God is Good. So What?

In the previous post, Taste and See, we started a conversation about God’s goodness, and what it means when we say “God is Good.” When leading small groups, I like to follow discovery with application – What we just discovered followed by “Now What?” or “So What?” In the last post, we discussed the intrinsic goodness of God. A great “So What” question might be…

How does one know and experience the goodness of God?

Let’s start by looking at something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount related to God’s goodness:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil (sinful), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

This passage is notoriously misused, especially if we tend to lean toward a gospel of prosperity.   “Ask and seek” followed by “receive and find” coupled with that statement of a Father in heaven who gives good gifts – we immediately assume this passage is about asking for and getting stuff from God. 

A good Father doesn’t give his kids what they want.  He gives them what they need, what is good for them.  The Amplified translation helps us see how Jesus describes the goodness of God…

11 If you then, sinful by nature as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.

Keep in mind the context of Jesus’ words.  They are part of the Sermon on the Mount.  In that famous sermon, Jesus was describing to his followers what life in God’s economy looks like.  And the life he described was proving to be significantly different from anything they had heard before from their religious teachers. 

These words about asking and receiving are found deep into the “Sermon.”  He had already told them of their call to be salt and light to the world.  As salt and light, he suggested they love their enemies (likely the Roman occupiers).  And by the way, if a Roman soldier forced them to carry his pack for a mile, he suggested they carry it a second mile.  He had admonished his followers to not judge others.  Oh, and also that they could live without worrying.

I can envision his followers looking at each other, wondering how they could live and operate in such a manner – an obvious question.  A question anyone of us might ask. I wonder if Jesus might have been saying to his disciples (and to us) to ask and seek the answers to their questions about kingdom living.  I wonder if Jesus might have been saying that God will honor your seeking and asking, giving you what is good and advantageous so that you can live without worrying or judging others; so that you can actually learn to love your enemies.

He wouldn’t suggest such things if he didn’t also provide a way for us to live thusly.

So, how does one know and experience the Goodness of God? What does that look like practically?   In the last post, we looked at Psalm 34: Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him (34:8). Out of his experiences with God, David was saying to the rest of his religious community, “Taste and see if I’m not right.  Taste and see for yourself that the Lord is indeed good.” 

What does taste and see look like?  What is something that you love to eat or drink that you had to develop a taste for?”  We don’t acquire a taste by trying something once. It comes with time and consistency. And with surprise.  I think that’s what Jesus was communicating in the Matthew passage…

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matt. 7:7-8)

Asking is not a one-off query.  Nor is seeking or knocking.  Ask, seek and knock are imperatives.  An example of an imperative might be “Shut the front door when the air conditioner is on.” However, ask, seek and find are present imperatives as in, “Always shut the front door when the air conditioner is on.”  So here it means ALWAYS be asking, seeking, knocking.  The Amplified translation captures the essence of the present imperative…

 7 “Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you.  (AMP)

David understood this as well when he said, I sought the Lord, and he answered me (Psalm 34:4). The Hebrew word for sought implies following, not a one-off query of God.  David was a follower – he sought the Lord on a continuous basis.  Thus David was able to experience the Lord’s presence and goodness in the midst of running for his life from King Saul.

Followership is key to knowing and experiencing the goodness of God.  Unfortunately, we Westerners find following rather difficult because…

  • Following implies a life-long process of discovery.  We would rather have the answers and outcomes now.  My educator friends fully understand this! Standardized testing flies in the face of discovery.
  • Following is unpredictable because we are following a Jesus that is unpredictable.  Remember The Chosen?  “Get used to different.”  By the way, though Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), he’s certainly not predictable.
  • Westerners prefer clarity.  Following is about trust.  Trust and clarity tend to be at odds with each other. Example…

Toward the end of his life, the late ethicist and professor Fr. John Kavanaugh, went to Calcutta to seek an audience with Mother Teresa.  He was desiring to find out how to best spend the remainder of his life.  When he met Mother Teresa, he asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she replied. He then uttered the request he had carried thousands of miles: “Clarity. Pray that I have clarity.”

“No,” Mother Teresa answered, “I will not do that.” “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”  Kavanaugh said that she always seemed to have clarity, the very kind of clarity he was looking for.  Mother Teresa laughed and said: “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.

Trust is central to following. And following is central to tasting and seeing, knowing and experiencing the goodness of God.  And the best way I know how to do that is by spending large amounts of time with the embodied goodness of God – Jesus.

Next: Babette’s Feast and how it relates to experiencing God’s goodness.

Scripture for a Pandemic

Over the years, God seems to provide us followers with scripture passages that carry us through various seasons of life – anchors we can cling to. For my 18th birthday, toward the end of my senior year in high school, I was given a little Hallmark book entitled Consider the Lilies: Great Inspirational Verses From the Bible. It actually served as my bible for the next year or so (sad as that seems today). It pointed me to a few scriptures that served as anchors through my first couple years after high school. The scripture that resonated the most with me can be found in Matthew 6, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Especially helpful were verses 25-34…

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (NKJV)

Looking for a go-to scripture on which to focus as you figure out how to navigate a pandemic such as this? You might want to think about this passage from Jesus’ teaching to his first century followers. He was preparing them to live in a pandemic of sorts. He was preparing them to be kingdom people in a time of uncertainly – a season laced with anxiety, hardship, and persecution. He was telling them clearly that God is bigger than anxieties, hardships, and persecution. And he’s bigger than pandemics, I suspect.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet they thrive during a pandemic. Lord, help us to not simply survive this pandemic, but maybe even thrive a bit. Help us to surthrive, as my friend Mick would say.

The “New Normal”

Earlier this week, I was in a conversation with a young man with whom I have a mentoring relationship. As we discussed how COVID-19 has impacted (disrupted) our lives, including our ministries, we wondered aloud if things would ever get back to normal. Or would we find ourselves transitioning into what we commonly hear these days as the “new normal.” As we conversed, he said, “I wonder what normal actually means?”

So, as I’m wont to do, I looked up “normal” in the New Oxford Dictionary that resides on my laptop. This is what I found: “a town in central Illinois, home to Illinois State University.” That didn’t help. Searching further, I found the definition of the noun, normal – “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” As I read the definition aloud to my friend, we both responded, almost in unison, “Why would we settle for normal? Why would we settle for the usual? For just average or typical?” There must be more to life than “typical.” I think Jesus calls us to more than typical…

Jesus constantly pushed back against the normal of his day. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus said, “You have heard it said …, but I say you…?” Many such statements were contained in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here are a few examples:

  • “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ (the old normal). But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (the old normal). But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Jesus was communicating to his hearers that with the arrival of the kingdom of God through his person, everything was now different – new creation! The old had gone and the new had arrived. The Apostle Paul reiterated this to the early Christ-followers (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Please note that in the above passages, Jesus was not suggesting a new ethic, a new way to act. If that’s all we hear, then we have settled for a typical and usual approach to the Christian faith whose focus is behavior modification. Jesus did NOT suggest we ACT differently. His desire for us is to LIVE differently – as people who have stepped into God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ Sermon was not about how to live, but rather what life looks like in God’s kingdom, his realm, his rule. Quite frankly, Jesus was describing what life would look like if God were in charge. God broke into history through Jesus, ushering in the kingdom. God was taking charge. This was Jesus’ main message, that the kingdom was at hand (had arrived), to which he called people to repent (change their mind and direction) and believe this incredibly good news, or gospel (see Mark 1:14-15, Amplified Bible). Thus the words in the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come.”

So what does this have to do with “new normal” thinking? I think this: We live in a time of inbetweeness. The kingdom that Jesus ushered in has been advancing and will continue to advance, coming to fruition upon his return. In the meantime, as Christ-followers, we figure out how to live with one foot in the kingdom of this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. I suspect Christian maturity is learning how to live in the world as a kingdom of God person (notice I said “learning how to live,” not how to act).

History and experience tells us that such maturity (which I think most really desire) is difficult to realize when life is “usual, average, or typical” – normal. It’s during times of disruption that we get to rethink what we want our life to be like, and that’s a very good thing. During this pandemic, we have no idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of this world. But we do have an idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of God. It will look like Jesus. I pick new!