Goodness and Me

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Pastor, King’s Church, London

O, taste and see that the Lᴏʀᴅ is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8)

The goodness of God is one of those things we affirm happily when things are going well, and find rather tricky when they aren’t.

Both of my children are quite severely autistic. Until they were two, we had no real idea anything was wrong, but somewhere around two and a half, they began losing skills rapidly: words, songs, physical skills, eye contact, social awareness and so on.

Not many children have autism, and of those that do, not many have this particular type (“regressive autism”). We’ve had the devastating experience of seeing it in both our son (age 5) and our daughter (age 3), with all the traumatic upheaval — medical, educational, marital, financial, social, and above all emotional — that comes with it.

It’s easy to affirm the goodness of God in the abstract. It’s easy to affirm it when things are going well. But when your children are going backwards on a daily basis, it becomes much harder. When the worship leader goes for a bit of call-and-response — “God is good, all the time, and all the time . . . ” — it can by a real physical challenge to squeeze out the words you know come next: “ . . . God is good!” Singing becomes a fight between the truths you know and the emotions you feel. Pastoral ministry involves you exhorting others to hold onto things you’re struggling to hold onto yourself.

Understanding His Goodness

Over time, the only way through this is theological: you have to wrestle with what it actually means for the psalmist (no stranger to suffering himself!) to say that Yahweh is good. That tiny statement, you see, could mean one of at least three things. It could mean that goodness is a property of God. It could be the description of an experience of him. Or it could be somehow a definition of God. In my view, in the context of Psalm 34, it is probably all three.

In one sense, to say “God is good” is to give one of his attributes. If I say “milk is white,” I am describing what milk is like by saying something which happens to be true about it. It doesn’t define it — milk is white, but then so are window frames and teeth and fridges — but it explains that it is white as opposed to brown or pink or blue, and so if you see something colored, it might be a lot of things, but it isn’t milk.

Saying God is good, in one sense, is like this. The psalmist is identifying a property of God, so we know that (among other things) he is good, which means he does good things and doesn’t do bad things or mediocre things or things which don’t quite work out.

Now imagine, instead of saying “milk is white,” I said, “milk is a whitish liquid containing proteins, fats, lactose, and various vitamins and minerals produced by the mammary glands of all mature female mammals after they have given birth.” Suddenly my statement has become larger. This is not just a description, but a definition: anywhere you find this type of substance, you will, by definition, have milk, and vice versa.

In the same way, God is good by definition; anywhere you find goodness you will, by definition, have God, and vice versa. You can’t have God without goodness, and you can’t have goodness without God. This is the teaching of the whole of Scripture. Everything God made was very good (Genesis 1:31). No one is good except God (Mark 10:18). All things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28). Those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10). And so on.

Deeper Than the Definition

Personally, even in my darkest moments, I’ve had little problem affirming these two senses of the phrase “God is good.” I can divorce what I believe from what I feel, and say things like this in a theoretical, abstract sort of way. But the really tough thing about Psalm 34, when you’re suffering, is the experiential dimension. O taste, and see, that Yahweh is good. That can stick in the throat sometimes.

It’s like saying “milk is nice.” Instead of an objective statement about milk, I’m now saying something subjective, an opinion based on my experience. It’s something which others can only verify by trying themselves. This is the clearest meaning of the cry, “O, taste and see that Yahweh is good!” The psalmist has got a list of examples of God’s goodness to him — like deliverance (verse 4), provision (verse 10), being heard (verse 15), and so on — and he is urging us as readers to experience this goodness ourselves. Knowing God is good but never experiencing his goodness is as useless as knowing the definition of milk and never drinking it.

Yet the psalmist affirms his experience of God’s goodness from a place of suffering. In verse 19, he makes the remarkable announcement, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” Even with a good God, who is sovereign over everything and has the power to do whatever he likes, good people still suffer. His punchline, though, comes in the next phrase: “but Yahweh delivers him out of them all.” Evil happens, but “none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (34:22).

It could not be any other way. God is shown to be good from our experience, and he has the property of (among other things) goodness, but he is also good by definition. He has never been faced with a catch-22 situation, forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, or flummoxed into a decision that was anything less than completely good. Therefore — and this bit is both the hardest, and the most powerful, when we’re suffering — if God has done something, it is good. End of story.

We may well not understand why God has done it, of course. Job didn’t either. But we can be confident, based on Scripture and on our experience, that as sure as milk is white, Yahweh is good. Taste and see!

(@AJWTheology) (PhD, King’s College London) is the teaching pastor at King’s Church London and a columnist for Christianity Today. He’s the author of several books, including Remaking the World, Incomparable, God of All Things, and Echoes of Exodus.