God is goodA favourite saying among evangelical Christians – indeed, I saw it in my Facebook feed this morning – is “God is good all the time!”.

I agree wholeheartedly with this saying. But I suspect it may be misunderstood and/or misused by many. In particular, there are two major ways in which I see it misused, or used carelessly. Let’s unpack them a bit, shall we?

First, we sometimes hear this saying shared with those who are suffering some dire circumstance or grieving a painful loss. I’m sure it’s meant as an encouragement. I suppose the idea is that the suffering brother or sister needs to be reminded of God’s goodness lest they should come to doubt it because of what has befallen them.

The difficulty with this is that there’s a great danger that it will be understood as meaning “This terrible thing that has happened to you is actually a manifestation of God’s goodness in a way that you just don’t understand yet”. While that may, theoretically, be true, I’d suggest that it might well be the last thing a suffering person needs to hear at a time of tragedy. In fact, it might well produce the exact opposite of its intended effect by provoking a reaction of “If that’s your idea of God’s goodness, I don’t want to know your God!”

Second, this saying is sometimes used as a way to sweep aside biblical portrayals of God that are problematic. We believe that God is good; we read in the Old Testament that God commanded the slaughter of innocent women and children, the enslavement of entire cities and/or forced intercourse with captured virgins; and we wonder what to do with this troublesome information. Faced with this difficulty, we seek reassurance by telling ourselves, “God is good all the time!”

Why is this a problem? Well, as in our earlier scenario of a suffering person being encouraged to believe that their tragedy is somehow an expression of God’s goodness, it’s a problem if what we mean by it is that slaughtering innocent women and children, enslaving cities and/or forcing captured virgins to have intercourse is somehow a Good Thing. What’s really happening when we do that is that we’re so tied to the black and white text of scripture that we’d rather completely redefine a commonly understood word like “good” than be prepared to accept that perhaps scripture is not correct when it says that God commanded such behaviour.

A few months ago, I made this comment:

If your definition of God’s goodness doesn’t even pass the test of what would generally be considered good in a human being, you need to change it.

This really is not complicated. If your theology or your doctrine of scriptural inerrancy requires you to accept that commanding the slaughter of innocent people might somehow be a Good Thing, you need to adjust your theology and/or discard your doctrine of scriptural inerrancy.

When we brush such problematic texts under the carpet of “God is good all the time”, we’re really employing a technique known as an appeal to mystery. We’re saying, in effect, that since we can’t explain how God can both be good and command what would in any other context be condemned as atrocities, we’ll just put it down to the fact that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” and accept that the goodness of such acts is beyond our human comprehension. In fact, we sometimes up the spiritual ante even further by claiming that accepting such contradictions is an act of faith.

Now, it’s only natural that we should sometimes end up appealing to mystery in our conversations about God. After all, however clever we think we are, God is way beyond our capacity to fully comprehend him. As such, we sometimes need to humble ourselves and be prepared to say, “I admit that I don’t understand this, but I choose to accept it and trust God anyway”.

Having said that, however, an appeal to mystery should not be our default go-to strategy when faced with problems of scriptural interpretation. It should be a last resort when no other satisfactory explanation is available.

And in this case, another satisfactory explanation is available.

Here’s what I believe: when violent atrocities are ascribed to God in the Old Testament, what we’re seeing is an attempt to justify human violence by co-opting God to validate it. If you think this is really so far-fetched, consider that we humans have been doing the exact same thing throughout the ages. For example, in medieval times the crusaders slaughtered thousands upon thousands in the name of God; yet few Christians today would honestly uphold their actions as being truly guided by God. And if you think such barbarity belongs purely to a bygone age, you need look no further than recent western military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq to see contemporary examples of God’s name being employed to justify extreme violence.

In conclusion, it’s my belief that when we compromise the most basic meaning of a word like “goodness” to accommodate violent biblical depictions of God, we’re placing our allegiance to scriptural literalism above both common sense and the true character of God.

God really is good, all the time. Among other things, that means he doesn’t order the mass slaughter of innocents, the enslavement of cities or forced intercourse with captured virgins. If your theology or your doctrine of scripture can’t cope with that, perhaps it’s time to consider changing your paradigm.

[ Image: David Woo ]