A friend took a trip overseas, and was surprised and pleased to see that her bags had not gotten caught up in customs, but had arrived with her. She posted her happiness on Facebook, and noted, "God is good."
Another friend asked for prayer for her sick relative. When he recovered, she posted, "God is good. My dad is well. Prayer really does work!!!"
It's good to be grateful, and to thank God for the things in our lives that go right. But it bothers me when people of faith connect God's goodness to things going right. God is still good even if our luggage gets lost or dad is still sick. God is still good, even when the worst possible thing happens.
Right? I believe this. I want to believe it. But in the middle of loss, grief, and sorrow, sometimes I struggle to believe it. "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief."
If we only declare the goodness of God when things go our way, what are we saying about God? And about ourselves, and our faith? We seem to be saying that God's goodness is somehow connected to good outcomes. Of course this isn't what we believe--or at least, it's not what we say we believe, nor what the Bible says about the character of God. "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136:1).
We believe that God is good all the time, that it is one of His immutable characteristics, like holiness, justice and omniscience. But we tend to only declare it when we feel it--and this tendency has two negative effects: number one, we are testifying to other believers that this is the primary way we know that God is good--by the good things that happen to us. And number two, the watching world might interpret our belief to be tied to or dependent upon positive outcomes.
I am a believer who struggles daily with outcomes that are disappointing, unsatisfying, painful, and sometimes downright evil. If I thought that God's goodness was tied to good outcomes, I would cease to believe in God. In fact, I suppose I would discover that I wasn't really believing in God at all--but rather, a made-up, Pollyanna version of God that exists to make people feel good about themselves and the world. This is not God at all--or at least not the God that reveals Himself in the Bible.
If I only see God's goodness in good outcomes on this earth, then when horrible things happen, I start to think that God has failed me or forgotten me, or that God has not kept his promises to me. But God does not promise us health, or happiness, or good-looking children, or financial security, or freedom from persecution.
In fact, the Bible indicates that believers can be guaranteed that they will have trouble, hardship, sorrow, and persecution in this life. Jesus plainly said this: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33)--but the rest of that verse gives us the promise: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
I propose that we stop saying "God is good" when we feel grateful for a positive outcome, because it sends the wrong message and minimizes the actual goodness of God, which is the apogee of goodness, far grander and more awesome than on-time luggage or physical healing or any other positive outcome we encounter.
Instead, when we experience the joy of a good outcome, we could say "I'm grateful for this good thing that God allowed," or just "Thanks be to God." And that might give us the freedom and strength when we face ineluctable suffering to continue to know and trust in God's unchanging goodness.
In the wake of losing Aidan, I am re-learning how to be grateful. It is a painfully slow process, but in this moment, in the middle of relentless grief, I choose to believe that God is good. "Help Thou my unbelief."