Describing the Goodness of God

If you had to choose a hymn or worship song to describe the goodness of God, what would go at the top of your list?

I would initially think of something to do with creation, maybe dealing with how God provides good things for his creatures.   Maybe “Great is thy faithfulness.”   Possibly a setting of Psalm 23.  Or something about God’s love.

Last year I ordered a copy of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, from the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works.   It is an amazing piece of literature, and everyone who is interested in Wesleyan history and theology should spring for one.  The Wesleys put out numerous hymn collections throughout their lifetime, but this is the one that really stuck and became the standard of Wesleyan hymnody.

Near the start of the hymnal, there is a section of introductory hymns categorized as “Describing the Goodness of God”.  The first hymn in this section, no. 22, written by Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John), reads as follows:

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

“’Tis done!” The precious ransom’s paid,
“Receive My soul,” He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

It seems strange at first, because our inclination is to think that “describing the goodness of God” should mean dwelling on his eternal attributes, his care of creation, or his care of us amidst the trials of life.   But Wesley launches right into a description of the cross.

Hymn 23 begins with an even more concrete description of Calvary:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God

In hymn 24 we find the opening lines, “Ye that pass by, behold the Man / The Man of griefs, condemned for you!” and in verse two: “See how his back the scourges tear / While to the bloody pillar bound!”

I was moved when I read through this section and realized what Wesley had done.  All seventeen hymns in this section are focused on the cross and the atonement.  There’s not one that speaks in general terms of God’s goodness.  Wesley’s christocentrism is on full display in his ordering of these hymns.

How do we describe God’s goodness?  Rather than beginning with an abstract conception of a good God, and then theorizing about what that might mean, we begin at the cross, the climax and centre of God’s self-revelation.  We begin, strangely, with Jesus at his most human – suffering, bleeding, and dying for us and for our salvation – even though this is the point in the gospel narrative that most clearly underlines the inadequacies of our preconceived understandings of God and his goodness.

It is sad that many churches today shy away from a focus on the cross, even on Good Friday!   People seem concerned that it the crucifixion story is too gruesome, or too depressing.   One time I remember someone saying to me that we needed to end the Good Friday service on an “upbeat” note – as if we somehow need to “spin” the Good Friday story into a “positive” thing.   The cross doesn’t need spin doctors.  It doesn’t need to be turned into something “positive,” and it doesn’t need to somehow be reconciled with a preconceived notion of “goodness.”  The cross is God’s demonstration of his goodness.  To describe the cross is to describe the goodness of God.  The story just needs to be told.

Let’s not rush past the contemplation of the cross this Good Friday.

I give the last word to Charles. This is hymn 27 in the Collection.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from His side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold and love, ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like His?”
Come, feel with me His blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Then let us sit beneath His cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream:
All things for Him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to Him:
Of nothing think or speak beside,
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Unsafe God

I was preaching on Isaiah 6 this morning and a passage from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came to mind.  It’s the part where the children find out that Aslan is a Lion, not a man. 

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” siad Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” 

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.    

  “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver.  “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”  

It got me thinking about the images of God that are popular in our culture, and if we are honest, in the Church as well. Sometimes people imagine God as an angry punisher, ready to annihilate anyone who doesn’t measure up by hurling lightning bolts down from the sky.  But I don’t think there’s much of a danger of that in our culture today.  Maybe in the middle ages, when people were fascinated with hell and purgatory, but I don’t think there are many people today who imagine God in an overly wrathful way.  I think the opposite is more likely the case.  We tend to think of God as completely tame, endlessly tolerant, and entirely safe

I think sometimes we imagine a domesticated God.  Of course domestication is a term we use in relation to animals.  We domesticate our pets.  In other words, they are house trained, so they can fit into our lives and our routines and our homes, without causing too much of an interference.  Our pet dog stays on his leash.  He stays behind the fence.  He is safe.  He brings us comfort when we need it but at the end of the day, we are the master, we are the ones in control.   We imagine a domesticated God when we think that God can be kept, safe and contained behind the fences that we have built for him. 

Another imagined God that we encounter today is a Santa Claus God.  You know Santa Claus only exists for the purpose of bringing us gifts.  That’s the sole reason for his life.  All year long everything he does is oriented to that one special night when he jumps in his sleigh and flies around the world, eating cookies and milk and making little boys and girls happy by bringing them the things they asked for.  Yes, it is true, he’s making a list and checking it twice, but it seems to me he is pretty indulgent, and bring nice gifts even to kids that you would think would be on the naughty list.  We imagine a Santa Claus God when we think that God is only there to give us what we want.   When we think that the fact that we’ve been good little boys and girls means that we should get everything we ask for. 

We could probably think of many other “imaginary Gods.”   One more that I’ve seen is the personal assistant God. A personal assistant’s role is to help their boss get through their day.  They might go for coffee, they might pay parking meters, do dry cleaning, do secretarial work – and if you are a very busy person then I can see why a personal assistant would be of great value.  Their job is to make your life easier.  Sometimes we put God into that box.  We think he is there to “help get us through our day,” whatever that means.   I heard someone once saying that they were praying to God for help because they were having a “bad hair day.”  I think they wanted a personal assistant God

These are all safe gods; they are tame, they are domesticated, they are always pleasant, friendly, and unobtrusive.  These tame gods are not the God of the Bible. They are not the God of Isaiah chapter six.   

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: 

       “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty, 

        the whole earth is full of his glory.” 

 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 

 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” 

 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 

 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” 

      And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” 

Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.