What is good?


How God defines good is often is not the same as how humans define it. That is remarkable. Actually, what is good is also not central in life for most man. That is even more remarkable. The assumed counterpart of it – evil – is however much more prominent. More interesting even. This is where a ‘civilization’ seems to hinge on. That’s also remarkable. What is good is central to God. Therefore it remains important to determine what that is. But the opinions about that are different. What is written about it in the Bible?

By Marco van Putten

Good represents the right things or the state of something as it is supposed to be. Where it was purposed for. That which is beneficial for life. One can strive for what is good and good can also be a way of working, deeds, a development and a process. Good represents a measure of things. The reference to which other things are compared or measured. It uncovers that which deviates from it: that which is evil. Therefore there is a hinging towards making evil the counterpart of good, but good has a longer lifespan then evil and is rather more ‘effective’ on the long then on the short term. According to the Bible it seems to have existed before evil (Gn 1:4). God is been associated with good or even made equal to it (Ps 118:1), but like evil it’s neither a person nor something on its own. Good receives meaning, ‘is brought to life’, when God or creatures give it meaning in thinking and doing. God seems to want what is good and act according to it. Good seems therefore also a logical main component of true religion. But does it have that place really in Christianity?

Word study
The common way to express the meaning ‘good’ in Hebrew is the word tov, that also means ‘better’, ‘beautiful’, ‘prosperity’, ‘success’ and ‘pleasant’. It is used 10* in the first two chapters of the Bible book Genesis, which deals with the making of Creation. By the way, God classifies Creation as being tov me‘od – very good (Gn 1:31). The word tov is derived from the root jatav (being good/welfare), which emphasis the state or activity of something which is tov. The word toev means that what is good concerning objects, like honey (Prov 24:13) or in an abstract sense, like goodness (of heart) of goods (an article). Furthermore, good can also be expressed with the Hebrew word chajil (wealth/courage; Job 20:15) and the word chamad (desirable; Job 20:20).

In Greek the most often used words are kalos (beautiful, honest, excellent and honorable) and agathos (useful, beneficial and fortunate). Less used is agathopoieo (doing good; Mc 3:4). Other words are chrestos (suited, giving oneself and accommodating; Rm 3:12) and dokimadzo (approve and test; Rm 14:22). Also, the prefix ‘eu-’ represents good, smart and beneficing. So, the word eudokeo means having a liking for or good disposition (Rm 15:26).

Is good abnormal?
Good is defined by humans as beautiful, beneficial, luck, success, prosperity, wealth, according to the law and rules (of the land) and health. But good sticks out and is noticed, since it is actually more than normal [1]. Therefore sometimes the extraordinary or remarkable [2] is called ‘good’. What is meant is that it represents excessiveness, for example in love, honesty, bravery or thoroughness. Still, good in principle is seen as an exception on the rule and therefore quite some people see it as unwise, feeble and even dangerous. Hence, good is sometimes seen as the (unwanted) competitor of what is normal [3]. In some cases good is seen as evil. Thus, humans have a different opinion and there is confusion about what is good. Can believers then really know what is good?

The difficulty of good
Nowadays people tend to say that something is never good enough. People sometimes want something, but when they finally have it then it can be disappointing. Then they see it as not good. People can ask for something good to be done, but when it’s done they don’t find it is been done good (enough). Also, what is good in the eyes of one person is absolutely not good or even evil in the eyes of others. The current welfare and the illusion of total freedom of choice connected with that doesn’t help in that respect. Spoiled people do not find something good easily and they always think it can be better. They compare themselves with pop stars, the elite and kings.

As with many things also what is good can be applied on the status of something and on someone’s acts. Someone who is known to be good (status) can still do things that are not found good. Someone who is evil can vice versa do good things [4]. Thus, in determining of what is good it has to be distinguished and determined. Since good can represent a norm it can be laid down in a law. But is depends on how it is defined in such a law and how it is interpreted later on in each individual case and how it is executed. It is for example possible that someone has done something obviously good, but still be condemned because it is found that this act violated some (other) law. The problem is that a law only is juridical in nature, whilst that which is good almost always plays in the sphere of ethics (theory of morals). Viewed from this perspective, something which is good can often be missed out, since its humans who think they can judge about what is good [5]. But who can really determine what is good?

What is good?
In the Bible it is repeatedly said that God is good (Ps 106:1). This is about the qualities of His Character, His Heart. From this determination – that God is good – has to be concluded that He has an understanding about it. That He knows what is good and what isn’t. That means that what is good for God has been determined for eternity [6]. But to determine what God calls good seems not easy. In the Bible this is ‘hidden’ [7] and that points in the direction that what is good can only be learned from God Himself. It becomes clear that deeper insight about God and experience with religious life are needed for it and not just the text in the Bible. Also, simple learning a list of things and deeds which are good just isn’t enough [8]. By the way, one can’t learn goodness, since that is a work of God through the Holy Spirit. Believers also do not need to focus on what is good, but on their calling (Gn 2:15) and on what God has ordered them to do (Torah observation). In fact that is the basis and the spirit of what is good for a believer, but this in itself proves that what is good is ‘hidden’ and can’t be learned from a book. Acting out a calling and what God has ordered to do is a way of falling and standing up, of struggle and perseverance, of hope and assurance. How has God defined what is good?

How God defines good
It can be deducted from the Bible what God’s definition is what is good. This is, amongst others:

  • What is pleasant
  • What is suited
  • What contributes to His salvation(plan)
  • What is righteous and just
  • What is fitting or sufficient
  • What fulfills or makes complete

What is on time

What is remarkable is that it is Theo centric (focused on God), but also Cosmo centric (focused on Creation) and anthropocentric (focused on man). This is so both for what is static (what is good on itself) and dynamic (good works). That is why it is not strange that His definition of what is good is almost completely different from what humans normally regard as good.

What God regards as pleasant, can be ugly, appalling, reject able, indecent [9] and disgusting [10] for humans. What God regards as suited, can be completely insufficient, unsuited, unfitting and not applicable for humans. Added to this is the fact that God not always is transparent, but sometimes uses evil, like punishment, and still calls that good. Humans have inherently no knowledge of God’s salvation(plan). Since it comes from outside man and it often goes against the will and undertakings of humans. Man is blind for it and can also not accept the existence of it. Man is fundamentally unjust, and thus they regard God’s righteousness or what He deems as right as wicked, appalling and uncivilized.

Man is insatiable and doesn’t know how to keep measure, so they can not adjust to what God finds suitable or proper. Man mostly is fully taken up by its own desires or it becomes the commitment to try to adjust to God’s measure but with that they derail in all kinds of self chastisement [11]. Who does not know how to keep measure, also does not know what it is to become fulfilled. Since, most people never have enough. Fulfillment has to do with being satisfied or accepting something as enough (2 Cor 12:9). That gives internal rest and is also something good for man. But who has it? Many people never reach self realization, since they are not aware of their gifts and what their special place in Creation is. How can what is good be learned?

Learning what is good
Who chooses free willingly for a life of (believe) struggle, poverty, persecution, humiliation and eventually martyrdom? Especially not in the ‘free’, ‘rich’ and prosperous western world [12]. Only but a few [13] know how to persevere in their choice for God [14]. Since God finds being good in Biblical sense normal and whatever deviates from it [15] will lead to downfall. When more and more believers practice being good by observing Torah through God’s Spirit (Rm 7:12; 1 Tim 1:8), the oppression will increase. But still they will grow in belief and holiness. Also, their inner certainty about what is good and what not. This leads to the conviction that what is within man isn’t good, but evil (Rm 7:18). Since what is pure good cannot sustain in the current Creation [16]. That shows that a true believer can’t be purely good (Eccl 7:16). Even when that believer has learned to discern what that is. For what is good according to God often is the competitor of what is best, whilst all find that what is best is certainly good.

[1] This means that something as ‘normal’ does exist, although it is not sharply defined and its perception changes constantly.
[2] Even when that extraordinary not quite has the characteristics or deeds which can withstand the challenge of the Bible or when sins are associated with it.
[3] The unbelieving human rejects what is good (2 Tim 3:3).
[4] Imagine for example the workings of satan or his demons appearing to be ‘angels of the light’.
[5] That’s why it is mentioned in the Bible as ‘what is good in the eyes of humans’, like in Genesis 16:6 and Judges 10:15.
[6] With people what is good is constantly changing, but temporarily (implicitly) anchored in a law.
[7] Unstructured, but all kinds of stuff about what is good is mentioned here and there in the Bible. Therefore this needs to be structured and ordered. This is the art of a Bible teacher and the Theologian.
[8] As these are mentioned in Micah 6:8; 1 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 4:32 en Colossians 3:12-13.
[9] Decency is often an artificial goodness, but goodness needs to be a matter of the heart if it wants to be good in the Sight of God.
[10] The Lord Jesus was judged as such by His fellow countrymen.
[11] For example (religious) asceticism and mandatory celibacy.
[12] There is tension between the religious way of living according the Bible and the way of living according to western culture.
[13] Christianity’s striving for World dominance thus cannot be good.
[14] Although in Christianity it is thought that God in a mystical way always remains with those who once have chosen for Him. Life’s experience and logic tell a different story.
[15] So, also what goes above and beyond it.
[16] Although God called that same Creation originally good.