God is Good?

This essay appears as the commentary to the April 22nd entry in Consuming Fire, the daily devotional version of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons. 

“God is good. ” “Everything happens for a reason.” These are things we often hear and say ourselves when tragedy is averted, when a venture appeared to fail, but is pulled from the flames at the last moment to become a success--when darkness threatened but did not consume us. But what about when the church youth group bus does go over a cliff with no survivors? What do we say when the innocent suffer in place of the guilty? When we find, in place of our dreams, a pile of ashes that cannot be reformed? Do we say God is good, or do we say nothing at all? 

If we see good things as being the hand of God, must we not also see horrible things like the abuse of a child or the painful death of a loved one as the same? Perhaps this is the biggest stumbling block in the Christian life, and the cause of more spiritual shipwrecks than any other issue, this idea that when God does what we want he is good, and the counter idea, rarely spoken but waiting in the darkness like a monster in the closet, that if he does not heed our prayers he may be, in reality, not good after all. If we believe God is good, we trust him. If we do not believe this, we cannot trust him. 

Soren Kierkegaard described the decision to accept the Christian religion as the revelation of God as a leap of faith--a subjective, personal decision to jump into a void--that will either be redeemed or rejected by ultimate reality. Reality as we understand it now is seen, according to the Apostle Paul, "through a glass darkly." In other words, we don’t have the whole picture. So it is by faith we believe God exists, and by faith we must also believe that he is good. Good circumstances and bad alike must ultimately be set aside to make this blind leap. 

Circumstance do not determine faith. Kierkegaard wrote:

Suppose that there were two men: a double-minded man, who believes he has gained faith in a loving Providence, because he had himself experienced having been helped, even though he had hardheartedly sent away a sufferer whom he could have helped; and another man whose life, by devoted love, was an instrument in the hand of Providence, so that he helped many suffering ones, although the help he himself had wished continued to be denied him from year to year. Which of these two was in truth convinced that there is a loving Providence that cares for the suffering ones?

One way to address the question of the goodness of God in terms of bad things that happen is to flip it onto ourselves. Existential teacher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl suggested this perspective:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Our ability to trust God, to call him good must not depend on theory or circumstance, both of which can change in a moment. It must, if we would believe through the fires of life, become an act of faith. I choose to believe God is good because to believe otherwise is insufferable. The battle is not intellectual, it does not require understanding. In fact, it forbids it. We must decide, as Jesus himself did, that our will has become his, regardless of what we cannot understand about him. Then indeed we can say, regardless of what happens in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, “God is good,” with a conviction that cannot be shaken.