The Singular Goodness of God

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It has long seemed to me that it is one thing to believe that God exists and quite another to believe that He is good. Indeed, to believe that God exists simply begs the question. That question is: Who is God, and what can be said of Him? Is He good? This goes to the heart of the proclamation of the Christian faith. We believe that God has revealed Himself definitively in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and preeminently in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Years ago, a friend of mine was speaking with an Orthodox priest about certain matters of conscience. In the course of the conversation, my friend mentioned concerns with the judgment of God, expressing a certain dread. The priest responded by turning around a small icon of Christ that was on his desk so that my friend could see it. It was the icon of Christ, “Extreme Humility,” that pictures Him in the depth of His humiliation and suffering. “Which God are we talking about?” was the priest’s question. My friend’s concerns were answered in that moment. Whatever our concerns might be, the goodness of God is revealed in that icon without qualification.

It is possible to use the entire Jesus story as a way of proving the existence of God, only to then proceed to think of God in terms that are somehow removed from Christ Himself. I’m not sure whether we imagine this “God” to be the “Father” or something else. These conversations (and thoughts) are often expressed in terms of, “I believe that God…” and on from there. I think of this as the God of the blackboard. Jesus is used in order to prove the blackboard but then we begin to fill in that large, blank wall with our own imaginings (or various passages of Scripture that we might use as a counterweight to the story of Jesus).

Sometimes those imaginings are extrapolations from Scripture (this story or that). Sometimes they are the productions of opinion. Many times our imaginings were handed down to us or written in our minds long before we ever thought about the matter.

If the stories of Scripture “prior” to Christ were sufficient for the knowledge of God, Christ would not have spoken in correction of the conclusions falsely drawn from them. There is a Greek word for an interpretation of the Scriptures: exegesis. It is most informative to note that St. John (in the Greek) says:

The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has exegeted Him. (Joh 1:18)

Christ is how we “read” God. We cannot get behind Christ to speak about God as though we knew anything of God apart from Christ. We do not know God “prior” to Christ. When Christ declares that He is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that “no one comes to the Father except by Me,” He is not merely describing the path of salvation, He is making it clear that it is through Him alone that we know God. This is also affirmed in St. Matthew’s gospel:

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matt. 11:27 NKJ)

Christ not only reveals God, but He reveals the goodness of God. He is what goodness looks like. Throughout His ministry, every word and action is a revelation of goodness. That goodness is supremely made manifest in His voluntary self-emptying on the Cross. This revelation is definitive and must be always borne in mind when we consider who God is and what kind of God He is. He is the kind of God who empties Himself for our sake, unites Himself to our shame and suffering, and endures all things that He might reconcile us to Himself and lead us into the fullness of life in Him.

This is the proper “exegesis” of the Scriptures. Anything that imagines God in a manner that is not consistent with this presentation is a deviant reading (for a Christian). This calls for an inner discipline. When reading even the most disturbing imprecatory passages within the Scriptures, we should search for the image of the Crucified Christ within them. There are frequent paradoxes in such an approach. This is particularly true in the language of hell (and its synonyms).

God has no need for punishment. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He cannot will our destruction and punishment while at the same time not willing that we should perish. Even the language of the fires of hell as a self-inflicted reality can be misleading. We know by experience that we are capable of inflicting great suffering on ourselves and we can easily imagine that stretching into eternity. What is being described, however, are the inner dynamics of a relationship with Divine Love: compassionate, forgiving, gentle, self-emptying in the extreme. The language and imagery of Scripture can be graphic, at times repulsive, particularly in the confusion of modern literalism.

These matters must be read within the heart (for that is where they were written). The singular commitment of the heart must be grounded in the goodness of God. We are not asked to look at something that is repugnant or horrible and say that it is good. That would do damage to the soul. What we know in Christ tells us that God is good. It is this that we look for as we search the depths of our world for understanding.

An element of God’s goodness that is frequently overlooked is found in our freedom (even when we misuse it). Nothing else in all creation is given the freedom that marks human existence. Everything else around us expresses its nature. A dog always acts as a dog. Human beings have the capacity in our freedom to act contrary to our nature. Sometimes our own sanity is insane. Some of the Fathers describe this capacity as “godlike.” We have been given a freedom that transcends our nature. It is this freedom that, potentially, finds expression in the fullness of personal existence.

We are created with the capacity to see God “face-to-face,” to interact as an equal, regardless of how absurd that might seem. It is an existence that is not confined to nature or circumstance but finally is above both. It is an existence that is constituted solely by love. I have seen this freedom exercised as love, even within the depths of protracted, life-long suffering. The goodness manifested in such examples is staggering.

I do not think there is a calculus that can be brought into this reality. Is the freedom we are given worth the price? No calculus is possible because we cannot measure the things involved. I cannot measure the suffering of an innocent child (as did Ivan Karamazov) just as I cannot measure the full joy of the freedom of love. What we have in Christ, however, is an example of both.

Here, we profess, is the most Innocent of the innocent, who, “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross, disregarding the shame” (Heb. 12:2). The “joy that was set before Him,” is not some sort of private bliss. It is the joy of love, in freeing those who are held in bondage so that they might see Him face-to-face (as an equal) in all of the fullness of a true personal existence.

I cannot imagine this, nor measure this. But I can say that I see this. I see One who is utterly good, compassionate and self-emptying, walking the path of the unimaginable because He is good and thinks we are worth it. My faith (trust, loyalty) says, “I want to walk that path – help me!” I take His death and resurrection as the revelation of God and of the world as well.

20 comments:

  1. One if my favorite hymns, taken from Psalm 136(135 LXX): “Oh give thanks unto the Lord for He is good Allelujah and His mercy endureth forever Alllelujah! ”

    If God is not both good and merciful we are left with pagan appeasement rituals not life giving Sacramental grace.

  2. Father,

    How do we continue to believe in His Goodness when all that was good in our life is suddenly taken? When every path to walk disappears, even the path the stay where we are and wait?

  3. Andrew,
    Only with great difficulty – and His goodness might very well not be apparent until some time much later. It is not wrong to feel devastated and overwhelmed and feel that it’s impossible to see His goodness. There are a number of Psalms in which the writer expresses precisely such feelings.

    When I have found myself in such settings, what has been helpful to me is to look towards the Crucified Christ. That Day, everything seemed to have failed and been destroyed. And yet something much greater and deeper was taking place.

    I think of St. John the Beloved and the Mother of God both standing steadfastly at the foot of the Cross, never leaving Jesus during that time of suffering. What they could see, I think, was the steadfast love and kindness of Christ (even forgiving those who were doing this to Him). That goodness was surely a help for them in standing there.

    In Vespers, we sing, “Lord, I call upon Thee, hear me! Hear me, O Lord!…Bring my soul out of prison that I may give thanks to Thy name.”

    What you describe is an experience of “my soul in prison.”

    If you have friends who can encourage or comfort you, it helps, but that’s sometimes not possible.

    Nonetheless, God does “bring our souls out of prison.” I will pray for you in what is a very hard place.

  4. Andrew,

    Much that was good in my life was taken from me, suddenly and without warning. Much that I thought defined me, was me, my life.

    Once the pity party subsided a bit, that was when I realized that not ALL that was good was taken. Indeed, something had been given, something Great that I am still trying to figure out what to do with it. I am incredibly confused at this point and I feel like things could go in a number of different ways.

    Father Stephen, this has been one of the most important-to-me essays of yours that I’ve read. I have to read it 2-3 more times before I even think about commenting on it. But I’m not sure what I could add. From time to time you wake me up when I need it, and for this, I thank you deeply…

  5. Andrew,
    I will add that if I did not believe in the goodness of God, I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. It has been at the very heart of my journey as a Christian.

  6. Dear Andrew,
    You have my prayers as well. May our Lord Jesus Christ grant you peace. I’ve been in similar situations, and it is as Father describes, a kind of prison. Please believe that Christ enters the prison and is with you. Another way I have looked at such situations is as a kind of desert. The desert is a place we don’t want to be in, it is lonely and difficult and perilous. And yet such a situation can help us to mature in faith. Sometimes it takes a fall to learn to walk. In my experience, sometimes in such situations it seemed that I could not even ‘get up’ from my fall. And in such conditions I waited and prayed for Christ to enter the desert in my heart. It was all that I could do.

    I too believe in the goodness of God. And this isn’t an abstract philosophy. The icon that Father’s article points to says it all.

    May God, our Lord Jesus Christ, fill you with His peace. He is with you.

  7. Dear Father Stephen,
    I’m not sure whether this is a faulty view or not, but I cannot think of God (the Father) as a Person or the Holy Spirit as a Person, apart from Jesus Christ. I’m not able to differentiate. We have the prayer to the Holy Spirit, and the “Our Father” prayer, but it seems even as I say these prayers, as I’m standing before the icon of Christ, in my heart I’m in-dwelling in Christ. But it seems that Jesus prayed to God the Father and communed with Him.

    Before I became a Christian and before my catechism, I prayed to “God”, but didn’t conceptualize God as God the Father, more as a the Creator/Being of Spirit (the Seminole name was “Breath Maker”) that was in all living and seemingly inanimate things. In those days, I sensed then that I was in the presense of God, but didn’t know that that would be Christ. There were some hinderences for me as I attempted to begin my walk with Christ, namely, I kept viewing Him as either man or God but not both. Also, I had not perceived Him in the “Old” Testament, I had to be taught that Christ was/is just as present in the beginning as He is in the end, which means He speaks throughout the scriptures (New and Old). The scriptures had to be “opened” to me (by my catechist teacher/priest) just as they had to be opened for the disciples walking to Emmaus with Christ.

    The Old Testament seems to regularly refer to an angry God. And this makes seeing the goodness of God difficult to perceive when we read such verses, such as in Numbers 14:34 “…you shall know my fierce anger.” When we suffer, sometimes we believe we are being punished by an angry God. It helps to counter such thoughts with the icon you show, however, there appears to be contradictions with such an icon in the scriptures that speak of an angry God.

    How are we to understand such scriptures?

  8. Dee,
    It’s a very significant question. I will answer with what I do with such passages. There are priests whom I’ve met who do not seem to have this discomfort and handle it differently. That said, I think that what I do is well within the Tradition.

    In the Life of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa raised a question about how to interpret the passage where God kills the Egyptian newborns. He asks this:

    How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?

    He concluded:

    By doing this [giving us the story of the killing of the Egyptian newborn] he laid down for us the principle that it is necessary to destroy utterly the first birth of evil. It is impossible to flee the Egyptian life in any other way.

    This, in essence, is an application of a principle of interpretation in which a “spiritual” meaning supercedes the historical meaning, particularly if the historical meaning is “not worthy of God.” There are many instances of this in a number of major Fathers.

    Now, of course, for some this raises questions about the history that is, more or less, being overlooked. What should we make of it? There are several possibilities. One is to see in such historical accounts a poorly developed understanding of God that was not to be corrected until the coming of Christ. I don’t follow that reasoning. For me, I tend to leave the question unanswered, under the heading of, “I don’t know.”

    I believe that in reading the Scriptures, the lens through which we read should be Christ. And I think Christ is above all revealed to us in His death and resurrection. It is Christ Crucified that is the interpretive lens for the Scripture. John says (Jn. 1:18): “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The word “declared” is, in the Greek, the word for “exegesis.” Christ is the “exegesis” of the Scriptures – pure and simple.

    The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until after the resurrection and only then when Christ “opened their eyes to understand the Scriptures.”

    This, for me, tends to undermine the typical historically-based readings. I don’t dismiss the history, per se, it’s just that I don’t think it’s the right starting point. The starting point is the crucified and risen Lord.

    Another observation. I think this is frequently misunderstood. Many of the Fathers have an unquestioned allegiance to the text as Scripture. But the relationship of the text to history itself is not always certain among them. They certainly tolerated questions about that relationship. That was not a questioning of the authority of Scripture – but it’s a very different feel for the text than you see among many today.

    For me, it leaves us somewhat free to discuss, speculate and question matters of the history and its relationship with the text. For some people, it’s all a package deal. If you unlink the text from history at any point, they feel like you’re doing it at every point. I think, however, that the death and resurrection of Christ are not “unlinked” from the text, and are clearly and forcefully defended on the historical level. (St. Paul cites over 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrection). Thus, I do not think of this as a package deal. The Church, for example, treats the gospels in a manner that is different from all other Scripture…and does so for a reason.

    What I know of God – I know in Christ, through Christ, and by Christ. Jesus is the test, the measure, the exegesis, of everything.

  9. Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

    There’s a very disconcerting movement afoot, in a very prominent corner of American Orthodoxy right now, that I fear is very close to doing serious harm. So many of us have found a refuge in Orthodoxy from an “unworthy” God and it feels a bit like being yanked back into that world. It led me to atheism and the brink of despair. I know I can ignore it, and I do, but it can feel very lonely when it is growing in such popularity and you wonder if you’ve had it wrong all along. I’m thankful you continue to shed light on this aspect of our tradition that keeps so many of us here. Please continue to do so.

  10. So sad to hear of the suffering some of you are going through and have gone through. I know this territory, too. I don’t know whether this idea is correct or not theologically, and I hope this is not too personal to share, but one of the understandings that I have developed through my own trials is that the image of God/God within is veiled or overlain by our sins and the negative things that happen which perturb us and mess up the mirror of our soul, but also by all the good things – the needs and satisfactions of the body, our feelings and psychological needs and gratifications, our interests and talents, relationships, even health, the things that make our life good and full and that are blessings. Even if one is keeping God in mind a lot of the time, these good things take up space in one’s psyche and experience. Some kinds of suffering that take all of these things away sort of lift off the layers of life, and if the suffering is extreme enough, even the ego and sense of self can be diminished to a point that it feels like one is not oneself any more or even that the self (really the ego or small self) as one knew it is shattered. (Very important to have help!) One possible outcome of the stripping away of everything, even the good things, is that the image of God/the Christ within can become more apparent, clearer, easier to see, filling all the space where all of the other things were veiling the image/Spirit, taking our attention away from the essence, filling up the space where God could live within. When I have been in this suffering space, I know I had preconceived notions about what this inner space might look like or feel like, if it ever happened – the glimmers I have had in the midst of suffering have left me like Job – stunned, stripped of my notions, left with the voice out of the whirlwind, with nothing to do but just live with not knowing, forced by the circumstances to give my full attention to the inner life and the Spirit, having no idea what I am doing. I think of this as the birth of a different level/depth/rung/aspect of experience, and really one is just left wide-eyed and wondering, with the work of trying to integrate what the whirlwind has left behind and living into something different than what one was living out of before. Words fail here, but trust is critical. This is an initiatory experience – one can go to the desert, to the monastery, to do this inner work, but one can also do this work in the middle of daily life, and in the path of suffering. (Also in the path of love, which can be a suffering depending on who you are loving.) I had a series of dreams about whirlwinds during one long time, and in the end became friends with a whirlwind in a dream. I think you are right, that it is not clear what the consequences or next part of the path will be and that is sort of scary — but I sort of think after a certain point in the spiritual life, that’s pretty much how it always is, even if parts of it seem more certain for indeterminate periods of time, and it probably needs to be that way after a certain point, because, how can one be available for the next guidance of the Spirit if one is locked into one’s habitual, comfortable, usual, or known ways of living and doing things? (I do so love the good things of life, though!) There is a kind of availability to new things that great suffering brings, if the person survives it and can set aside ego needs for a while in the service of openness to the new thing that is developing. And there is a new fearlessness after the bottom has fallen out. I find all this hard, and am not sure where I am now – sometimes it seems like I’m back at square one, but those glimmers changed my understanding permanently and I will not be the same person I was before them. Maybe it’s more like a spiral, one spirals around and revisits old issues with a new sense of things. One cannot lose the knowledge one has gained, and that is the gift of suffering for me, even after the trials are long behind. There are things one can learn only because of hard times. Also not good at this, but keeping the mirror of the soul as clear and clean as possible is a worthy project and very important after periods of suffering, or one can lose the clarity one gained through arduous experience. One can fall off of the ladder, thinking of that icon here. Perhaps this is just all stating the obvious, I don’t know — it seemed new to me at the time. . . . On God as being angry, the Job experience of the whirlwind could have been felt as an experience of an angry God – I have often mused on just how Job got to bowing in humility, when he could have interpreted everything so differently, as his friends attested. (I take the story of Job as true, whether historical, allegorical, metaphorical . . .) But I do feel some sympathy for God, a being Who fills all that is, the whole universe, Who is aware of and upholding these vulnerable little beings on a tiny little planet engaging in self-defeating behaviors, these ones who are so loved and don’t even know it — it is enough to make anyone “angry” or at least energetic and exercised at having to witness what goes on here, while respecting human free will. Anger on behalf of the ones one loves and anger at injustice to the loved ones are not the same to me as fulminating rage that is not based in love or is based in sin. Maybe God just gets fed up with us from time to time, and that’s what the scripture is expressing. Maybe what’s being expressed is not the “anger” of God – maybe love frustrated or not allowed to be in the world looks like wild undirected energy, a whirlwind perhaps, I don’t know. . . . Anyway, may you all have lots of support, the ability to trust in God and His and your process, and as much love as you need to get through these perilous experiences and the creative ferment of the whirlwind experience.

  11. Maybe I am shallow, but the personification of God in the Old Testament has never really bothered me.

    The Old Testament bears a lot of hallmarks of oral history–the ‘begats’ being a clear example. The rhythm and the personification of story another.
    Oral tradition is almost always going to be more intentionally dramatic to get and hold attention and enhance memory. Not always literally factual.
    Father’s explanation makes a lot of sense as to the purpose and nature of the narrative.
    All the more reason to seek to know the Person of God in Jesus.

  12. Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your helpful reply. –Very balanced and needful for our understanding.

  13. Yet preserve us he will. It is not a “wrap it and put it in the back of the closet” type of preservation either. There is and will be joy. There is joy now by His Grace in repentance and thanks giving. Such a blessing does not follow the logic of the world based on fear and intimidation.
    Eighteen months ago I would have said just the opposite but God had other plans. In the midst of physical, mental and spiritual pain (and Fr. Stephan’s witness) life began to dawn.

    Psalm 118 NKJV

  14. Thank you, Fr. Stephan,

    When I consider all these things I’m at a loss for words and even my mind fails to comprehend anything. All I seem to be sure of is my Hope in Jesus Christ. All I really have is hope. A hope that “Remember me” will be enough.

    If I can share a small excerpt from a post by Steve Robinson (My God, My God Why Have You Forsaken Me??),
    “In the end, when we are faced with certain death, the pain is unbearable, no philosophical paradigms or faith or promises assuage our suffering, there is no comfort found on earth, and God stands silently by, we can only rage into the darkness: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And there is no response. There is only ungodly silence. What then? We are left with only two options: Curse God and die, as Job’s wife counseled, or, like Christ, commit our spirit into His hands that hold all things in heaven and on earth including all the evil, pain, suffering and the horror of death.
    Our only true hope is that everything in creation, including suffering, evil, pain and death will all be summed up in Christ as St. Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians. The only “reason” in God in the end is Himself who IS infinite love. God was in Christ reconciling the fallen world and all of its senseless, random, human and unnatural evil, pain, and suffering to Himself, for no reason or purpose except that He is love and could do nothing else. The only good and salvation is God Himself, not a predetermined individual utilitarian purpose or spiritualized Hallmark outcome for my life. All I know anymore is that nothing is lost in God, love will win out in the end, and we just have to not let evil and death beat our hope in infinite love out of us in this life.”

    Bless
    JP

  15. >But, He will be preserving us in some strange times for a while.

    I tend to think that all people view their own times as “strange”. Throughout history, this seems to be the case. And all people are preserved.

    Concerning viewing life from the foot of the cross, perhaps we instead, at times, view it as the thieves–from the crosses next to Christ. Which thief we view it as (and I can see it changing from time to time) may be instructive to our salvation. And Christ’s reply will always be our hope in the most difficult of times. But we will still have our legs broken and death will come upon us (even if it is a powerless death, we must suffer it).

    I wonder too if the face of Christ that turns towards us is sometimes racked with pain. Crucifixion and salvation are intertwined in our lives.

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