When is it not okay to say ‘God is good’?

Derek Ouellette —  November 20, 2012

The preacher shouted out, “GOD IS GOOD!” And the congregation responded, “ALL THE TIME!” At which point the choir picked up it’s cue:

God is good all the time
He put a song of praise in this heart of mine
God is good all the time
Through the darkest night, His light will shine
God is good, God is good all the time

But Christians have developed the bad habit of saying “God is good” in a way that suggests that sometimes God is not good. This is because, whether we like it or not, some elements of the prosperity gospel has seeped into the wider Christian subculture. For example, here’s a harmless tweet from Jared Wilson of the Gospel Coalition the other day:

The danger of this kind of harmless talk is evident in what followed:

There’s a big difference between thanking God for his mercy and saying God is good because he did something for you. When God blesses you, the appropriate response is to praise him. To thank him for his mercy. But when you say that God is good because he did something for you, you are simultaneously suggesting that if he had not done that thing for you, he would not be good.

For example, two babies are born in the hospital at the same time. One is born healthy, the other is born with down syndrome. The mother of the healthy baby shouts with joy, “God is good because my baby was born healthy!” When the mother with the baby born with a condition hears this she immediately assumes things about God, particularly that God is not good for her baby having been born with down syndrome.

The examples are endless.

God is good because I was born and raised in a place where there are relatively few natural disasters. God is not good because other people are born in places where natural disasters are common.

God is good because in the midst of a sinking economy, I have a job. God is not good because in the midst of a sinking economy I do not I have a job.

God is good because I was raised with two loving parents. God is not good because my dad abandoned me as a child, leaving me to my mom and her abusive boyfriend.

And on and on it goes.

God is good. But God’s goodness is not conditioned on your blessings or the things you feel turn out good for you. When you make God’s goodness conditioned upon the good things that happen to you, God’s goodness is no longer transcendent. You become the defining category of what makes God good.

When we do this we mar God’s character and simultaneously have blown our witness.

So the next time you receive a blessing from God, don’t use it as an opportunity to condition his goodness, take it as an opportunity to praise him for it and thank him for his mercy.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • James Palmer

    I can agree that is inacurrate to say, “God is good because my baby was born healthy.”

    But what about reversing the logic?

    “My baby was born healthy because God is good.”

    Is that incorrect, or correct but dangerous to say, or something else? What do you think, Derek?

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      I personally won’t use it that way either because it seems to communicate the same thing. If my baby was born healthy because God is good, that could communicate that some else’s baby wasn’t born healthy because God is not good.

      I prefer to praise God and show my thanks for his mercy whenever I believe I’ve been blessed.

      • James Palmer

        So He’s not a merciful God when you’re not blessed?

        And is there nothing we can say comes out of God’s goodness, unless it universally affects everyone?

        • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

          I think Christian theology sees the statement “God is good” as an ontological reference. We should not think of God as being good or not good based on what he does.

          God does not always show mercy.

          • James Palmer

            Derek – you answered my first question, but not my second, which to be honest, I was being more serious about. (I’ll admit I was being a bit facetious with my first question. )

            “We should not think of God as being good or not good based on what he does.” What should we base goodness on, except on actions? Can someone be good without doing anything? What else does one base goodness on? If we cannot imagine what it would be like for God to be “not good”, then the term “good” loses all meaning. If we merely define good based on God’s actions, then saying “God is good” is just circular logic that doesn’t actually say anything at all.

            I agree that we should not be in judgement of God, but we can learn that He is good by watching what He does and has done, and we can also learn what good means by watching what He does and has done. I don’t believe it’s either/or.

            • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

              The reason the argument is not circular is because I’m presupposing a “metaphysics of humility.” I don’t believe we can know with any degree of certainty what specific acts God does and does not do today. So rather than basing God’s goodness upon my getting a job in a bad economy (an action that God may or may not have been involved in), I base God’s goodness upon his character revealed in Jesus Christ.

              What I’m arguing for in the article is that when we attribute the high attribute of good to God based on, say, me getting a job in a bad economy (“I got a job, God is good!”), we have simultaneously communicated to someone else who did not get a job, that God is not good (“I did not get a job, God is not good.”).

              • James Palmer

                Hi Derek,

                I totally agree with what you’re arguing for in the article. I feel the same way. At a church I used to go to, the pastor once taught us that when things go badly, we should tell ourselves, “it could be worse” – he even had everyone repeat the phrase back to him repeatedly as he listed bad things that could happen to us. I thought it was horrible – we were in this upper-middle class church community, and our thoughts are supposed to be, “it could be worse” – of course it could be worse – it IS worse, every day, for millions of people around the world – thanking God that we’re not them is a terrible way to deal with our own troubles.

                But on the other hand, I do recall there being a verse that says that all good things come from God (James 1:17, I believe.) And also, is God’s goodness not the source of his mercies? So thanking God for his mercies in a situation seems to be the same as thanking Him for his goodness. I agree we need to be aware about what we’re communicating, but we also should hesitate to jump on what people say to use when we understand what they really mean.

                Anyway, my apologies if I seemed overly argumentative, as I do agree with your main point – I just don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. :-)

                Thanks for the post, it was a good read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/danvalade Dan Valade

    thanks for the post Derek. It is alarming how easy it is for Christians to allow our fundamental doctrines and beliefs to slip away in exchange for a pithy statement of comfort. I believe the statement, God is good, should stand on its own. Everything else that we may want to add really isn’t comparable or worthy to be in the same sentence!

  • drewc

    great blog man–I feel I can really connect with that post

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for the conversation that inspired it.

  • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

    Yes, Dan, that is what I’m saying. Thanks for helping me clarify the main point.

    Also, I was watching carefully where the discussion with James was going because I was holding in my back pocket God’s mysteries ways. You made the point I was thinking, which is that what we often see as “good” things and what God sees as “good” things are not always the same (because he knows what he’s up to even when we don’t). Having a child with down syndrome can be an incredible blessing and goodness (by wife is a DWS, working with individuals with down syndrome).

    I used the example because, at first anyways, many people see any medical abnormality as not being a good thing. So I’m more concerned with the message we communicate by saying “God is good” in the generic sense of his character when one baby is born without an abnormality. But you got that point.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s truly inspirational.

    • James Plamer

      You crafty person, you, holding things in your back pocket when discussing things with me!

      • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

        It was a metaphor. But I think you’re joking;

        I would have replied to your last comment but I thought you had concluded the conversation, so I figured I’d let you have the last word.

        What I meant by “mysterious ways” is that we can’t know for sure what good things are from God and what are not, and what apparently not-good-things come from God that are, in fact, good from the divine perspective as Dan illustrates. That’s what I think. If you’ve found a way to determine that, let me know.

        To answer that final question: IMO, we can’t. (Again, unless you’ve found a gauge to go by, in which case, I’m open to hearing it.) Having said, that, I don’t believe God is removed from our lives in a deistic way. So this discussion, I think, will diverge into all of the different philosophical ideas about how involved God is? do we thank him for his indirect, as well as direct involvement? do we thank him if he passively allows good things to happen? what about not-good things? and so on.

        For my own part, I tend to thank him for the many great things I see in my life because, either by action or inaction, all blessings come from God. But I don’t base God’s good character upon whether or not something “good” from my perspective, happened. God’s good whether or not something good (or not good) happened to me.

        • James Palmer

          You’re right, the “bcak pocket” comment was in jest, no need for a response. :-)

          “, I tend to thank him for the many great things I see in my life
          because, either by action or inaction, all blessings come from God.”

          I guess my point was that, as you’ve already admitted, we can’t even be confident that something was or wasn’t a blessing. Perhaps you think it’s a blessing, but it actually was not, and God was willing for something else to happen, but someone else’s free will got in the way. So in that case, you are thanking God for something that did not come from him, and just about anything has some possibility of that being the case.

          And my point with that, is that we really don’t know exactly what’s going on in the spiritual world all the time, just our experience of it, so there’s nothing wrong with giving God honest thanks for what we honestly believe He did for us.

          “But I don’t base God’s good character upon whether or not something “good” from my perspective, happened.”

          No, of course not. But was that really what Jared was doing? Or was he simply using imprecise language to communicate his feeling of thanks? If I thank God for His mercies, do I need to put a little asterisk after it saying, “provided this really is a blessing from God, and not something negative coming from some other agent and I just don’t realize it.” What level of precision is required, and in what context? Did people reading Jared’s tweet honestly think he was communicating that he was (and in turn, we should be) basing God’s character on what good things God did for him individually?

          I myself am a stickler for accurate communication, and find myself picking apart people’s words all the time. Actually, as a software tester, it’s basically my job to do so every week day, but I’m learning that in some cases it’s not always the best.

          Anyways, just some rambling thoughts and questions.

          On a side note, where I thought our earlier discussion was going was that you were going to say that instead of basing God’s goodness on his actions, we should instead base our definition of goodness on what God does, and that is where the “God is good” becuase a meaningless tautology, but I was relieved to see you say that we base God’s goodness in Christ’s actions (which even our imperfect human notion of “goodness” can recognize has very, very good.)

          • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

            No, I don’t believe that is what Jarod was doing intentionally. That’s why I chose my words carefully there by referring to his comment as “harmless talk.” Intentional or not, our words sometimes communicate things we don’t intend.

            That was actually the point I pursued.

    • James Palmer

      And speaking of God’s mysterious ways, how can you even feel it’s accurate to thank God for his mercies when something you perceive as good happening to you? As far as you know, God could have wanted something else to happen (which perhaps in a mysterious way, would be even more good/merciful for you), but someone’s free will got in the way and that’s why the event occurred, as opposed to happening because of God’s will. Especially with an open theist viewpoint (that both you and me share), how can we attribute anything that happens in our lives to God with 100% certainty?

  • Helene Clarke

    I like the way you spoke on this topic. I totally agree! God is good because it is an attribute of his like his love or holiness. God’s goodness is not based on whether we feel blessed. I wrote a children’s book about this topic called ‘Why did the Osprey Poop on my Head?’ so this topic is close to my heart. Thanks for the great blog! Helene Clarke

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for sharing. Sounds like an important children’s book.