Is God good… all the time?
Almost eight years ago I was moving to Florida to begin my first call as an Associate Pastor. I was coming off of a yearlong chaplain residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta that was… difficult. Provocative – formative – meaningful? Yes all of those and more. I wouldn’t trade the experience in for anything. But it wasn’t easy… not even close. There were twenty-four hour days, and forty-eight hour weekends. A lot of disease, and poverty, and death. I recall one particular weekend where I was awake for two days straight and was assisting a family with the death of their loved one (the ninth such situation I had been a part of since I last slept). I recall early in the year sitting vigil with a family next to their brain dead sixteen year old son… who sadly wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Or another young husband who, because of one poor split second decision would never wake up again… or become a father. I remember more mundane stories as well… a lot of hospital gowns, and people grateful to talk, and one gentleman who simply lifted his hand to say stop and pointed towards the door. I remember great colleagues who I couldn’t stand some of the time but made that whole world livable.
In the midst of this world I was also struggling with a continued journey with Caroline to have our first child… it was a long and hard journey also. It will filled with disappointments and what I came to call the 28 day rollercoaster. (If you know me you realize that eventually this wasn’t a problem, three kids with a fourth on the way I will simply say of it now that I had reproductive surgery and it was radically successful.)
All of this came to a head in Holy Week… I remember on Good Friday being beeped to one of my floors at the hospital for a death and I turned to a colleague and said, “How do you mediate death to a dead God?”
God died for me that day, God died to me as well.
At my first presbytery meeting (church stuff) in my first call a person came forth to make a presentation and shouted out, “God is good.” And everyone responded, “All of the time!” And then he said, ”All of the time.” And everyone responded… (You guessed it) “God is good!” It’s one of those tribal things you are just supposed to know and its fairly common but I really hadn’t ever run into it that much before, or not when I was in a place to react as I do now. That day began a habit for me… when everyone else says, “All of the time,” if you listen close you may just hear me mutter to myself, “Some of the time.” You see – I just can’t say it. I just can’t say that God is good all of the time.
Do I think that God isn’t good? Not exactly… it’s never that clear and straightforward for me. I don’t think God is evil, or amoral, or capricious (well… there are moments). It’s just that the statement “God is good all the time” is the kind of statement made of the God that died for me back at Grady. I had to kill that God… strung that God up on the cross and nailed the hands and feet and pronounced God dead. Here is the wonderful thing that occurred to me because of that experience. When I killed the God of my own creation, the God that fit my categories (like goodness), when I killed that god… the God that really is – a God of mystery and wonder and grace and life and love – was resurrected, came alive to me in ways I had not previously experienced. To borrow from Joseph Campbell I had begun to worship the mask of God created by my theology and thoughts and (most problematic) my needs rather than the God that lay beyond the mask.
I need to kill the God I wanted, that I felt I needed – the God who provides what I think I need in the time I’m convinced I need it. That is the God who is good all the time – because let’s face it, mostly I think what is good means what is good to me. When we say, “God is good all the time,” what do we really mean? Because if God is being good to the oppressed, is that good to the oppressor? If God is being good when God makes the hurricane not hit your home town, what does that mean for the people who the hurricane does hit? If God is good when you don’t get hit by random gunfire, what about the person next to you? If God is good to the person who has received great blessings and riches through faithful living, what does that mean to a person whose faithful living has led to little but hardship?
To whom, and how, and in what ways is God good all the time?
The poet of Psalm 22 names God as having laid him/her/us in the “dust of death.” Is that good? Is it bad? I was in the dust of death that week at Grady and I will be ever thankful for it (now, but not then). But I also would be glad to have not gone through such a week (year). I wouldn’t give it up – but I’d love to have learned those lessons in another way. It wasn’t good… but it wasn’t exactly bad either.
Jesus says no-one is good but God alone. And yet we use the word good about a great many things. I hear Jesus words name God as good. So there is goodness to God… but unlike the goodness of any of us, or anything else. Either use good for God alone, or don’t use it about God. Because God is not good like you and me, nor good like any other. And God’s goodness is not in our service. We are in the service of God – who is good in all God’s mystery.
This is why I do not say that “God is good all the time.” Because I think such a phrase is fraught with agendas that are beyond God… and less than God… and outside of God. And while I won’t stop you from saying it, just know that when you do so liturgically, where I’m sitting – if you listen very closely – you will hear me say… “some of the time.” So be it, thanks be to God.