A Question on Goodness
A question was emailed some time ago that asks the following: In Heidelberg Catechism question #94 it says “trust in [God] alone, with all humility and patience, expect all good from Him only.” The part I am confused on is the phrase “expect all good.” Is the author of the Catechism saying I should always expect good, or is he saying that it is all good because it comes from God?
This is a great question because it explores the nature of “good.” What do we mean when we call something “good?” Typically when we call something “good,” we are saying that that thing is somehow qualitatively good. For example, if I get a raise from work, it’s a qualitative good because making more money is qualitatively better than making less money. When I buy a new car, it’s a qualitative good because a new car is qualitatively better than having an older car. When a young couple gets married, it’s a qualitative good because being married is qualitatively better than living alone. Now in saying all of that, I realize that we should make the qualification “all things being equal.”
But notice how I am defining “good” subjectively, based on how it affects me. Going back to one of the above examples, suppose that raise from work was due to a job promotion. Further suppose there were two people in competition for that one promotion. My getting the promotion is good for me, and not so good for the other person. Another example, suppose 100 people were on an airplane, and that airplane crashed with only ten survivors. Surviving the plane crash was good for the ten who survived, and not so good for the 90 who didn’t. So we tend to define “good” in terms of how outcomes affect me, or those close to me.
There are other, more philosophical, ways to define “good.” There is the hedonistic way of defining “good” as whatever increases pleasure and reduces pain is “good.” There is the utilitarian way of defining “good” as whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number. But all of these ways of defining “good” cannot transcend the subjective nature of good. For example, if we look at the hedonistic definition of good, what increases my pleasure might increase your pain. That’s good for me, not so good for you. Looking at the utilitarian definition of good, whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number will still leave a minority for whom it might not be so good.
That’s why we need a definition of good that is objective, one that does not waiver depending on my mood or the changing fancies of the majority. For Christianity, the standard and source of all goodness is found in God. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the nature of God says, “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.2). Consider the following Biblical passages…
Exodus 34:6 (NKJV) And the LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.”
Psalms 119:68 (NKJV) You are good, and do good; Teach me Your statutes.
There has always been a debate in philosophical and theological circles that asked the following question: “Does God do something because it’s good, or is it good because God does it?” If you answer that God does something because it’s good, then you’re saying there is some standard of good that exists outside of God. If you answer that it’s good because God does it, then you open yourself up to the charge that God is capricious. However, God is the standard of what is good, and when God acts, He acts in accordance with His nature, which is good.
So let’s now look at Heidelberg Catechism Q94. The context of this question is the Catechism’s discussion on the Ten Commandments, in particular the first commandment. The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before Me.” The question asks “What does God require in the first commandment?” In the answer, it warns against the evils of idolatry, sorcery, and other illegitimate means of seeking help and guidance. Instead of trusting in these false gods, we should rely on the only true and living God. It is from this only true and living God that we should “with all humility and patience expect all good from Him only.” The Catechism uses as a “proof text” for this answer the following verse from the Book of James…
James 1:17 (NKJV) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
Now the verse is clear, God only sends down “good and perfect” gifts. Yet this is also the same book that opens with these words, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). So when God sends us “good and perfect” gifts, we need to resist the temptation to think good is being defined on our terms. God is not interested with out short term “good” or with our immediate pleasure. He is interested in molding and shaping us to reflect the image of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ…
Romans 8:28-29 (NKJV) 28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
So to answer your question, YES. We should always expect good from God, but “good” as defined by God, not us. Also it’s all good because it comes from God, but “good” as defined by God, not us. Because Romans 8:30 (not quoted above) ultimately ends with our glorification, and what can be better than that?