Here’s an interesting follow up to what we talked about last time. A listener writes in to ask: “Pastor John, my beautiful girlfriend is questioning God’s goodness. She is a religion major and understands that God can do whatever he wants and that goodness to him is whatever he wants it to be. Just like how he saw it good to see his son on the cross or have Stephen killed. She lives in constant fear that God will have her injured or disabled and count it as ‘good.’ I don’t know what exactly to say, but I thought you could help.”
She is not irrational to tremble at the absolute sovereignty of God over her life. It is true, as she says, that God can do whatever he wants. Indeed, he does do whatever he wants. Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” The person who does not tremble at this has simply not faced up to the power of God, greater than a billion hydrogen bombs, or the holiness of God, a purity burning like a million galaxies, or the mystery of God acting in ways that none but he can fathom. She is not irrational to tremble before such a God. She would be crazy if she didn’t.
Maybe one fruitful place to start would be with her statement: Goodness to God is whatever he wants it to be. Now I know this is coming through her boyfriend and may not be precisely what she thinks. But then again, maybe it is. What I hear in those words — what is goodness to God is whatever he wants it to be — what I hear in those words is a heavy emphasis on God’s sovereign freedom seen as a divine arbitrariness. And there seems to be, perhaps, a tinge of cynicism. This may be what he is concerned about.
Here is one piece of counsel that I would offer when dealing with the various attributes of God, like his freedom and sovereignty and power and goodness and wisdom and grace and patience and justice and wrath and so on. The counsel is: Keep God’s attributes in living, dynamic relation to each other. Let each one have its emotional and intellectual effect on each of the others. And the best way to do this is to keep our hands on the texture of Scripture itself. If all these feel rough and sand papery under our fingers, make sure we move our hands around the Scriptures to feel the smooth parts or the moist parts or the soft and tender parts or the jagged parts. It is the mixture of the sensations that creates the truest feeling for God.
Specifically in this case, if God’s goodness starts to seem utterly arbitrary — Jesus gets killed, Stephen gets killed, James gets killed, Peter goes free, and, in our lives, one child lives, another child dies — when God’s goodness starts to seem arbitrary, we need to remember God’s wisdom alongside it, in and through it. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” (Romans 11:33–34). Answer: Nobody.
So we preach to ourselves the wisdom of God’s sovereignty. It is not willy-nilly. It is not capricious. It is not exactly right for her to say that goodness to God is whatever he wants it to be. That seems to isolate the want to — “whatever he wants it to be” — it isolates the want to of God as though it were not connected to the wisdom of God. No. His goodness is not merely whatever he wants it to be. It is what it is in accord with infinite wisdom. It is what it is in accord with the revelation of the grace of Christ. It is what it is in relation to the totality of God’s repeated revelation as a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6–7). And if we start to disconnect any one of these attributes into its own little sector, it is going to go bad on us. It is going to start feeling like something we don’t really like.
So, encourage her not to spin out seemingly rational inferences from one divine attribute or another. Rather, encourage her to constantly bring them together. The glory of God is not found in dissecting his perfections into separate parts, but in seeing them whole and keeping them in connection with each other.
One final way of doing that to suggest: Encourage her to ponder the stories of the Bible whose clear intention is to show the inscrutable ways of God, leading through suffering to amazingly wonderful ends. I think of the story of Joseph in Genesis and how his years and years of sorrow were designed for the salvation of Israel and for his own great power and joy. Or I think of the story of Esther and how the strangest turns of affairs reverse the destruction of God’s people, and Mordecai moves from being a serf to the king’s favorite, while Naaman dies on Mordecai’s gallows. And consider the return of the exiles from Jerusalem when it looks like the adversaries are going to shut the whole thing down and, in a sudden turn of affairs, you not only get the king back in the enemy territory supporting it, but paying for it.
And you say: God is amazing. At the worst of times, he seems to turn things around and make the bad work for good. And, of course, Jesus, brutally murdered, rose from the dead, giving life to all who trust him — the best story of all.
So the point of all those stories is to help this young woman trust God when his goodness seems most arbitrary. So yes, we do tremble. We do and we should tremble before the goodness of a sovereign God. It may cost us our lives. But we do not give way to cynicism. We do not call his goodness whimsical or capricious. We fix our eyes on his infinite wisdom and his proven kindness. And we trust him with our lives.