What’s Good?

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man whom we know as the Rich Young Ruler ran up to Him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life?”  Jesus’ response? “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18).

There is a question that lies at the root of almost every argument and controversial conversation that takes place in human society, and that question is: “What is good?”

Depending on whom you ask, “good” may be defined as things that benefit an individual, things that benefit society, things that benefit the marginalized, things that make me feel good, things that fill a need, things that show love, things that promote acceptance, things that are selfless, things that evoke celebration, things that make people feel positive about themselves, things that produce a certain emotion, things that produce a certain result.  But what, really, is “good”?

Sometimes we know instinctively what is good.  Jesus acknowledged this in the Sermon on the Mount: “What person is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf of bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? So if you, despite being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).  Even evil people, Jesus says, sometimes are able to recognize good and do it.  But what makes something good?

Jesus’ answer to the Rich Young Ruler is instructive on two levels.  First of all, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus is telling us something about Himself. Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Jesus might well have gone on to say, “If only God is good, and you are saying that I am good, what you are really saying is that I am God.”  Such a claim would have brought cries of blasphemy, so Jesus left His listeners to make that logical conclusion for themselves.

But Jesus was also saying something about the nature of goodness.  If only God is good, then whatever goodness is, God has something to do with it.  If we go all the way back to the creation story in Genesis, we read over and over how God declared all the things He created to be “good”.  God judged His creation good, because as Creator that was His prerogative.

J. Vernon McGee said, “This is God’s universe, and God does things His way. You may have a better way, but you don’t have a universe.”  God, by virtue of His position as Creator of the universe, has the authority to judge His creation according to His will.  And so if we want to define what is good, the only source we have, the only authority that matters, the only One who is truly good, is God.

There are high stakes for knowing what is good.  Isaiah warned, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).  We cannot allow opinion or feelings or circumstances or culture or politicians or preachers or social media to define goodness.  By the testimony of Jesus, we know: “No one is good except God alone.” He alone is the authority on what is good.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.” (Psalm 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 136:1)

~ Matt Kinnell, NHIM Board Chair


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