Fruits of the Spirit: Goodness

15 Oct

It's taken me a long time to get to goodness.

Is that somehow significant? Maybe I just never wanted to be good!

But this is not an individual thing. The Spirit grows goodness, in individuals and communities.
There is a problem, though, in translating this word and that may be where some of the challenge lies. Is it 'goodness' or is it 'generosity'?

The greek word we are considering here, which I will transliterate as 'agathosunay', is actually quite difficult to define. It is not simply 'goodness', in the sense of 'this is a good cake' or 'That was a good deed'—as if either of those things is easy to define anyway!
Maybe one reason I have found it hard to get started on this post is that a common use of this word 'goodness' is really very close to kindness, which we have already considered at some length.
There is a close relationship, in that this kind of goodness is well-wishing. It seeks the best for the other.
So do we mean that the Spirit provokes us to do good deeds, or to be good?
I want to suggest that it is not either-or, but both-and.
Goodness, in the sense I am considering here, is first of all a divine attribute. God is good. Indeed, in one Gospel story, a person called Jesus 'Good Teacher' and Jesus replied asking why the fellow called him good, since only God is good (Mark 10. 17 & 18). Elsewhere, Jesus had suggested that God will give good things to those who ask, implying that God's will and purpose is good.
In one of the few direct statements about Jesus' ministry on earth, outside the Gospels, Peter is reported in Acts 10.38 saying that that 'Jesus went about doing good'. Goodness is a quality of actions, but it is clear from most scriptural teaching that goodness of the 'godly' kind is not simply a matter of a certain kind of deeds. Rather, such deeds come from a person's 'heart' or character.

What this suggests is that the harvest of the Spirit is not simply to make us 'do good', but much more profoundly to so shape our characters that by God's grace, literally, we may perhaps do some good, or even be good, as God is good.

There are two ways I'd like to explore this further. One is to reflect briefly on the goodness of the 'Good Shepherd'. In the passage on this theme in John 10, we read that 'the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep' (v.11). The good shepherd is contrasted with the 'hireling' who enjoys the job while all is running smooth, but as soon as danger or difficulty arises, runs away. The goodness of the good shepherd is not a matter of skill but of genuine care for the other (the sheep).  A second feature of this image, as Jesus sets it out, has to do with genuine relationship. He describes the relationship of shepherd and sheep in terms of a personal knowing. The sheep know the voice of their shepherd. The shepherd lies down with, and shares the lives of, the sheep. The relationship is genuine and personal. That's part of the goodness of the good shepherd. It is a relational knowing and being known.

This brings us back to the linkage between being good and doing good. Good deeds that do not arise from the character of 'goodness', like the goodness of the good shepherd, in fact do no good.

'Good' deeds have a genuinely other-regarding and relationship-building nature, and tend to express and build 'good character' in both the giver and the recipient. In some ideal way, this distinction even breaks down.

This contrasts with the kind of 'doing good' or 'good deeds' which arise from 'charity', or a sense of duty. Doing good in this sense rarely makes the recipient feel good, even if they produce an inner glow in the person who does them. Good deeds of this nature can be deadening. They create a burden of obligation. At worst, they demean a person who was already needy. One thing they lack is that quality of knowing and being known.

By contrast, the goodness of God seen in Jesus, the goodness of character, seeks the well-being of the other without generating obligation. That I think is why Jesus refuses to be called 'good'. This goodness is a state of being, which aims not so much to 'be good' as to be-with and be-for others, so that good arises within the relationship or situation. It seeks the good, rather than seeks to be good. And it allows itself to be known, by entering into the situation, by being there. This is the meaning of God's goodness in incarnation.

The Spirit produces goodness as a relational happening. And if we can be open to this, we might just find that our openness to this goodness, our desire for it, has produced something within us, which others might call 'goodness'.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *