This is a difficult concept to discuss. What does it mean when we call God "good"? What is good? Is God good? Yes! He is not only good, but he is the source of goodness. He is pure goodness. He only wants what is best for us. He wants the best possible outcome for each of our lives. But is God "nice"? No! God is good, but he is not nice. Think of how C.S. Lewis describes Aslan in his Narnia chronicles: good but not safe, very good but very dangerous. God desires good outcomes for us, but those outcomes are achieved through dangerous trials. "Nice" literally means "know nothing." Being nice is being imbecilic, not ever asserting yourself, and letting the strong walk all over you. God is not an imbecile. He is good but not nice.
Let's look at a few examples from the scriptures on how God desires good for us but not necessarily in a nice way. We, of course, assign evil motives to God, because in our current day and age we equate nice with good, and so if God isn't nice, then he must not be good. This is false thinking. Look at Judas. Jesus tells Judas to do what he has to do. Does this mean that Christ directed Judas to betray him? We don't want to think so, because that wouldn't be nice, but Jesus knows what needs to be the outcome of this betrayal, so the betrayal MUST happen. Of course, God himself is going to make sure that it does happen.
There's something we don't understand about evil, because the culture feeds us clever villains all the time, like the Joker. In REAL LIFE, evil is not just the absence of good, it is also the absence of intelligence. Evil is dumb. God cannot trust evil to achieve the outcomes he wants, so he has to direct it to a degree. This does not make God evil. He is wholly blameless, and the evil party is still completely at fault. Judas is at fault. Jesus is not. What would you rather have running rampant on the earth? Unchecked and undirected evil or evil that is directed by God so that the outcomes are for our good, even if they go through some harsh and dangerous territory?
Joseph told his brothers in Genesis that what they intended for evil, God intended for good. We know that God got Joseph right to the place he needed him, in command of Egypt, so that the region wouldn't starve. However, as good little deists, we want to think that God just sat back and HOPED that everything would turn out right.
There are essentially three views of this: there's the straight deism that runs rampant through American Christianity. This is where God sits back on the sidelines and just hopes really hard that we will "get it" and turn to him. Then there's the idea that God "allows" for evil but doesn't manipulate. This may as well be straight deism again. If we want to make God sovereign, we must make him sovereign of ALL. The third way is the "not nice" directing of evil. So, Joseph's brothers cannot be trusted to get Joseph to Egypt. Indeed we read that they almost killed him, but at the last minute they changed their minds and sold him into slavery. God directed. God didn't just let go of Joseph and allow random evil from Potiphar's wife, and then take up the reigns again when Joseph was in prison. He needed to make sure Potiphar's wife played the part correctly. He needed to make sure Joseph went to the right cell, so that he would meet the cupbearer and breadmaker. God is the only one who sees the big picture, and he knows how to direct things so that his outcome is reached. We still have freewill and are therefore responsible for our actions, even when God directs us.
The three readings for today show the effect of God's goodness in our lives:
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth." (1 Kings 17:17-24)
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11-24)
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17)
The first thing God's good achieves is bringing us to faith. Each of these three passages shows one or more people coming to faith--turning from superstition to true belief in God--because of God's direction. The woman in Kings is superstitious. She believes that Elijah CAUSED the death of her son, like a witch doctor. After the boy is healed and alive again, she understands that Elijah is a man of God and that the Word of Truth is in him. Paul moves from zealous superstition to belief, and the people who remember how he persecuted Christians come to faith as well. Finally, Jesus' bringing the dead boy back to life moves a population from superstitious belief in a cursed widow to true belief in the one, true God, who desires good for his children.
The second thing God brings about in these three passages is a transition from DEATH to LIFE. In the Old Testament passage and the Gospel of Luke we see this literally happen. In the Epistle, Paul testifies to how he was dead in his sins. He was as dead to God as it is possible to be. And yet God brought him back to life. Furthermore, God had chosen him from the beginning. Just because Paul had spent over half of his life in opposition to God didn't make him any less God's. Paul was a level 3: he was a scoffer who not only sinned against God but encouraged others to sin against God, and yet he was God's own from the beginning.
The third thing that comes from God's goodness is MERCY. When the widow in Kings accuses Elijah of killing her son, Elijah takes the boy's body upstairs and immediately asks God why GOD killed the boy. Did God kill the boy? Yes, Elijah is right. We can't just assign providence to God and then, when we don't like the outcome, assign it to random chance. God ordains death. It is a curse that comes with fall, but it is also a mercy. Why did God kick Adam and Eve out of the garden? To be mean? It wasn't very nice. Was it for their own good? Yes! If they ate from the tree of life, they would live forever, as sinful, fallen people. There would be no hope. There would be no way out of the mess we got ourselves into. God had mercy on us and gave us death. We are sanctified in this life, but are we ever completely sanctified? No. Not until we pass through the veil of death will we be worthy to stand in the Father's presence. We should not fear death, because it is the transition from this temporary, fleeting life to the real, imperishable, everlasting life on the other side.
We shouldn't fear death, but we should fear God. He is good but he is not safe. He is not nice, but he is LOVE, self-sacrificing, agape love. He ordained the death of his own son, not because he was mean and evil but because he was good. He used the wicked world to achieve it, and the wicked world is to blame, but the father needed Christ's death to happen EXACTLY the way it did, to save us from our sins and become children of God. He couldn't leave it up to the wicked to get Jesus on that cross. They may have cut his throat in the square, and then we would have no hope. Fear God, because he is good, and he has the most wonderful outcome planned for his children, but if we think of him as nice, we lose faith, we lose life, we lose his mercy.