As I argued in my last post, belief in God’s sovereignty is not only Biblical but vital for progressing in the Christian life. Without it, we have no assurance of God’s protection; as a result, both faith and God simply become things we attempt to control to ensure our own safety.
There is, however, a sinister form of belief in God’s sovereignty that we must address before proceeding. It goes something like this:”Everything that happens in my life is a perfect expression of God’s goodness.” In other words, everything that happens is God’s absolute best for me. So if my child dies, for example, it is not an unfortunate event God never intended, but instead a thing God orchestrated for my good, even if I fail to see how good it is.
Now stating the obvious here, something should really bother us about such a belief. It bothers some of us so much, in fact, that we try to resolve the matter by eliminating God’s sovereignty. We say God is too good to have been responsible for such a terrible tragedy (or any bad thing that happens to us). And so we say God had nothing to do with it. It was, in other words, something that happened beyond God’s control.
Which of course, means, we are saying God is not in control of everything. And apparently, the part of life that God is not in control of is precisely the part that can cause us the most suffering and heartache.
This of course is not a Biblical idea, nor a helpful one. But what are we to do then with the bad stuff that happens to us? Do we have no choice but to simply call it good? Are we to succumb to the idea that God is in the habit of bringing untold tragedy into our lives that He might bring about something good in the process?
The answer is no. In fact such an idea will equally prevent us from progressing in the Christian life, because it condemns us to a world where God, though in control, is simply not safe.
The folly with such thinking lies in the assumption that a world in which God is in control is a world in which God’s goodness is guaranteed. This is simply not the case. And this is true even for the Christian believer, because in the Christian life, God has placed limits around how His goodness is to be experienced in this life.
Imagine a land in the midst of famine. The inhabitants suffer greatly, even to the point of death. One day, however, word reached them that the ruler of the land had found a way to end the famine. The inhabitants rejoice. But when the day arrives, no rain comes. Instead, workers are seen digging trenches.
Before long, water is flowing through an elaborate network of canals. The inhabitants are invited to take as much water as they need. Some respond, but others are reluctant to leave their homes. Still others become lost along the way. In their continued suffering, they say, “How good our ruler is that we should suffer in this way.”
This is a picture of God’s goodness in the Christian life. God is always good, but our experience of His goodness is not so much God showering His goodness upon us as it is God inviting us into Himself in order to experience it. In other words, God has set limits around His goodness such that our experience of it requires our participation.
The challenge for us is that our ability to respond to God’s invitation is where the battle for our souls in this life is most fierce. As our discussions in this series have highlighted, there are all sorts of factors that can contribute to us failing to connect with the work and activity of God in our lives. This is not only unfortunate but often tragic, because our spiritual lives cannot be separated from our outer lives. Said differently, our ability to connect with and remain in God determines our access to God’s goodness.
And if one considers for a moment that God’s goodness is all that God brings through the Cross — life, healing, wholeness, deliverance, abundance and protection — the consequences of our failure to experience His goodness can be dire. This is why Paul in Romans says to us something we have quoted before:
“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8)
But it is also important to note that our imperfect response to God’s invitation is almost guaranteed. After all, this is the very thing God has come to restore. The Christian life is all about God restoring in us the intimacy with Him that is broken. As we are healed from our brokenness, our ability to respond to God is perfected; consequently, our experience of His goodness increases. Our experience of God’s goodness, in other words, is not a guarantee but a progression.
Now my revivalist friends may be really tempted here to object and claim that God’s goodness is not a progression but a guarantee: That all of God’s vast power, grace and abundance, healing and provision is available now through the Cross. I agree. And that is what we are saying here. But it is not the availability of God’s goodness that makes our experience of it a progression: We are.
In the revival culture, we like to downplay the fact that despite our claims, our experience of God’s goodness is limited. Just ask for a raise of hands in any revival meeting for those still “contending for their breakthrough,” and you will find this to be true. But this I believe is not evidence of God’s unwillingness to show His goodness; it is evidence of our need for transformation. We are learning, in other words, to cooperate perfectly with God in order to perfectly experience His goodness.
As a side note, it is fashionable for some revival leaders to say they are not into the twelve-step program, and that they are a “one-step” program instead. But such foolish talk fundamentally misunderstands both the twelve-step program and the Christian life. The twelve-step program is not a reflection of God’s limitations but of our journey to overcome our own.
The Christian life, then — far from being a perfect expression of God’s goodness — is more like a difficult and somewhat treacherous journey toward experiencing God’s goodness. We are learning to be perfectly connected to God’s goodness. We are in the process of being delivered from all we have partnered with in place of God’s goodness, up to this point in our lives. These are the reasons we can experience circumstances that God never intended.
The Christian life — far from being a perfect expression of God’s goodness — is more like a difficult and somewhat treacherous journey toward God’s goodness. We are learning to be perfectly connected to God’s goodness.
Now, in closing, let’s address a few objections. The first is: Why would a good God make it so hard for us to find His goodness? My answer is, the fact that life is difficult and requires resolve, disciple and courage to find God’s goodness does not make God less good; in fact, it makes Him even more good. For in our effort to find Him, we become like Him. We should not confuse a good God with an easy God.
Secondly, what about tragedy? What about the example I gave of one’s child dying? The answer is that, first of all, a world in which God’s goodness is not guaranteed is a world in which tragedy is possible. But when tragedy occurs, we may still not fully understand how a God who is both good and just could allow it to happen. In such cases, however, it is our understanding that is lacking, not necessarily God’s goodness. Just as it was in the Garden, our lack of understanding is often the target of our temptation to call God’s goodness into question.
The other thing to note is that, as believers, our confidence in God’s goodness is not established by a careful tally of the things that have happened to us, both good and bad. God’s goodness is something that has been revealed to us, and in a way more profoundly than experience can ever challenge.
But whatever our questions about tragedy, the one answer that we cannot allow is, “This is God’s goodness in action.” And this is the whole point of this article. We may endure many difficulties, setbacks and hardships along our journey to learn to perfectly experience the goodness of God. But of this one thing we can be absolutely certain: Jesus is the safest place on Earth.