The Way

If thou wouldst be perfect.

— St. Matthew 19:21

The Lord’s greatness consisted in his Father being greater than he: who calls into being is greater than who is called. The Father was always the Father, the Son always the Son; yet the Son is not of himself, but by the Father. All that is the Lord’s is the Father’s, and all that is the Father’s he has given to the Son. The Lord’s goodness is of the Father’s goodness; because the Father is good, the Son is good. When the word good enters the ears of the Son, his heart lifts it at once to his Father. His words contain no denial of goodness in himself; in his grand self-regard he was not the original of his goodness, neither did he care for his own goodness, except to be good. But for his Father’s goodness, he would spend life, suffering, and death to make that known! His other children must learn to give him his due, and love him as did the primal Son! The Father was all in all to the Son, and the Son no more thought of his own goodness than an honest man thinks of his honesty. When the good man sees goodness, he thinks of his own evil: Jesus had no evil to think of, but neither does he think of his goodness; he delights in his Father’s.

 ‘Why do you call me good? None is good except God alone."

Wrestling with the Goodness of God
by Jess Lederman

That God is good might seem a truism, a platitude hardly meriting discussion among Christians. And yet, if there are people who haven't struggled with understanding the goodness of God when reading certain passages--the slaughter of the Canaanite men, women, children, and animals, for example--they are either speed-reading Scripture or are blessed with an insight far beyond mine. For the rest of us, I've noticed two positions at the extremes:

  • God's idea of goodness is different from ours
  • Biblical inerrancy is a myth; some of the authors of Scripture simply got things wrong.

Neither of these positions appeal to me. C.S. Lewis dismissed the notion that what looks like evil to us might be good to God, for such a notion would utterly undermine our faith. Without a common understanding of good and evil, how do you know you are worshipping the one true God, and not Moloch? St. Paul noted to the Romans not that he and the heathen had no clue what right and wrong were, but quite the opposite: we know what right is, but find ourselves doing wrong; and even the heathen have God-given consciences that they have chosen to disregard.

So, what to do about actions which God commands which seem to be darkness rather than light? There are those such as Rob Bell who believe that common sense tells us certain passages are the invention of flawed human minds, who, at a minimum, distorted God's word. To this way of thinking, Joshua's justification for ethnic cleansing holds no more water than those of modern-day war criminals. This position might seem like cutting the Gordian knot; there's no difficult problem to solve, nothing more to think about, just move on!

Now, obviously this second approach opens the door to picking and choosing whatever passages of Scripture make us feel comfortable; we can each create our own version of Thomas Jefferson's Bible! It's the lazy reader's solution to the problem of difficult Biblical passages. Such passages challenge us--they are the equivalent of the stranger who appeared to Jacob, and with whom he wrestled through the night. If I say, wow, these verses give me the creeps, they can't be true, and I move on, I've lost out. I've passed on a chance to wrestle with God Himself.

One passage that I find helpful is the story recounted in Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28. We are surely meant to be startled by Jesus' harsh words to the Syrophoenician woman when she begs him to help her daughter. But it's not terribly difficult to figure out what's going on; Jesus tests the woman's faith, and the disciples, who no doubt were shocked only when Jesus reversed himself at the end of the story, learn a lesson as well. What looks like darkness quickly becomes light.

That one is pretty easy. But I suspect God did not want to make his all of Scripture easy for us to grasp; I think he wanted us to puzzle over passages, come back to them, wrestle with them, and over the course of our lives find that we have gained new insight, new meaning from his Word. 

He is good--that's our starting point and our end point, our North Star.

Sometimes, a shift in theological perspective can make an enormous difference. For example, I find the Scriptural case for universal reconciliation compelling, and in that framework--or any framework that at least allows for post-mortem repentance--it's not hard to see how being slaughtered by the Hebrews might be preferable to growing up in an abominably evil society.

Alternatively, one might reject such notions and still end up at peace with difficult passages. And even if we don't, it's simply good for us to wrestle with understanding how problem verses are reconciled with the goodness of God; it builds the muscles of our faith.