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The Goodness & Severity of God

Sinai and the Cross of Jesus

by Dennis Pollock

Some years ago, a singer named Don Moen recorded a song titled “God is Good,” which became a mega-hit. The tune was catchy, the instrumentals were well done, and the singing was spot-on. But I am convinced there was more to the song’s success than mere musical excellence. Christians liked it because it reinforced a truth we all know and take great comfort in: that our God is good, not some of the time, not once in a while, but His goodness covers all our lives, every day of our lives. Our God is a good God – all the time.

Don was on solid theological grounds with this song. The Bible is replete with references to the goodness of God. Not only do the Biblical writers attest to God’s goodness; God Himself acknowledges it. Once Moses bravely asked the Lord to reveal His glory to Him. The Lord told the great prophet that He would indeed manifest Himself to him, but informed him that no man could see Him and live. God hid Moses in a crevice in a large boulder, passed by him while covering Moses’ eyes, and then allowed Moses a brief glimpse of His glorious presence from the rear. As the Creator of all things passed by His servant, He essentially defined Himself to Moses, and to all of us who will read the account in the Holy Scriptures. God provided a definition of precisely who He is and what He is like, announcing: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth…”

By God’s own mouth we learn that our God is not only good, but that He abounds with goodness. He has lots of goodness, His very being is steeped with goodness, and in His dealings with men and women His goodness is constantly being revealed. Many years later one of the Psalmists declared, “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5).

His Desire for Us

What exactly is goodness? Like so many things, we can’t always define it, but we generally know it when we see it. Goodness is sort of a catch-all word, and would include such attributes as integrity, truthfulness, love, and a desire for positive ends for others. We might get close to the definition with this thought: “God, in His goodness, wants the absolute best for us.” His desire, and indeed His delight, is that we might be blessed, comfortable, secure, whole, healthy, happy, and productive. This is the desire of nearly every parent for his or her children, and according to Scripture, this is the desire of our great and awesome Creator for His children.

In a joint message by Paul and Barnabas found in the Book of Acts, they declare about God: “Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness…” (Acts 14:17). The two apostles insist that by sending rain, providing abundant harvests, and making sure that there was food available for His created beings, God was doing good. Had he dried up the rains and allowed everyone to starve to death, that might not have been so good. But God did good and sent the rain. Jesus tells us that He does this for sinners and saints alike. Profane, immoral, godless folks receive a great many blessings in this life, along with prayerful, tender-hearted believers. The difference is, the Christians know Who to thank, and the godless take God’s blessings for granted.

Some people erroneously assume that because God is good, and wants good things for people, this means that He would never bring about anything negative in anyone’s life. This leads to such questions as, “Why would a good God ever send anybody to hell?” Or “Why would He ever discipline His children?” Or “Why is the phrase ‘the wrath of God’ even in the Bible?” Or “Why is the Book of Revelation so violent?” And on and on it goes.

Remaking God

These questions presuppose our own view of how we think God should be. Rather than being made in God’s image, we would love to remake God in the image of how we think He should be, which is all goodness, and no toughness at all. We don’t like the idea of, nor do we want to ever have to think about the God of Sinai, with His thunderings and His voice that no one can stand to hear. Nor do we prefer Him to be the God of the apostle Paul, who told the Corinthians that because some of them were taking communion in an unworthy manner, some had died and others had fallen sick. We would rather Him be the kindly, grandfatherly type, who is a nice old fuddy-duddy, who is a bit absent-minded and never really gets bothered by anybody or anything. Strangely, when we read the Bible, we find that He is not like this at all!

Paul knew that Christians could and sometimes would mistake the goodness of God for wimpiness, and so he wrote these words:

Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:22).

It is important to know the context in which he writes this. Paul has been talking about Israel, and that like branches of an olive tree, they were broken off, so that the Gentiles might be grafted into this tree. But the apostle does not want these new believers to get too proud about it, or so secure that they assume they can lead ungodly lives and still have a hope of living with God in heaven eternally. So he warns them to consider two aspects of God: His goodness and His severity.

It is important that we see that in making this contrast Paul is not suggesting that God has two opposite natures within Him. Goodness and severity are not opposites. The opposite of goodness is badness. God is not both good and bad. Paul does not say, “Consider the goodness and badness of God.” Severity is simply different from goodness; both can coexist in the same person, and in God that is precisely the case. Not all translations use these words. In the NIV version, it says to consider the kindness and sternness of God. But severity is probably as good a word as we can use for what Paul was saying, and most versions do use that word.

Think About It!

Paul’s admonition begins with the word consider. To consider is to pay attention to, to set your mind on, to notice, to recognize, to stop and think about something. So according to the inspired Scriptures we should carefully note that God is both good and severe. He can be tough; He can be strict, He can be stern. He is not some warm and fuzzy, unconcerned grandpa sitting in a rocking chair and muttering to Himself, “It’s all good; it’s all good.” Paul not only tells us that God can be severe. He also tells us who is likely to receive the business end of that severity. He says, “on those who fell, severity.” He was speaking of Israel, but he was also warning Christians that to fall away, to turn away, to let slip the life of faith in Christ and obedience to Him will result in God’s severity. You may have the biggest Bible on the block, you may have a closet full of t-shirts with Christian slogans and Bible verses on them, you may be known to all your neighbors as “Joe-Christian” or “Joanne-Christian” but if you start to pull away from your faith walk with God and Christ, you will move into that place where you experience more of the severity of God than His goodness.

When we are experiencing the severity of God, it doesn’t mean that God stops being good. Even His severity is in truth an aspect of His goodness. The Bible tells us that “the goodness of God leads you to repentance,” and if it takes severity to shake you out of your lethargy and bring you to your senses, then severe discipline is surely the most loving and “good” thing God can do for you. You may not feel much goodness at the time. When thick clouds cover the sun, and make the day dark and gloomy, it feels like the sun has stopped shining. But in truth it is shining as much as it ever did. If you could just get above the clouds you would find that the sun is shining as brightly as ever. It never stops shining, nor does it ever shine to any greater or lesser degree. It is in a constant and permanent state of shining down on the earth. Sometimes we see it; sometimes we don’t.

Paul makes it clear that the secret to remaining in a place of experiencing the goodness of God is to continue with God through faith in Jesus. He says: “toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness.” This principle is stated in many different ways and many different times throughout the Scriptures. It is one of the major themes of the Book of Hebrews. There we are told:

…but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:6).

Notice the big if: We are the house of Jesus Christ, we are the people of Jesus Christ, we are the sheep of Jesus IF we hold our confident hope and trust in Him firm to the end. As we do this, as we, to use Jesus’ words, abide in Him all the days of our lives, we can expect to see the goodness of God all our days. This is exactly what Psalm 23 tells us. When “The Lord is my Shepherd” then “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). This is a wonderful thought. As I abide in Jesus, and keep my eyes on Him, I will be stalked. But my stalker is not a killer or a mugger. I will be stalked by two brothers who want nothing but good for me.

Stalked!

Everywhere I go they will follow me. When I wake up in the morning, there they are. Goodness and Mercy have been with me, watching over me all night long. When my wife and I go to Africa, we do not go by ourselves. Even though they require no airplane ticket, passport, or visa, Goodness and Mercy follow us and stay with us: on the plane, in our hotel, when we preach from those creaky platforms, and when we go to bed at night. They are always present, showering our lives with their abundance. And as I advance into old age, I know there will be problems, there will be weaknesses and challenges. But I do not go alone. Surely Goodness and Mercy will follow me right into old age. And when I lie on my deathbed and my heart struggles to continue to beat, my old friends will be there with me. When I breathe my last breath and my spirit goes into that realm none of us can see, it will be Goodness and Mercy that bring me into the presence of God and announce me as one of Christ’s sheep.

Who would ever want to send them away? Who would be so foolish as to turn from that place of abiding in Jesus and going his own way? Not me! To live in God’s goodness does not mean we won’t have problems, or that we won’t ever experience pain or suffering or what the world may call tragedy. But we know something others do not know. Through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, our God’s goodness follows us continually. We are essentially “set for life.” Our needs will be met, our Father’s loving eyes will be upon us, and our great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, leads us always. He knows us by name and we hear His voice and follow Him. He will lead us wisely and faithfully to the end, and then on into eternity. Surely “the goodness of God endures continually” (Psalm 52:1).


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