God’s Goodness & Trustworthiness

I was glad to be up on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) this week to speak to a group of mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings at an event called Going Further. My brief: talk about (i) God’s goodness and trustworthiness, and (ii) God’s holiness. A number of people have asked me for a copy of the talks. They were not recorded (except by the seraphim), and, as per my usual practice, I departed often and widely from my notes. But for those who may be interested in the thrust of what I said, I thought it worth posting my notes here. I will post those on God’s holiness later.

God’s Goodness & Trustworthiness


There’s a classic passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in which Mr. & Mrs. Beaver are telling the Pevensie children about Aslan, whom they are about to meet. They become quite nervous when they learn that Aslan is a lion:

‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion’. ‘Ooh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake’, said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[1]

I plan to return to this passage when we consider God’s holiness, but tonight is about an invitation to think together about Mr Beaver’s words – ‘But he’s good’.

Life is like an omelette, and jazz

A mature life – which is the life that the Spirit calls us into and gathers us up into in Jesus Christ – is a life that requires a lot of broken eggs. As you already know, life is messy.

I’m suspicious of people who have life sorted out all too neatly. And I’m suspicious of theology that’s too tidy. Theology that speaks to the deep realities of life is more like an omelette than it is like a neat hard-boiled egg. Theology that speaks to the deepest realities of life will have a certain messiness and unpredictability about it – because life is more like a Jackson Pollock painting than it is like a Rubik’s cube. And even the life of faith is more like jazz than it is like techno.

I’m reminded of the book All Creatures Great and Small, where James Herriot tells of how he stripped to the waist one night in a cold barn in the middle of a North Yorkshire winter and laid on his back in cow dung and mud, straining to pull a new calf from its mother. And the whole time he was struggling in the muck and the mud he was cursing under his breath the lovely picture of birth he had been shown in textbooks back at the veterinary college in Glasgow. The photos in the textbooks were of vets dressed in white lab coats, standing in a clean concrete holding stall, delivering a calf without a drop of blood or muck around.

That’s not a picture of reality. Most questions that we wrestle with in life arise when we’re waist deep in muck and mud, when we’re drowning in more questions than we have answers and when we’ve got cold and sharp wind, mud and muck to contend with. And so if we spend our life trying to avoid the muck then we are in danger of living an unexamined life, a life in which there are no longer any satisfying answers at all because we are just too afraid to ask any decent questions. And the mature life is more about questions than it is about answers. And it’s about learning to really define and give voice to the right kinds of questions. And that takes time … and patience … and community … and humility … and a certain resolve.

And it’s the same with our life with God. We don’t start out by thinking about God in sterile settings. We start out by living. And living as we do, we have a bundle of beliefs, mostly passed on to us by others.

And so when it comes to the question of God’s goodness, or of God’s love, or of God’s steadfastness, or of God’s whatever, where do we start? And upon what basis or for what reason do we believe that God is like this and not like something else? And in regards to tonight’s topic, upon what basis might we believe that God is good and trustworthy?

And it gets even more interesting because if we believe that truth is not a set of propositions but that truth is a person (as in John 14.6: ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life), then what we are trying to understand isn’t a something but a someone, and that gets messier and a lot more interesting and a lot more open-ended because to engage with a someone – as opposed to a something – is to engage with a living dynamic who is on the move and who refuses to be contained by us and by our categories of thought.

So what is it about the story that the community of Jesus lives by which makes it believe that God is altogether good, merciful, just and unconditionally loving, rather than unreliable or wicked?

Defining God’s goodness & trustworthiness

For the sake of time, I simply want to say that Christian theology has a very specific logic at work, and that that logic determines what we can and what we cannot say about God. And that logic has a name. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, and Christian theology, at its best, is wrapped up in him and in his own witness to God. Christian theology, at its best, never seeks to say anything new or novel, but only to point, and to keep pointing, like John the Baptist, to the revelation of God in Jesus.

That said, we also need to say that any knowledge that we now have of God is as St Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13.12: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. In other words, our knowledge of God is knowledge that reaches across what theologians call an eschatological boundary. In other words, it’s a knowledge that reaches across the discontinuity created by our own death. And what this means is that for now we know God as and only as we are carried into the death of another, and there we share the knowledge that is part of the life of the Kingdom. This is the Church’s story. And in order to breathe in the air of this story and to know the Author of this story we need to be a part of a community where the story is constantly being lived and recited and lived and recited. And the way that the community of Jesus tells this story is through bread and wine and water and words.

Let’s move on.

So why should we think or assume that God is good? More specifically, why should we assume that God is all-good, or even that God is what medieval philosophers called ‘the highest good’? And why should we assume that God’s intentions for us are good?

Let me take a stab at it. I want to suggest that we know that God is good and God is trustworthy because God takes responsibility for all that God makes.

I want to say that ‘goodness’ and ‘trustworthiness’ are not things that can be described in the abstract, i.e., as some sort of independent and pure idea which is then transported onto God. Rather, I want to say that goodness and trustworthiness is defined and made evident in what God does. It’s not that God’s actions make God good so much as it is that God’s actions are the expression or overflow of who God is as the fountainhead of all goodness. If we could somehow get inside of God we would discover a community of persons who know one another fully, who love one another completely, and whose enjoyment for one other another is contagious. And in the Incarnation – i.e., in the act of God, as it were, becoming one of us and sharing our broken humanity – God opens himself up to us so that we can see and so that we can participate in the knowledge and the love and the enjoyment that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have with one another.

So in Christ, and by the sheer gift of the Spirit, we get to listen into and to participate in (which is what prayer is) the eternal conversation that is going on 24/7 between the Spirit and the Son and the Father. And the more we listen, the more we get to see that their conversation does not consist of random updates (like with Twitter or Facebook) but that it’s purposeful. In fact, the reason that we get to listen in is purposeful too. It’s because God doesn’t want to be God without us, and so God lives with us and brings us into his own communion so that we may have no other God before him, so that we may learn that the only way to be fully alive is to be fully alive in community, and so that we may learn to serve life rather than death.

And for those three things – (i) that we may have no other God before him, (ii) that we may learn that the only way to be fully alive is to be fully alive in community, and (iii) that we may learn to serve life rather than death – God speaks torah to us. He gives us his law, his teaching, his instruction. In fact, one of the great blessings that God gives us is his gift of the commandments.

So we have Moses’ great speech in Deuteronomy 4:

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live … You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (vv. 1–8)

Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy not because they sat around and philosophised about God’s goodness and trustworthiness, nor because they went away to some beautiful island and heard a talk about it. Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy because they had experienced in their own story the saving action of One who had heard their cry and liberated them from Egypt. And Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy because the God who had heard their cry and gave himself to journey with them gave them torah, words by which they might live and order their life, words that would bring life and not death.

You see, the Lord’s commands are not arbitrary. Rather, they are, as the book of Deuteronomy puts it, for our ‘well-being’ (4.40), ‘for our lasting good … to keep us alive’ (6.24); indeed they are our ‘very life’ (32.47). This is because they are that which enables human life in the first place: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ (8.3).[2]

In fact, the Bible also tells us that it’s not just the law that reveals that God is good but also that God ‘has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy’ (Acts 14.17). Here is God blessing creation so that creation can be the theatre of his glory and the stage upon which his covenant promises might be acted out. This is echoed again in James 1.17: ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.[3]

Here James tells us is that God does not change, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy, that the God who confronts us when we are 10 and chucking a wobbly is the same God who confronts us when we are 38 and chucking a wobbly. And you see, if you’re like me and you’ve committed the same sin for the 700th time, and then you ask God for forgiveness, you begin to have a fear in your mind that this time God might say, ‘No! I’ve had enough! That’s it! You’ve blown it!’ We begin to fear that we might wear out God’s patience, God’s will to forgive, God’s friendly welcome of us, God’s joy in our repentance, God’s joy in our presence. But James says, ‘No. God does not change’. God is not erratic or unreliable. God is not soft one day and hard the next. God isn’t like your father or your mother or your boss or anyone else. God is consistent. The God we pray to on Monday is the same God we pray to on Thursday. God is constant in his compassion. He is constant in his love. He is constant in his patience. He is constant in his perseverance. He is constant in his forgiveness. He is constant in his goodness. And he is constant in his determination to know you and for you to know him. Here is a God who is trustworthy.[4]

Certainly the Bible is univocal in the claim that God is good and trustworthy:

  • ‘Good and upright is the LORD’. (Ps 25.8)
  • ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. (Ps 34.8)
  • ‘For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations’. (Ps 100.5)
  • ‘Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good’. (Ps 135.3)
  • ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made’. (Ps 145.9)
  • ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ (Jer 33.11)
  • ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy’. (Ps 111.7)

And then, of course, there are Jesus’ own words as recorded in Mark 10 and Luke 18: ‘No one is good but God alone’.[5]

So what’s at stake in even thinking about God’s goodness and trustworthiness?

And what is the greatest challenge to God’s goodness and trustworthiness?[6]

For everything that I spoken of so far is way too easy, and way too unsatisfactory, to leave the question of God’s goodness and trustworthiness here.

Suffering – the challenge to God’s goodness & trustworthiness

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.[7]

So penned Elie Wiesel in his moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside of the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, or homosexuals – meant the death of faith and of God.

As Wiesel wrote in another place:

In truth, Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find Meaning – with a capital M – in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God’s name. At Auschwitz the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad.[8]

The fact is that ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God’,[9] and especially for the person or community who want to claim that God is good. For, you see, suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’,[10] demonstrates the logical incoherence of Christianity. So does the fact that among the six million who died in Auschwitz there were some who sang and shared their soup and sacrificed themselves for others. [Thanks for this point Kim]

But ‘it is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’.[11]

The problem was famously articulated some 300 years before Christ by Epicures (341–270 BCE) who argued that once we recognise the reality and evil of suffering we are forced to choose one of four options if we believe in a good God:

1. God wills to remove evil but can’t.
2. God can and won’t.
3. God can’t and won’t.
4. God wants to remove evil and can.

Indeed, C.S. Lewis once rejected the existence of God on the basis of the existence of evil: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust’.[12] He reasoned that

(a) there is evil in the world + (b) evil is incompatible with God = (c) therefore God does not exist.

Or as the great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, put it:

How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? … Can one still hear His word [i.e., his Torah]? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?[13]

To be sure, it seems that people of faith, and people of no faith, have always sought to articulate answers to these most challenging of questions.

Here are some inadequate (though not necessarily entirely wrong) responses to the problem of suffering:

1.       Suffering is an illusion.

2.       Suffering is a product of dualism. Suffering is the inescapable reality of things in a universe where the forces of Sauron and the forces of the Ilúvatar (the All-Father of Middle-Earth and of all other earths) battle it out.

3.       Suffering represents the unalterable will of God.

4.       Suffering is a punishment for sin.

5.       Suffering happens because God is finite or limited.

6.       Suffering serves some greater good.

7.       Suffering is inevitable.

8.       Most suffering – not all – happens because love requires the free to do good or evil.

9.       Pain is ‘good’ when it alerts us to problems that require attention. But pain is ‘evil’ when it makes no sense, when it seems to produce harm not good.

10.  The religion of the Bible puts human suffering into a cosmic context: the battle of good and evil, God and Satan.

11.  God both allows and sends suffering.

12.  It’s not our suffering that matters most but our response to it.

13.  Suffering can deepen our relationship with God and with one another.

14.  Suffering forms us for service.

In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Smith writes:

Terrible things happen to wonderful people. Wonderful things happen to awful people. We cannot look around the world we live in and build a case that sinners are punished and righteous people are blessed. Reality simply does not bear this out.[14]

And then Smith goes on to quote from the theological giant of the fourth century, St Augustine:

We do not know why God’s judgment makes a good [person] poor, and a wicked [person] rich … Nor why the wicked [person] enjoys the best of health, whilst the [person] of religion wastes away in illness … Even then it is not consistent … Good [people] also have good fortune and evil [people] find evil fortunes.[15]

Smith and Augustine are both right. But I would want to go even further and say:

We can’t know that God is good by looking at history. John Howard Yoder is right here: ‘we can no longer so simply identify the course of history with Providence. We have learned that history reveals as much of Antichrist as of Christ’.[16]

And we can’t know that God is good by looking at creation. [e.g., The same beautiful bird that God used to speak to Howard was then attacked by his cute friends. And the same beautiful and calm water across which you might come to a peaceful and beautiful island, is the same water that would swallow you up were you to fall in and loose the strength to swim]. So we can’t know that God is good by looking at creation – whether we are talking about a sunset, or about our relationships, or about the fact that something that we have been praying about for 15 years has finally been answered as we had hoped.]

So where can we look?

Jesus – the revelation of God’s goodness & trustworthiness

Consider this poem by Vinicio Aguilar which arises out of the struggle for human dignity in Central America:

Where was god, daddy; where, where, where,
when the commissioners
broke the fence,
burnt the farm,
destroyed the harvest,
killed the pigs,
raped Imelda,
drank our rum?

HE WAS UP THERE, boy.

Where was god, daddy; where, where, where,
when because we complained
the state judge came and fined us
the bailiff came to arrest us
and even the priest came to insult us?

HE WAS UP THERE, boy.

Well then daddy; we must now tell him plainly
that he must come down sometimes
to be with us.
You can see how we are, daddy,
with no fields sown, no farm, no pigs, nothing, and he
as if nothing had happened. It isn’t right, you know, daddy.
If he’s really up there
let him come down.
Let him come down to taste this cruel hunger with us
let him come down and sweat
in the maize-fields, come down to be imprisoned,
let him come down and spew on the rich man
who throws the stone and hides his hand,
on the venal judge,
on the unworthy priest,
and on the bailiffs and commissioners
who rob and kill
the peasants;
because I certainly don’t want to tell my son when he asks
me one day:

HE WAS UP THERE, boy.[17]

The good news is gathered up in the words of one who said about himself, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14.9).[18]

Friends, there is no God behind Jesus Christ. But in Jesus we are given to see God in his fullness. As the Fourth Gospel puts it, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.14, 18).

Reflect with me for a moment on this ‘Sketch of the Trinity’ by William Blake. And ask yourself, Where am I in this picture? Whether you know it or not, whether this is already or not yet your story, you are in Christ. And where is Christ? Christ is in the bosom of the Father. How? By the gift of the Spirit. Here in the Father’s embrace of the Son by the Spirit is the revelation of God’s goodness and trustworthiness. Here alone, in Christ, can we know that God is good, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy.

And it is specifically in the wounded Christ that we really see the goodness and trustworthiness of God. In fact, we do more than see God’s goodness and trustworthiness in the wounded Christ – we participate in it. His life becomes ours. His wounds become ours and our wounds are healed in his.

And in that participation – which is the life that the Bible calls faith – we come to see that in the face of unspeakable suffering and tragedy the questions of God’s goodness and of God’s trustworthiness are not ‘problems’ to be ‘worked out’ but realities in which to live, and that that life is opened up to us in the wounded heart of God.[19] There is no ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering!

There’s a very well-known Christian philosopher named Nick Wolterstorff who, some years ago, ‘lost’ his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain-climbing accident. And I can tell you that there are few things more painful than to bury your own child. Nick decided to pen a memoir of his journey of grief in what was later published as Lament for a Son. And as we draw to a close, I would like to read you some sections of that book:

The world looks different now. The pinks have become purple, the yellows brown. Mountains now wear crosses on their slopes. Hymns and psalms have reordered themselves so that lines I scarcely noticed now leap out: “He will not suffer thy foot to stumble.” Photographs that once evoked the laughter of delighted reminiscence now cause only pain. Why are the photographs of him as a little boy so incredibly hard for me to look at? This one here, holding a fish longer than he is tall, six years old? Why is it easier to look at him as a grownup? The pleasure of seeing former students is colored by the realization that they were his friends and that while they thrive he rots.

Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done. My life is divided into before and after. A friend of ours whose husband died young said it meant for her that her youth was over. My youth was already over. But I know what she meant. Something is over.

Especially in places where he and I were together this sense of something being over washes over me. It happens not so much at home, but other places. A moment in our lives together of special warmth and intimacy and vividness, a moment when I specially prized him, a moment of hope and expectancy and openness to the future: I remember the moment. But instead of lines of memory leading up to his life in the present, they all enter a place of cold inky blackness and never come out. The book slams shut. The story stops, it doesn’t finish. The future closes, the hopes get crushed. And now instead of those shiny moments being things we can share together in delighted memory, I, the survivor, have to bear them alone.

So it is with all memories of him. They all lead into that blackness. It’s all over, over, over. All I can do is remember him. I can’t experience him. The person to whom these memories are attached is no longer here with me, standing up. He’s only in my memory now, not in my life. Nothing new can happen between us. Everything is sealed tight, shut in the past. I’m still here. I have to go on. I have to start over. But this new start is so different from the first. Then I wasn’t carrying this load, this thing that’s over.

Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea …

I remember delighting in them – trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I’m still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float. The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming, is gone. I don’t suppose anyone on the outside notices. I go through my paces. What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for.

I’ve become an alien in the world, shyly touching it as if it’s not mine. I don’t belong any more. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.[20]

Here Nick describes the suffering which is the valley of the shadow of death. And we must not make light of that shadow for the valley is, in every sense, dark. Death is never OK, and the valley of its shadow is never a location to which we ought to be resolved. But – and it’s a huge BUT – this is precisely the valley in which God too hangs out. As Nick puts it:

For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God. I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before.

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.

It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.

And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world’s wounds.

What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I’m only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth’s closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him.[21]

Friends, we know that God is good, and that God is trustworthy, because – and only because – Jesus, who is God’s Word made flesh, has revealed God’s goodness and God’s trustworthiness to us, and that supremely in his own experience of god-abandonment. And the cross is the word of God’s promise, it is the action of the promise-keeping God. And, of course, there is a sense in which his promises are all we have. God is only as good as his word. So, for example, how do you know that God loves you? Forgives you? Journeys with you? You don’t always feel loved. You don’t always feel forgiven. You don’t always feel accompanied. At the end of the day we only know that we are loved and forgiven and accompanied because of the promises of the promise-keeping God. We literally live by the promises of God. And the promises of God are literally the word of the cross. So think for a moment: when has God ever failed to be for you all that he promised to be in his cross? God is trustworthy! God is good! And we know this only because Jesus, who is God’s promise to us, has proclaimed to us in his own broken body what God’s goodness and God’s trustworthiness look like.

A final thought:

Thinking and talking about God’s goodness and trustworthiness demands an eschatology

That is, it demands a sense of time which has already begun to open up in the resurrection of Jesus but which is yet to reach its fulness. It demands a future, or what theologians call ‘eschatology’. And it is eschatology which makes life so unlike a soap opera, and reminds us that no matter how many glimpses of God’s goodness and trustworthiness we experience now, and no matter how much richer these experiences make life for us, their full satisfaction awaits us, and God.

And so we live now in faith, love and hope. And hope sees in the resurrection of Jesus not the eternity of heaven but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands and which his cross secures.

And so we live now in this tension, in this time between the times, in this linear space between what has passed and all that is coming. This is called living in hope. And hope means that we are unable to reconcile ourselves with the laws and constraints of this earth, neither with the inevitability of death nor with the evil that constantly threatens the end that God is moving all of creation towards.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Fontana Lions, 1980), 75.

[2] It’s interesting that the first thing that is named as being ‘good’ in the Bible is not God but ‘light’ (Gen 1.4) – light, to be sure, which appears at God’s bidding; light which is literally spoken into being. In fact, the word ‘good’ appears 12 times in Genesis 1–2 alone, suggesting that if creation is good, it must say something about the Creator and about the way that the Creator who alone is good in himself does not keep that goodness to himself, but longs to share it, longs that creation may mirror it and participate in it. So there is a sense in which creaturely goodness is always borrowed goodness. But what we are given to see in Jesus Christ is that God is in himself perfectly good and that God delights to share that goodness: He is the God who gives of himself so unbegrudgingly and without keeping any records.

[3] And if we read Psalms like Psalm 89, we see that God’s faithfulness to creation is undergirded by his covenant with creation. And we are reminded that creation is good because it is the theatre, the stage, the location upon which and in which the story of God’s covenant can be played out. So what creation is good for is being a object of God’s blessing. What creation is good for is creatures. What creation is good for is the resurrection of Jesus. God’s goodness has to do with God’s ‘beauty’ and God’s ‘excellence’. The Hebrew word for ‘good’ is tob and means ‘pleasant’ or ‘joyful’ or ‘agreeable’. And we see this sense in the Genesis account of creation itself, that when God creates, what God creates is good, even very good, i.e. ‘wholly functional and proper’. It’s not a statement about the moral worth or otherwise of creation. It’s a confession that creation is working, is fruitful and is beautiful. It’s a confession that creation reflects God’s creative goodness, reflects the fact that God is for creation, that God has planned nothing evil, reflects the fact that the pain and brokenness which set the scene from Genesis 3 onwards are at odds with God’s good intention for creation. Thinking more theologically, creation is good because it sets the stage upon which God’s action of creating sons and daughters in Christ might be carried out.

[4] As an aside, it might be worth noting that the Bible rarely describes God as ‘trustworthy’. The word ‘trustworthy’ is used to describe the posture of the person of faith, i.e., those who trust in God and in the promises of God, those who look to God and to God’s righteousness. What the Bible does bear witness to, however, is One who is in every sense worthy of our trust, and it points out why we have every reason to trust in God, and why only the fool would not trust in God, even when the circumstances call God and God’s trustworthiness into question.

[5] One way that the Bible bears witness to this is in recalling the way that God goes into battle against his enemies: ‘The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness’ (Nahum 1.7–8). Also noteworthy is that sometimes our experience of God’s goodness appears to be qualified. E.g., Lam 3.25; Ps 73.1. Of course, this begs the question of how Israel and then the Church came to believe that God is good. For it is not self-evident that this is indeed the case. So we read in Psalm 4.6, ‘There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!”’. To see God as good, therefore, seems to be something that does not come ‘naturally’ to us but requires the eyes of faith.

[6] Few have put the problem more succinctly than the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (perhaps the most famous atheist of the 20th century) who argued that if God does not exist, it is meaningless to speak of ‘good’. He wrote: ‘The existentialist … finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only [people]. Dostoievsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’, and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist …’. Stephen Priest, ed., Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings (London/New York: Routledge, 2001), 32.

[7] Elie Wiesel, Night (trans. Stella Rodway; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1960), 45.

[8] Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 183.

[9] John W. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective (London: Collins, 1987), 102.

[10] Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross (Grand Rapids/Geneva: Wm. B. Eerdmans/World Council of Churches, 1979), 28.

[11] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 47, 49.

[12] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 41. The famous Scottish philosopher David Hume put it thus: ‘Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?’ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Stilwell: Digireads.com Publishing, 2006), 63.

[13] Martin Buber, On Judaism (New York: Shocken Books, 1967), 224.

[14] James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 45.

[15] Cited in Ibid. 45–6.

[16] John Howard Yoder, A Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 55.

[17] Cited in Julia Esquivel Velasquez, ‘A Letter from Central America’, International Review of Missions 66 (1977), 249–50. Also in Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995), 261–2.

[18] This means that in order to come to a place where we know that God is trustworthy and that God is good takes a miracle. It is not self-evident. It takes revelation. And it takes faith. And both revelation and faith are gifts. More specifically, it takes being taken down into death – being put to death in the death of Christ, being taken into his personhood, and into his sufferings.

[19] So Donald M. MacKinnon, ‘Atonement and Tragedy’ in Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays (ed. George W. Roberts and Donovan E. Smucker; Philadelphia/New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1968), 104: ‘It is a lesson to be learnt from tragedy that there is no solution of the problem of evil; it is a lesson which Christian faith abundantly confirms, even while it transforms the teaching by the indication of its central mystery. In the Cross the conflicting claims of truth and mercy are reconciled by deed and not by word. The manner of their reconciliation is something which lies beyond the frontier of our comprehension; we can only describe and re-describe’.

[20] Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 46–7, 51.

[21] Ibid. 81–2.

Powerpoint slides here.

 

3 comments

  1. My childhood was one of a broken home, being deprived of both parents, living with maternal grandparents on a sharecropper’s farm in Arkansas, and having to work from dawn to setting sun. I am to Atheism by age 13. How could there be a god and let children suffer. But when God met me some three years later, he did not answer my questions. Indeed, I could not even think of them, being overcome with a sense of desire to get away from this Being that I had seen with my own eyes (whether in a vision of a hallucination, I cannot say, but there he was. Jesus standing, facing me, looking at me, with his arm raised like he was knocking at a door). I left the place of encounter, determined to tell no one (after all seeing the one you say does not exist can be quite embarrassing), and before I arrived home I decided to tell my mother…and that led to my conversion. I never did put my questions from childhood to God. And questions were not put, when other trials lay in adulthood, trials that seem to call for suicide. But there was one thing that occurred in the midst of a terrible tragedy, the sense of a tremendous presence that could exude joy even in the midst of the most tragic of circumstances.The reality of the presence was as if one stood at my shoulder behind me, so real, so present, that I would turn to see who stood there. In the midst of such terrible visitations there is that which Elijah called “the sound of silence,” which the KJV renders as a still small voice. Yes, silences can bear meanings, meanings so deep, so overhwelming, that they can virtually and really overwhelm the devestation of grief with a sense of joy. There are depths of thought, of compassion and of glorious purpose, which can not be reduced to words alone, which transcend our wherewithal to comprehend the meaning. God’s glory is involved, and the proof of that fact lies in the message of the cross, in the utter degradation, suffering, misery, and loss of that worst of all human evils and sins which sanctifies our own agonies of deprivation with that same glory of the one who alone enhanced the terrible cross into that in which the Apostle Paul could glory. One whom I knew, raised an orphan, who suffered extreme physical abuse at the hand of adults who were supposed to be his care providers, that one was afraid of death as a result of a Divine visit in a hospital….Years later when he passed, he died happy, the lady attending said that was the easiest death she had ever seen and the undertaker said that was the most relaxed body he had ever handled. A fellow in the midst of the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda said he could feel the presence and the joy of God in the midst of the fear and evil. While watching the South Africans struggling with the problems of forgiveness in their Reconciliation Commission meetings on television documentaries, I felt such a sense of God being there – even with those who felt that they could not fogive those who had murdered their loved ones that I wept. the tension of two poles of one concept is of such nature as to enable one to be both objective and subjective, to alternate between the two, to be objective or subjective, scientific or loving, as the situation might required. That tension is the empowerment of a balanced, flexible, creative, and magnetic life, the one we all desire for being able to live through terrible tests with a sense of triumph until the next encounter again brings us low, the final humbling before the final lifting up.

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