What do we mean when we say God is wholly good?
God cannot help but be good and loving; these are part of what it is to be God.
Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.
– Luke 18:19 CEV
No, those who boast should boast in this: that they understand and know me. I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world, and I delight in these things, declares the Lord
– Jeremiah 9:24 CEB
God’s goodness and the problem of evil.
The most obvious challenge to believing that God is wholly good is the existence of evil. “What about earthquakes and abuse, famine and disease? Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?” our hearts may cry.
It’s an ancient question with some not very satisfying answers. Some have speculated that God is wholly good, but not very powerful. Others have seen evil and good in the context of a cosmic battle between competing gods. Still others have suggested that God is good, but maybe not that good. And finally there are those who have rejected the existence of God entirely.
Suppose God is wholly good and utterly powerful. God is not someone who sets up physical laws only to violate them at whim, causing chaos and eliminating both predictability and trust. God is the kind of person who has ultimate respect for human beings’ free will and our capacity for compassion. For all these reasons, plus some of his own, God hides some of his own power, choosing to allow evil and error to be active in the material world. God the Father trusts human beings to learn, to make good choices, and to care for others, just as he trusted his Son.
Good parents allow their children to make bad choices.
Can you imagine a person who is totally and completely good, yet allows others to make mistakes? If you’ve had a loving parent (or if you are one!) you probably know what this looks like. Loving parents don’t prevent their children from doing things they shouldn’t. Particularly as their children grow older, parents tend to allow the kids to make mistakes, or to try something and fail at it.
Loving parents teach through influence, but they also enforce the natural and reasonable consequences of their children’s poor choices. Just letting a first grader ride the school bus can cause pangs of fear and self-recrimination even if nothing actually goes wrong. It can be excruciating to watch your child suffer the pain of life in a broken world. Parents know that allowing them to make mistakes, to be hurt, is part of helping them grow up.
Suffering is a way of helping us understand that what we do really matters. When people are hurt, it really matters. And when we care for people and help them, that really matters. If there were not suffering in the world, nothing would matter.
Suffering is part of a whole that includes both suffering and what is good and what is joyful — they come together. God has created a world in which there is suffering and which what human beings do really matter.
If there were no suffering, there would be no caring.
— Dallas Willard, 2001, Pain and Suffering, MPPC
If you can imagine such a parent–one who is good and loving, who does not prevent her children from failure or wrongdoing, and who does not rescue them from the natural consequences of their actions–you can imagine a wholly good God.
The moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom. To nurture moral perfection, horrendous moral crimes must be permitted by God — though he himself never approves of them, actualizes them, or requires them. Nurturing moral perfection (within a suitable world) and not allowing wrong doing is impossible. If a child is never permitted to do wrong, it will never become capable of developing a nature or character that resolutely chooses the good. Good persons must live in a world where doing evil is a genuine choice for them.
– Dallas Willard, God and the Problem of Evil
Unlike human parents, God is entirely good.
What makes God different than the good and loving parent is that God is never impatient, envious, tired, or grumpy. God is holy, wholly other, and wholly good. God is a creative being who loves, and cannot do otherwise. When parents get it right, it is because they are living out the part of themselves that is made in the image of God. Every human is made in God’s image, and since God is creative goodness, every human is also. That godliness in humans gets damaged by sin, but the goodness of God, and of God’s beloved children, is never utterly destroyed. It remains, waiting for renewal and restoration, to its full glory of creative goodness, holy love.
God’s greatest glory is that he is good. The brightest gem in the crown of God is his goodness. “I will make all my goodness pass before thee.” There is a panorama such as time would not be long enough to see.
Consider the goodness of God in creation. Who could ever tell all God’s goodness there? Why, every creek that runs up into the shore is full of it where the fry dance in the water. Why, every tree and every forest rings with it; where the feathered songsters sit and make their wings quiver with delight and ecstasy. Why, every atom of this air, which is dense with animalculae, is full of God’s goodness. The cattle on a thousand hills he feeds; the ravens come and peck their food from his liberal hands. The fishes leap out of their element, and he supplies them; every insect is nourished by him. The lion roars in the forest for his prey, and he sendeth it to him. Ten thousand thousand creatures are all fed by him. Can you tell, then, what God’s goodness is? If you know all the myriad works of God, would your life be long enough to make all God’s creative goodness pas before you?
– C.H. Spurgeon
This post is part of the God Ideas Series.