Like this article? It’s part of a 21-day guided online coaching cohort for people interested in asking and finding answers to their God questions. New cohorts will be forming throughout the year. Find more information here.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. We’ve gathered here today for a singular purpose. In the case of the accused, the Deity henceforth referred to as “God,” we are seeking the answer to only one question: is He good? Every other question you must put out of your mind. Do each of you swear to fairly try this case, weigh the evidence, and return a true verdict, so help you… Him points to God?”
If only it were that simple, right?
After the question of God’s existence, this is the one that immediately follows. It’s a great question, an incredibly important one because existence certainly doesn’t equate to goodness. The words we’ve often heard about God (He is loving, good, and for us) routinely rub harshly against our circumstances and experiences.
A trauma, a diagnosis, a lost job, or a failed relationship often leave us asking the age-old question: if God is good, then why are these bad things happening to me? If you’ve ever been dinged for asking that question, let me say two things (a) I’m sorry. I personally know how that feels and (b) You’re in the right place.
I’ve found when the answer to a question isn’t immediately clear, it’s helpful to reframe it, to poke the bear from a different direction. Let’s come at the question of God’s goodness by asking another question: “What do you think about, when you think about God?”
It’s not an unrelated question. I believe the answer to your question, “Is God good?” is intimately related to how you answer that second question.
Late philosopher Dallas Willard said as much, more succinctly and brilliantly than I could ever hope to be.
“We live at the mercy of our ideas… this is never more true than with our ideas about God.”
If what he said was true—that we truly do live at the mercy of our ideas—what you think about when you think about God matters immensely. It’s more important than my thoughts about God, a celebrity pastor, or an immensely quotable dead philosopher (no matter how brilliant he was).
So let’s mine that out. What do you think about, when you think about God?
You can’t know until you try it. So no matter if you count yourself a believer or a skeptic, stop and think about God. Pay attention to what comes to mind. Seriously— stop reading and do it. These words aren’t going anywhere.
Give it at least 5 minutes. (Yes, rule-followers, you can set the timer on your phone.)
[cue Jeopardy music]
You made it! Well done.
If you’re anything like me, when you thought about God, you thought about experiences. While God-questions are often tossed in the philosophical pile, our answers are usually deeply personal— made up of victories and vices, traumas and turning-points.
Lately, when I think about God, a line from the 2019 film adaptation of Little Women comes to mind (though we all know my heart belongs to the 1994 version. That soundtrack? Marvelous.). Complaining about her sister being gone during a family crisis, Jo remarks that “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life.”
I know some people like that— or at least, I think I do. Their life seems to be always trending up and to the right; the dream jobs, dream relationships, dream vacations with a shiny Instagram veneer. I expect those people, the ones with the best experiences, to be certain that God is good. But real life—my life—is more complicated than that. I bet you can relate.
When I thought about God, I thought about answered prayers—begging for children (got three now), a car when I couldn’t afford one (I was given two, totally free), and a job where I could write (looks around at a screen full of words).
But I also think about deep pain and seemingly unanswered prayers—a lifelong diagnosis for my daughter, woundedness from people representing God, learning how to positively handle my emotional pain, overcoming teenage sexual abuse… the list goes on and on.
If I was judging God’s goodness purely on my experiences, I’m not sure where I’d land. On the day my wife gave birth to twins, nothing was more good than God. But two years later, when my toddler was rushed to the ER and diagnosed with a chronic illness, I wasn’t so sure of that answer.
In my mind, God must be either good or bad—He cannot be both, or bounce back and forth between the two. That’s because I expect God to meet a higher standard than I do.
I’m finite, made of flesh and bone, given to whims of forgetfulness, selfishness, and overcommitment. I make good choices that benefit others, I make bad ones that hurt those closest to me, and in the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty unreliable. As much as I work against it, correct it, and keep pushing forward, it’s in my nature as a human to be fickle; to bounce back and forth; to have wins and losses.
But God is different. He has the capacity for perfection. He has the ability to never make a wrong choice; to do nothing motivated by fatigue, emotions, or selfish motives. If God has the ability to be perfect but chooses to do something imperfect, He would cease to be good. He would have chosen the lesser over the better.
So which is it? Is God good for giving me kids after years of asking, or is He bad for giving my daughter diabetes? Is He good for creating a beautiful world, or is He bad for allowing humanitarian crises in places like Ukraine, Myanmar and Sudan to destroy countless lives?
How do we even hope to get to an answer?
Last article, we introduced four filters with a fancy name: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We talked through how those filters—Experience, Reason, History and Scripture—can help us get to a better, more discerned vision of truth and reality. I’ve found the filters incredibly helpful in my own life, whether we’re talking about God, relational dysfunction, or a questionable news headline.
In that article, we explored how using more than one filter leads to better discernment. But we can take that even further. Ready for a level-up? You reach pro-level discernment not only when you use multiple filters, but when you’re intentional about which filter comes first.
If you’re like me and the majority of humanity, our natural inclination is to place our experiences as the primary filter. After all, no one can disagree with what we’ve seen, heard, or walked through. From there, we add filters as they come naturally to us. We find history, reason, and even scripture, to support the conclusions our experiences have led us to believe. That’s because, despite what Bono says, you always find what you’re looking for.
If your experiences incline you to believe that God isn’t good, there will be plenty of history (the Crusades and genocides), reason (reknowned scholars like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins), and even scripture (God does some pretty wild stuff in the Old Testament) to back up your assertion.
If your experiences incline you to believe that God is, in fact, good, you’ll find the history (Mother Teresa or the church’s work on human rights), reason (brilliant minds from St. Augustine to our new friend Dallas) and scripture (like 1 John 4:8 which says “God is love”) to support your ideals.
But for the rest of us, like me, whose life has been a very mixed bag, my experiences just leave me spinning in circles without any forward motion. As incredibly counterintuitive as I’m sure this sounds, I found a breakthrough in my own spiritual seeking when I realized that my experiences made for a pretty bad primary filter. I’m not saying what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced isn’t important at all—all I’m saying is that it’s not most important, and when I make it so, I’ve often been misled.
Can I tell you a vulnerable story? Great, I’m going to anyway.
As a young teenager, I was sexually abused by a close friend on more than one occasion. Instead of sharing with any trustworthy adult, I compartmentalized everything that came after: the pain, the disgust at the situation and myself, the feelings of brokenness and inferiority, the hard questions about why God didn’t stop it. This was partly due to being raised in a religious tradition that didn’t make much space for the messy parts of life, and partly due to a learned distrust of emotions.
More than a decade later, when I got married, I couldn’t enjoy sex. Like, actively avoided it. What newlywed does that? It’s probably obvious to you, but at the time, I couldn’t figure out why that was. It was only in looking backward that I realized compartmentalization doesn’t work. Sex was a trigger that took me back to those moments of stolen intimacy, brokenness, hiding and pretending everything was okay. Sex felt like something being taken from me instead of two people giving themselves to each other.
I didn’t find freedom until I came to terms with the fact that the lessons my experience was teaching me were wrong. I needed wisdom outside myself; a perspective that stood the test of time; something I could navigate by when I didn’t know the right way to go. Believe it or not, I found it in scripture.
When I personally found it hard to believe, I trusted the Bible when God called all creation good, including the interlocking design of our bodies (Genesis 1:27, 1:31); when His first command was for people to procreate (Genesis 1:28); when an entire book of the Bible was dedicated to the bedroom (Song of Solomon). I needed to see how God’s intent was for me to enjoy sex (Proverbs 5:18-19), and have it often (1 Corinthians 7:5) because in many ways it’s a mirror reflecting a holy mystery (Ephesians 5:31-32). I equally needed the Bible’s guidance on forgiveness, healing, and new beginnings. Honestly, there’s no reason I should have been able to write this article half a decade after being married. But let’s be honest, I ain’t mad about it either.
All that to say, your experiences can be a great teacher, but they might not be the most honest. We can find something better, something more steadfast, to believe in.
You can probably already guess, but I found that in scripture. It’s cool if you haven’t come to that conclusion, or if while reading that last sentence you unconsciously made the “skeptical face” emoji.
There is, of course, plenty about the Bible I’m still struggling to understand, but what that ancient text does for me is open up my frame of vision. I need a higher angle than I’m afforded by my meager 37 years of life, spent primarily in two states, around the same people. I need something ancient in a world of fleeting, something that’s withstood both the tests of time and unending attempts to discredit it. The only thing I can find to do that is the story of God and His people.
When you dig into it, you might actually find what it says surprising.
Take our man Job, for example. His life was pretty stellar, until one day when it all came crashing down. His friends looked at his historic collapse—loss of family members, finances, and housing—and assumed God was punishing him. Job insists he’s innocent and God’s picking on him. They go back and forth (in what must have been an epic rap battle) for 37 some-odd chapters. God finally shows up. First, he tells Job’s friends that they’re wrong. Then He turns his attention to Mr. J-o-b. God’s answer, in summation? Your perspective is too small. Open up the aperture.
Everything about Job’s story is unexpected. Job is righteous, and his life goes to the pits. His experience says God hates him, but that’s not the case. His friends say he must have done something to deserve this. God says, “Nope.” Then when God does show up, instead of some trite Christianese “everything happens for a reason,” He reorients Job’s vision to a higher plane.
I’d read the story of Job before, but in the blur of days following my daughter’s diagnosis, I felt pulled to it again. Every time before, it was words on a page, but this time, it was riveting. Job dared speak words I never thought I’d say to God, but I felt deep in my soul. I was on his side. “You tell him, Job. Make him hear you! Tell God how unfair He really is.”
And then, when God did show up in the final chapters (like I knew He would), I trembled alongside Job. In the shadow of a week-long hospital stay over Thanksgiving, and a life-long health battle that’s still ongoing to this day, I came to a startling realization: the question of God’s goodness is all about perspective.
When I was accusing God alongside Job, I’d made His divine goodness more about me than Him. How could He be good when bad things happened to me? In hindsight, it’s off-putting how much I’d made myself, and my life, the measuring stick for God’s goodness. Who was I, and what did God owe me? I was starting to find Job’s higher perspective.
The more I learned about my daughter’s illness, the more that higher perspective came into view. Insulin wasn’t discovered until 1921. A mere century ago, my daughter would be dead. Before insulin injections, it was extraordinary for anyone with type 1 diabetes to live a year or two past diagnosis. It’s been three years since my firstborn was rushed to the hospital for ketoacidosis. I can call God bad, blame Him for a diagnosis we don’t deserve… or I can see the miracle staring back at me from across the dinner table as I prepare her injection. I can be bitter that this is the road we have to walk while so many “Amys” are blissfully skating by, or I can recognize that, because of advances in technology, there’s never been a better time in the history of the world to be a diabetic. God bless Dexcom.
For me, answering the question “Is God good?” is all about perspective and trust. The Bible says over and over that God is good, but that’s not all. He’s a stronghold in times of trouble (Nahum 1:7), patient and kind (2 Peter 3:9), compassionate and gracious (Psalm 103:8), motivated by His love for us (John 3:16), and the giver of all good things (James 1:17). Honestly, that’s just skimming the surface. We could take the rest of this article listing how the Bible describes God’s goodness to His creation—but I’ve already overstayed my welcome, so let’s land this philosophical plane.
When I learn to tilt my view, as God instructed Job, I begin to see His goodness in more radiant colors. That’s perspective. Honestly, sometimes I do that, and the goodness I’m looking for still seems completely absent. It’s then that I choose to believe it’s still there, hiding behind a cloud for another day, and I keep moving forward. That’s trust.
I can’t convince you that God is good, and I’m not sure I even should. In the Bible’s book of Psalms, the poet says “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). To me, that implies there’s a risk on your part. You have to grab your spoon and dig in. Search the scriptures. Ask the hard questions, even to God. Share your pain and doubts and hang-ups. Try on a new perspective that rises above the limited vision of your own experiences.
For better or worse, as it felt like my buttoned-up life was falling apart, I decided to raise my spoon and taste. If God was good, I would know. If He was bad, at least I would know.
I took a risk, and I found Him. He was there in the stress of a hospital waiting room, in the boiling-over-yelling-fits when life feels incredibly unfair, in the end-of-my-rope desperation. I’ve cursed at Him, questioned Him, literally thrown things in my anger—and He’s never left. He wasn’t scared away. I wasn’t too messy, too emotional, too needy, or asking too many questions. God endures.
When I had to re-learn intimacy, my wife was a picture of His divine goodness. She didn’t leave me for someone more emotionally developed. She listened as I put words around pain I’d never shared before. She didn’t look at me like damaged goods. She didn’t minimize the shame, but also didn’t let me stay in it. She tried, and tried, and tried again. She never gave up on me, and I learned to give myself that same grace. Her influence, and the grace of God, were the ladder and rungs that allowed me to escape a pit I didn’t even know I was in. She endured.
Looking out over a crowd, Jesus once remarked that “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?”
My wife’s endurance was a gift, and I believe God wants to give you an even better one. He will listen more; try more; believe more; give grace more; absorb the pain more; and lead you into more and better tomorrows. How much more will He endure, for your sake?
In fact, I think God wants to know what you think about, when you think about Him. Maybe that’s the best place to start. If it’s pain, I believe He wants to meet you in it. If it’s joy, I believe He wants to give you more. If it’s questions, I believe He wants to be the answer. If it’s fear, I believe He wants to walk with you. If it’s doubt, I believe He wants to be a safe place for you to process.
Take a risk on Him. When I did, for all the mess, I learned that God is faithful. That He endures. And that He is good.
Author’s note: We didn’t have space in the length of this article to unpack another conundrum of God’s goodness: why do bad things happen, and why doesn’t God stop them? I’m glad you asked. We’re tackling that very question in this week’s companion podcast. Find it here.