Giving Thanks for the Goodness of GodNovember 15, 2023
One of the first things we learn about God is that he is good. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Many of us grew up hearing this prayer at the dinner table. It’s good theology—simple and true.
It also highlights an attribute of God that is surprisingly hard to define. We think we know what it means for God to be good, until we try to explain it. Then we usually start listing other attributes (God is loving, God is gracious, God is kind) or resort to platitudes (God helps us). It takes some reflection to understand all that we mean—or should mean—when we confess that God is good.
Defining Our Terms
Before coming to a simple definition of what God’s goodness is, we must say what it is not.
By goodness we do not mean that God is relatively good. If we say, “That hotdog is good,” we mean, “Of all the hotdogs out there, this is one of the better ones.” This is not what God is like. God is not good because he compares favorably to other gods. There is none like the LORD; he alone is God (Ps. 86:8–10).
By goodness we do not mean that God is morally exemplary or ethically upright. Of course, that’s gloriously true. But “goodness” should not be confused with “holiness.”
Nor, by goodness, do we mean that God is merciful. We see in Exodus 33 that these two things—goodness and mercy—cannot be separated, but strictly speaking, God’s goodness extends further than his mercy. Mercy may be the ultimate expression of divine goodness, but it is not the only expression. God shows mercy to some, but his goodness extends to all.
So, what do we mean by God’s goodness? Divine goodness is the overflowing bounty of God by which he communicates blessing to his creation and to his creatures. God’s goodness is the opposite of harshness and cruelty. To experience divine goodness is to enjoy the sweetness, friendliness, benevolence, and generosity of God.
Goodness is the broader category encompassing several of God’s moral attributes. His goodness toward those in misery we call mercy. His goodness to forebear with those deserving judgment we call patience. And his goodness to those who are guilty we call grace.
Three Aspects of God's Goodness
Theologians speak of God’s goodness as necessary, voluntary, and communicative.
God’s goodness is necessary in that God cannot be other than completely, perfectly, and unalterably good. Goodness is what God does, but it is also who he is. Good and upright is the LORD (Ps. 25:8). Good are you LORD, and you do good (Ps. 119:68). Jesus told the rich young man, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Of course, Jesus didn’t mean that human beings are incapable of doing good things or possessing relative goodness. Jesus meant that only God in himself is originally, infinitely, and immutably good. God is good in the highest degree. His goodness can never increase nor decrease. He is all good and unmixedly good. He is like the sun—all light in whom there is no darkness. That’s what we mean when we say God is necessarily good.
God’s goodness is also voluntary. This may seem to contradict the previous point, but it does not. God’s eternal and intrinsic goodness is necessary, but his will to make known this goodness to others is voluntary. In other words, it was necessary that whatever God would create would be good, but it was not necessary that God create in the first place. As Stephen Charnock puts it in The Existence and Attributes of God, “God is necessarily good in his nature, but free in his communications of it.” God did not have to go outside of himself to be good, nor did he have to create the universe in order to be conscious of his own Trinitarian goodness. The fact that God willed to display divine goodness is a further expression of that goodness.
This leads to the third point: God’s goodness is communicative. Whatever good we have or whatever good we enjoy is because God has willed for his goodness to be known and enjoyed. Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights (James 1:17). Food is good, marriage is good, friendship is good, health is good, peace is good, prosperity is good, work is good, recreation is good, rest is good—because God is good. He is a benevolent Creator, making his sun rise on the evil and on the good, sending rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45). Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, every excellent thing is owing to the overflowing goodness of God (Phil 4:8). God communicates his goodness not with miserliness, but with great delight. God loves to make his goodness known. The supply of his goodness is inexhaustible, and the sharing of it knows no end.
Three Areas Where God Displays His Goodness
If the nature of God’s goodness is threefold, so is the manifestation of his goodness. We see the display of God’s goodness chiefly in three areas: in creation, in providence, and in redemption.
First, we see God's goodness in creation.
Think of the constant refrain throughout the creation week: “And God saw that it was good.” We come to the climax of the sixth day, with the events of Genesis 2 already having taken place—with the creation of the man, and then the creation of the woman, fit for the man—and then we read: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
God was a benefactor to us long before we could offer any response of obedience or worship. “The earth is full of the goodness of the LORD” (Ps. 33:5, KJV). God gave us mountains and beaches, trees and flowers, the sun, the moon and the stars—all as a gift. God gave marriage and children as a gift. He crowned us with glory and honor, above all else in the world, as a gift.
Most of us grow dull to the wonder and the beauty God has provided for us in creation. Do you ever hear birds chirping? Or see leaves changing colors? Or flowers blooming? Maybe you watch deer from your front porch, or pigeons, or squirrels, or ants working their little abdomens off. Maybe you see roses or tulips or a brilliant dogwood. Even the wild lilies of the field are arrayed in greater splendor than Solomon (Matt. 6:28–29).
I love how G.K. Chesterton reminds us of the goodness of God in creation:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. (Orthodoxy, 58)
I remember several years ago watching one of my young children reach into a basket on the floor containing our collection of Nerf balls. He would lean over, pick up a ball, and throw it on the ground. Then I’d grab the ball and throw it back in the basket. My son would laugh and laugh, and then get the same ball and throw it back on the ground. We did this for a few minutes—out of the basket, in the basket—before I told my wife, “He would be happy doing this until Jesus comes back.” Children are the ones with the capacity for monotonous delight in the good gifts of creation. We are the ones whose eyesight has grown old and dim.
Second, we see God's goodness in providence.
God not only creates the world, he sustains all that he has made. He preserves both man and beast (Ps. 36:6, KJV). He opens his hand to supply the desire of every living thing (Ps. 145:16). God has not left himself without a witness, Paul says, “for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). God cares for the wellbeing of animals (Ex. 20:10; cf. Jonah 4:11). He does not allow the ox to be muzzled while it treads out the grain (Deut. 25:4). He provides for the crying ravens (Ps. 147:9) and the hungry lion (Ps. 104:21). Mufasa and Simba and Nala do not eat on account of an impersonal Circle of Life. They eat because God gives them food.
And think of all the ways God provides beyond the world of nature. He gives us his Law that we might know how to obey him and how to live at peace with one another (1 Tim. 1:8). He institutes government for the protection of life and the promotion of justice (Rom. 13:1–4). He restrains human wickedness (Ps. 65:7). He gives us his word as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Ps. 119:105). He guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of his will (Ps. 139:16; Prov. 16:33; 20:24; Jer. 10:23; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). The Lord is good to all, and God’s tender mercies are over all his works (Ps. 145:9).
Third, and most clearly, we see God’s goodness in redemption.
The Father promises our salvation from eternity, the Son seals our salvation in his blood, the Spirit applies the blessings of our salvation through faith—all evidence of God’s singular goodness to the believer. “For you, O LORD, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (Ps. 86:5).
The God who had no need of creating the world had even less need of redeeming it. From the sin in the Garden of Eden to the idolatry of the Golden Calf to the evil of Golgotha, there was an utter lack of deserving on the part of God’s people. There was no inducement to help except for his own glory and goodness. And when he helped, God gave us better than worlds or wealth. He gave us his Son. And at such a cost! We could rightly say that during Christ’s humiliation (and supremely so on the cross) God’s goodness was more obviously manifested to us than to his own Son.
God has given us an embarrassment of riches in his Son. And he gives access to these riches by means of such an easy yoke (Matt. 11:30). He appeals to us not with a show of force but with heartfelt entreaties, wooing us by the kindness of Christ our Savior (Eph. 2:7; Titus 3:4). As Charnock puts it, “He is the true Father, that hath a quicker pace in meeting, than the prodigal hath in returning.” God runs to us faster than we run to him. That is the goodness of God.
Three Responses to God's Goodness
Considering all that God’s goodness is and all that it does, what should our response be to such goodness?
The goodness of God should stir us to grateful worship. For, in God, “infinite cheerfulness attends infinite goodness” (to quote Charnock one more time). “Who will show us some good?” the Psalmist asks. The answer is the Lord who shines the light of his face upon us. “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps. 4:6-7). The God of infinite cheerfulness and infinite goodness is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the heavenly Father of all those who call upon him in the name of his Son. Let us not doubt his benevolence. Let us, rather, be public in our praise and profuse in our gratitude. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8).