good, there is life. Where there is evil, there is death. In talking about good and evil, we are talk­ing about life and death. We are not discussing good and evil merely in moral terms but in terms of life and death. Just as God is the supreme embodiment of all good and there­fore of all life, Satan is the supreme embo­diment of all evil, so much so that the Bible simply calls him “the evil one” (1Jn.5:19).

Since God is the source of all good and is at the same time a spir­itual being, good and spiritual cannot be separated. Corres­pond­ingly, because evil is embodied in Satan the evil one, we now see the spiritual dimension of evil. Evil is not just a matter of morality but of spiritual­ity. That is why the Lord’s prayer says “deliver us from evil” (Mt.6:13, NASB) or “deliver us from the evil one” (NIV).

Every decision for evil and every sin committed is, knowingly or un­know­ing­ly, a decision for the evil one and an advancement of his inter­ests. Every sin we commit advances the kingdom of the evil one.

But not every act of good advances God’s kingdom. The parallel is not exact. You can be moral without being spiritual but you cannot be spirit­ual without being moral. A moral act is not necess­arily a spiritual act, but a spiritual act is always a moral act. An example of the former is seen in 1Cor.13:3: “If I give all my poss­essions to feed the poor and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me not­hing.” (NASB)

But if I show someone genuine love, that love will be ex­pressed in some concrete manifestation called “good”. If I give to the poor out of genuine love, it is because I have been made spiritual by God’s grace. But if I give to the poor for any other reason, even that of gaining mor­al satis­faction, it won’t advance the king­dom of God.

Life and death as powers

Whereas good comes from God, evil is embod­ied in Satan, the evil one. Correspondingly, life comes from God because life cannot be separ­ated from good. But death comes from Satan — though not only from him — for he has the “power of death” (Heb.2:14). If you choose God, you have chosen life. But if you don’t choose God, you have chosen death.

To be saved is to pass from death to life. This requires the power of creation and the power of resur­rection by which God creates life out of death. Being a Christian in the biblical sense is not just a matter of getting baptized or going to church, but of passing from death to life by God’s life-giving power, the power of resurrect­ion.

We tend to think of life and death as passive states of being but they are more properly understood as powers. It is easier for us to see life as a power because living beings are dynamic and are capable of thinking and com­municat­ing — I say something to you, you say something back.

But death is also a power insofar as you can inflict death on some­one. Anything that destroys life is power. If you fire a gun, a bullet comes out with deadly power. In lethal injection, the poison injected into you repre­sents the power of death at work in you.

Life and death are active powers, not passive states of being. When we say that God is the source of life, we don’t mean that He is a con­tainer that holds life, but that He has the power to make us alive. When we say that Satan holds the power of death, we don’t mean that he is a container that holds death, but that he can inflict death on others: “that by Jesus’ death he might destroy him who holds the po­wer of death — that is, the devil” (Heb.2:14). The devil holds the pow­er of death inso­far as he can inflict death on those who are under his power. We can­not go from evil to good in our own strength because we are deal­ing not with states of being but with powers that are too strong for us. It takes power to deal with power.

The Bible does not teach absolute dualism. By dualism we mean a balance of good and evil in the world. Some religions believe that two powers, good and evil, are in an epic but balanced war. Absolute dualism puts good and evil in equal balance whereas relative dualism assigns more power to good.

But not so in the Bible. Romans 12:21 tells us to “overcome evil with good,” for good is infinitely more powerful than evil. This vital fact can be established not only from the Bible but also from the Christian’s experience. Yet in the experience of many, evil is stronger than good. Paul describes a time in his life when he was unable to do the good he desired, but did the evil he hated (Rom.7:15). In his former state, evil was more powerful than good, and he was losing the battle to evil. In your own experience, is good strong­er than evil, or are you losing the battle to evil? It is through com­mitment to God, who is the source of all good, that the good will always triumph in your life.

A correct concept of good and evil is vital for understanding the New Testament. It is the crucial concern of Romans. If you look up a concord­ance under good and evil, you will see the prom­inence of these words in the Bible and Romans in parti­cular, a book that deals with faith, salva­tion and commitment.

Trusting God

Do you want to be set free from the power of evil and live under the pow­er of good? Or are you afraid to live under God’s power? Have you fallen for Satan’s lie that God is not good but harsh? That is a strange lie to believe when the Bible says every good thing comes from God. If you believe that God is good, why do you hesitate to commit totally to Him? Maybe you don’t really believe that God is good after all. The best way for you to know that every good thing comes from God is to experience this truth. The psalmist says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

I don’t understand why people hesitate to commit to God, yet are willing to commit to someone in marriage. In a mar­riage you presum­a­bly give the other person everything you have and everything you are. If you are brave enough to entrust your life to a human being, where is your courage to trust in God who never changes and is the fount­ain of all good? Has anyone ever given his or her only son for your sake? Has your spouse ever done anything for you on that level? He or she might say “I love you” and other endearing words, but human beings can change. Satan’s lie must have worked because you don’t really believe that God is good — at least not as good as your spouse or your friend.

You trust your doctor enough to pay him or her a for­tune to stick a surgical knife into you. Perhaps God’s only mistake was not to send us a hefty bill! Paul told the Corinthians that he did not exer­cise his right to receive money from them, but instead gave of him­self to them with­out charge. Is it because God’s good­ness is so generous that we take it for granted? Does God need to send us a hefty bill before we see that He is good? It is human psychology to think that something is good only if we have to pay good money for it. Why do we find it hard to com­mit to God when He has been so generous to us? Do we take Him and His gifts for granted? We entrust our lives to human doctors even though they make mis­takes, sometimes fatal ones. God never makes a mistake, so why don’t we trust Him totally?

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