In my previous post , I took up the question of God’s beauty. In this penultimate post, we move to the question of God’s goodness. If the question of beauty takes the form of worrying that God is a killjoy, the question of goodness worries that God is a killer simpliciter. Not only is His way unattractive on an aesthetic register, He is hideous on a moral register, cosmically unfitted for the adoration of any sane mind.
It is tempting to imagine that this is an issue that Christians “get over” in the very first motions of saving faith. But in fact, every time we grumble or seize our idols, we implicitly question the goodness of God. We project upon Him a sort of sadistic withholding, or imagine that divine goodness is ultimately disappointing. Indeed, this is one way of describing the simplest grammar of our sin – the reduction of God, relative to our will, to the status of a lesser good than our idols. In the case of the greatest good, this cannot but be a judgment upon Him. It is as though we say, “What can you expect? You are supposed to be the greatest good, but since you do not actually appear to be, I will go ahead and hire out a surrogate in this area or moment of my life.” It is especially in this area of the God question that mere apologetics is insufficient, because our will is not our mind. And if our will and our mind are misaligned, there is a tension that moves toward resolution in a person’s life. Many apologists can fight Arminianism, but not adultery or alcohol (not to mention the deeper things of pride and shame).
If our hearts are idol factories, as Calvin so memorably put it, then how can we fight in our struggle to believe that God is the good and to move toward Him as the good with our will? In the rest of this post, I will focus on three related claims: 1. It is plausible that our will is distorted, but 2. The mind plays a significant role in the removal of distortion, and 3. Faith is ultimately a union of mind and will whose object is a Person.
The first claim is the easiest to establish, although perhaps the most difficult to fully accept and internalize. We are, all of us, deeply distorted in our vision of reality. There are moments of clarity where our mind detects all of this, but humans have a remarkable habit of denial. Many people who confess they are sinners with bravado and even love talking about total depravity nevertheless find it most difficult to admit that their spouse is right about them. It is one thing to know that we are sinners, but quite another to know how we are so. Here, no question could be more urgent. For the self-aware, there is much evidence that we are each deeply distorted in some of our values, and that if our values were given full and free reign – our instincts if you will – the world would be a tyranny. For this reason, God has established a world that functions through a diversity of gifts and persons. The kingdom of God is an organic unity-in-diversity, as Bavinck so clearly saw.
Much pathological religion comes from thinking that if I have my theology straight, and simply don’t externally do the things that my will craves, I’ve somehow discovered God. But if our will just does have its idols, something deeper is required. Rather, Christianity has always been about the movement of full persons toward God. If we cannot see how God is better than something else, then it is necessary for us (simply as humans) to understand why our will can’t “see” this, precisely so that we can move toward the healing of our will. God is found in exposure and in the truth, for He is light.
Second, precisely because humans cannot endure a conflict between what our will evaluates to be good and what our mind evaluates to be true, humans ultimately seek some sort of reconciliation when there is a conflict. As an example, if a human will very intensely evaluates fornication to be good while the mind very mildly evaluates chastity to be good, the world will “not make sense” to such an individual, and it is very possible that one’s beliefs will change to feel integrated as a person. We all do this with our sins. And it is especially for this reason that it is indeed helpful to have a clarified mind to orient the will when it appears to be misfiring. There are lots of examples of this tension, but the one that afflicts all persons is the question of evil and theodicy itself. We all know what it means to suffer. We all know what it means to feel in severe risk of danger. We all feel burdened by the suffering of our loved ones, some of which seems useless and ends in misery. We were born into a world apart from our choosing, and we face death and judgment apart from our choosing. In between, our innate tendency is to sabotage. Perhaps one of the most difficult griefs to truly come to grips with is the fact that I myself am part of the world’s ruination, and yet I am called to such great things. How could God allow this? Everyone wants to know. And so it is helpful for the mind to be clarified on this matter.
Thousands of very helpful pages have been written on this question, and I cannot hope to give a full answer here. But among the relevant insights appear to be the following:
- The possibility, albeit not the necessity, of all that is evil comes into being at the intersection of finitude and freedom. That is to say, truly free creatures (angels and men)—for whom the world was made—cannot finally be forced to refuse self-worship.
- This immediately raises the question of determinism, but no model of God’s sovereignty and free will is without its mysteries, and no theistic (or Christian) tradition disagrees that God accomplishes His goals in creation and redemption by means of angelic and human freedom.
- It would appear that God is interested in the production of a cosmic song that is only accomplished through angelic and human freedom. And perhaps this is because there is a sort of God-like beauty that can only be shared through freedom.
- Perhaps, therefore, it would be cosmically stingy of God to refuse to create those who can participate in the cosmic music on account of those who misuse their freedom and cannot therefore ultimately join the eternal band.
- Moreover, we cannot operate on an individualistic logic here. What God aimed to create was a human race that comes into being, falls, and is redeemed together. As in the above, the kingdom of God is the fullness of all musics, if I may so speak, brought together in an overwhelming (for us) harmony. And this is precisely because it is through the fullness of humanity that the greatness of God is fully enjoyed by His free creatures. To refuse human freedom the capacity for corporate ruin is to refuse the capacity for collective corporate worship arising through a union of freedoms. But perhaps precisely this would be to refuse the greatest gift of God, whose unity is found in Christ.
- In the sea of songs and stories that vie to tell man of the good, it is the story of Israel and of Jesus that “gathers together” all the threads of the good into one. Theodicy has some theoretical elements, but its ultimate nodal point (precisely because it is reality’s nodal point) is the life of Christ. His life, His teaching, His actions, His offices, all of these make all things new. How could God allow all of these stories of suffering and pain? We know no God who has allowed this who has not also been the God who redeems our misused freedom. In Christ, a song entered creation that corrects and draws into itself all tunes until all else joins His kingdom. Those who refuse to play along will finally be excluded.
- It is the mission of the church, and precisely Christ’s desired mode of conquest, to persuade others through the fragrance of a whole life enjoying the fullness of God’s kingdom in Christ.
- This is not simply a matter of corporate harmony, but of our individual stories. It is my life that can ultimately be a tale of redemption. Even the thief on the cross lived a coherent life whose threads gathered into a singular moment of confession. At no point in any of our stories are our threads impossible to realign into the fullness of God’s kingdom, his “band” if you will. Moreover, this is not in spite of our stories. God didn’t simply tolerate the action of Joseph’s brothers, but redeemed it. We are saved by a cross. And our weaknesses become sites of adornment, a source of spiritual gifting, and of giving.
- The justification of God is finally only discovered in life itself. It is not finally the conclusion of an argument, but a resting of the soul in the truth that God’s gravity cannot be imagined, that I do not grasp all things, but that I can endure in trusting Him because He is active to comfort me through the Spirit. The ultimate defeat of death in our own lives is not to find an adequacy in ourselves to face it, but rather a dependence upon He who is life to sustain weak and fragile souls. The defeat of death is not the conclusion of a theorem, but a peace that passes understanding given as a gift to a whole person dependent upon a God who sees me, and has defeated all my enemies.
Third, the above considerations might help the mind calm the will down to recognize that God really can be relied upon. And indeed to place God’s deeds (not to mention reality itself) before the mind is to provide an opportunity for the will to attach and reattach to a new object. This is precisely why we pray, attend worship, read the Scriptures, “think on these things” (to invoke a Paulism), etc. And indeed, this is not even a Christian insight as such. Probably all secular psychology recognizes that our desires are distorted, and strategizes a way for the mind to help re-habituate the desires through various appeals to the whole person. All ordinary insight about “habituation” applies here. But Christianity adds something peculiar because it makes of this very thing a history—a history of God’s persuasion of the human race. Apart from the final beatific vision, when faith will give way to sight – from Adam until now – the human calling has always been to “follow” the “way” of God where both mind and will move, summoned by the “appearance” of beauty, to some unity that we have not quite yet discovered. In other words, apart from a final arrival, it is not impossible to doubt God. And this is why faith is linked to hope. We hope that God is the convergence of all things, and of ourselves—He in pursuit of whom we can ourselves craft a full “face” (as Lewis puts it). And it is only then that we will fully grasp as we have been grasped, know as we have been known.
The fullest persuasion of God’s way is Christ Himself. Just as our lives move toward a final unity of personhood, so is human history, the fullness of all peoples and persons, a collection of musics whose destiny is a fullness of cosmic song. And in the middle of life’s pilgrimage, it might appear that nothing could bring it all together. But to find one’s self before the movements of Christ in life and in death is perhaps to find that single “note” that absorbs and transforms all the others out of itself. All human stories must become stories of death and resurrection or they cannot enter the final song. Christianity teaches the world that the human story is a story of salvation or it is nothing. In God’s wisdom, to refuse to tell us this story in both history and in our own lives would be to refuse to give all that He is for us. He is too good for that.