Christopher Hitchens’ provocatively titled book God is Not Great ruffled a lot of feathers in the Christian world. Yet I wonder if his title may not be so different from the title we often give our own story: God is Not Good or Not Good Enough. I find a key point of struggle in my own life and the lives of the people I talk to is that, in the mundane stresses of every day life, we find it hard to live as if God is truly good.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. My wife and I are in the process of selling our house. One of the myriad chores to get the place ready was power washing our (filthy) siding. I had never used a power washer, but got up my courage and drove the half hour each way to Home Depot to rent one the morning before we planned to go on the market. The darn thing wouldn’t start. I re-read the instructions. I prayed. I fiddled. I called customer service. Every 30 seconds that passed with mere sputters from my mechanical opponent, my internal temperature went up another degree as frustration and time pressure mounted. I prayed again, pleading with real desperation. And finally, all else having failed, I kicked it. Hard.
Thankfully, it was good sturdy equipment and I didn’t break it. In fact, I barely even rocked it. At first, this actually made me angrier – the power washer’s indifference was infuriating and I felt puny. A moment later, the sheer ridiculousness of my behavior hit me with painful clarity. Why was I angry to the point of physical violence? The answer was not very encouraging: I didn’t believe that God was good – not at that moment anyway. I was living in a world where power washing had to happen for my house to sell, my house had to sell for my family to be financially secure, and God was nowhere in sight. I spent the 30 minute drive back to Home Depot (I will admit I felt better when the technician at HD couldn’t start it either) praying that God would help me to act out of the reality of his goodness. If my house didn’t sell, God was still my provider and my savior. He could sell my house despite dirty siding. I needed the entire half hour drive to repent of my rage and beg for eyes that could see reality.
Sadly my experience is nothing new. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they chose to trust their own view of what was good, implicitly rejecting the goodness of the Creator who had set the tree off limits. We easily walk in their footsteps, rejecting God’s goodness, when we allow broken power washers to tell us that life is unfair, that we are unsafe, and that our anger is justified because we deserve something better. So we parse the evidence for God’s goodness extremely selectively, turning God’s provision—or its withholding—into the most important standard for judging his provision.
Thankfully, Jesus calls us out. “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” (Matt. 7:11)
Good gifts—what does that mean exactly? It is certainly not a simple count-your-blessings mentality. Though recognizing God’s gifts helps us remember that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28), I fear we often miss the most important step. Luke phrases Jesus’ challenge slightly more specifically than Matthew saying: “how much more will your Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13, emphasis mine). Ultimately the proof of God’s goodness does not reside in the plenitude of physical and social blessings he gives. Rather, God’s goodness to us is that he has given us Christ, uniting us with him, filling us with his Holy Spirit, redeeming us from our sins, and sanctifying us into the image of his Son.
Does that sound like a theological platitude? Does the gift of Christ’s blood at the cross fail to excite you as much as the resolution of conflict in your marriage, kids to be proud of, a promotion, or taking that attractive girl to dinner and a movie? Then you, like me, are a Christian who finds it hard to believe that God is really good; and you, like me, are privately convinced that your own definition of good is really much better than God’s. Yet, in Christ, God has already given us every evidence we could ever ask of his goodness. True freedom and joy come when we can “seek first the kingdom of God”, trusting that “he who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all…will…graciously give us all things” (Matt. 6:33, Rom 8:32).
I wanted the power washer to work. Because it didn’t, I reacted in anger. I hated the inconvenience and I was afraid. What if my house sells for less money than I want? What if it doesn’t sell and we can’t afford another home? Could God still be good? Oh Lord, enlighten the eyes of my heart!
So please pray that we’ll sell our home at a good price. But much more importantly, pray that I will know that God is good even if we don’t. We’ll know it’s working when I can sweep without grumbling before a showing or when I resist the temptation to get bitter when an offer comes back insultingly low. We’ll know it’s working when our hardships make our love for the One who is good more dear.
Alasdair Groves is a counselor at CCEF.