The Cry of the Heart: ‘If God is Good, Then Why … ?’
The heart cries out: “If God is good, then why …?” We all fill in the blank differently, even in a time of shared pain such as we’re experiencing today. Why did God allow my loved one to get sick? Why do I have to see my business crumble and fail? Why must my child be addicted to opiates? Why won’t my spouse love me?
Or in short, If God is good, why must we all suffer so?
God has different reasons for us all in our individual experiences, but there’s still an overall answer that applies to all anyway: It’s because God is good.
“Well, hey, Tom, nothing like using the question to answer itself! Wasn’t God’s goodness what made this the problem it is?” Yes — but no. The real problem is that we’ve misunderstood God’s goodness.
This isn’t easy territory, but it’s important we go there anyway, especially when all of us are suffering unusually as we are now.
God’s Goodness Isn’t…
We get God’s goodness badly wrong. It’s a human enough error, but it’s an error nonetheless. We think of goodness in terms of what we experience; God sees goodness as a matter of who we are.
Let me unfold that a bit. When I think of a good day, I think of its having great weather, good times with family and friends, meaningful work with a lot accomplished, maybe even a bonus announced by the boss. I could have a “good day” like that while being a thoroughly rotten person — playing politics at work and acting the “loving” hypocrite at home and with friends.
God would not call that a good day.
In fact, God rarely if ever calls a day “a good day.” The psalmist comes closest, perhaps, in Psalm 118:24: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He’s thanking God for a day of deliverance. But let’s glance up the page a few verses (16-18):
The right hand of the Lord is exalted;
The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.
I shall not die, but live,
And declare the works of the Lord.
The Lord has chastened me severely,
But He has not given me over to death.
The Lord’s Discipline
This psalm is the praise offered by one who has just narrowly escaped death, apparently in battle. He saw that as “chastening.” It brings Hebrews 12 to mind, where we learn that God “disciplines those He loves.” The whole passage is relevant, but especially verses 10 and 11:
[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
There’s that word “good” again. It has nothing to do with the good things we experience, but with the good God wants to build within us: the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
God Pursues No Empty Goodness
God does give us good gifts to enjoy, but He doesn’t want us being fooled into thinking they can give more than they’re capable of. Their power is limited. Expect too much of a good thing, and it is sure to disappoint you. The writer of Ecclesiastes tested that, and found that if he asked too much of life’s good things, he’d soon find out they were “vanity,” mere emptiness.
And just as God is not interested in building vanity within us, so also is He not interested in multiplying vain goodness around us. He’s pursuing something more substantial: goodness in our character, our soul. Goodness, that is, in who we are. He’s building an identity in us that we will carry into eternity.
This goodness we gain is acquired, not native. It comes first by the work of Christ, who alone gives forgiveness and life. It’s mediated by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. But it’s also the product of a curriculum through which He takes us, which includes the discipline of hard circumstances.
This Really Is Good
Some folks at this point are wondering, “You call that good?” They forget that they asked that same question as children, just as their own children are asking (many of) them today.
And it may be that sometimes we just don’t know good when we see it. In some pursuits — music or athletics, for example — we can recognize goodness without having it ourselves, and we can see the value of discipline in acquiring it. It isn’t always so with goodness of character. Sometimes we don’t know what it is until we’ve been through the training to recognize it. We might look at a Mother Teresa and say, “That’s what goodness looks like,” but we don’t really mean it; that is, we don’t mean it in the sense that we would consider it good for us.
God knows, though. He knows what good is, and He knows what it takes to train us for it. He’s willing to take us through the whole curriculum, so we can learn it. If we’ve learned some of it, He’ll take us further along so we can learn more of it.
Learning God’s Goodness
Not only that, but there’s one valuable form of goodness that can only be learned in tough times. We learn from the Bible that God is love, and that His love is sufficient for any circumstance. We don’t really learn it until we’ve been through the circumstances where He proves it. This is part of how we discover God’s greatness: when we see for ourselves that no matter the challenge, God is greater.
It is good to know God that way. It’s good to grow in love like His, and in faith to trust Him for more.
“If God is good … ” — let’s fill in that blank now. If God is good, He’ll give us the training we need to grow in our own goodness, and in the knowledge of His own. And this really is good.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ and Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens, and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.