Wrestling with the Goodness of God

This essay appears as the Commentary to the March 30th entry in Consuming Fire, the daily devotional version of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons.

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.