Friday, July 1, 2011

Fruit of the Holy Spirit (part 6): Goodness (Galatians 5:22-24)

Trask and Goodall start their chapter on Goodness in the Book ‘the fruit of the Holy Spirit’  by talking about the fuss that is made in the media when the Indonesian plant Bunga Bangkai flowers in botanical gardens round the world. Why so much fuss about this plant blooming? Well for one, It does not happen that often (about every ten years) and it is of course the world’s largest flower. It’s an impressive sight. The other reason it’s a big thing is the flowers smell… it is an impressive sight but that is over shadowed by its impressive smell or I should say stench. You see Bunga Bangkai is Indonesian for the corpse flower  and the bloom gives off the pungent smell of rotting flesh to attract carrion beetles to pollinate it, beetles that as their name suggests normally live on rotting flesh. Trask and Goodall suggest that often we can be impressed by the greatness of a person or a plant and not the goodness.  They might be rich or famous or gifted but they just don’t come up smelling of roses. 

It’s like the idea of sports people as role models. We may hold them up as people to emulate because they are good at something where as their behavior away from the field is not good at all. Not to be emulated.  Goodness Paul tells us is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that grows in a believer’s life and a faith community, as they walk with the Holy Spirit, that develops in our lives as we develop a deepening relationship with God. 

This of course does not mean that Christians have a monopoly on goodness and doing good things or we are not capable of evil. On  the cover of Johnny Cash’s 1994 album ‘American recordings’, which resurrected his career and earned him a Grammy award for record of the year,  Cash is portrayed as a cross between an ominous villain and a fiery old school preacher, standing between two dogs. In a Rollingstone interview he said the two dogs are called sin, and redemption the theme for this album. Cash says the black dog with white stripes, that’s sin, represents when he was bad, he was still capable of doing good, and the white dog with black stripes is a realization that while he is trying to do good he still does not always succeed. 

Of course what is Good is one of the hottest and longest debated points in philosophy and ethics. It is a small word but it can mean so much. What is morally Good, that’s a hot topic. What is aesthetically good (like this is a good cup of coffee and ironically with some people you can get such a good cup of coffee that it is wicked). The Greek word translated here does not give us much help either as it is a word that is unique to the Scriptures. But its root word Good is often used in the Septuagint the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures as a word to describe God’s character. For Christians the idea of what is good, goodness, comes out of  the good God we meet in the good book.  And like the other fruit of the spirit we should not be surprised that this Christian virtue reflects God very nature. As even Jesus said ‘Only God is good”. 

What do we mean when we say God is good? Well 1 John 1:5 tells us that God is light that in God there is no shadow, no darkness…there is no dark side. God is holy and reveals his very nature to us, there is not just a nice bit of bait dangling before us that once we take it there is a hook. 

God, John goes on to tell us, is love, and in the story of God’s dealing with his people we can see the qualities of that love which makes God good. God’s love is towards all it is comprehensive: As Jesus says as the reason we should love our enemies, God makes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous and the sun to shine on the evil and good. Scripture also tells us that every good gift comes from God’s hand. 

 There is a consistency in God… God always reacts in the right way towards humanity and creation. I have to admit I’m grumpy in the morning, particularly before I have my first cup of coffee. As a diabetic I can have mood swings if my blood sugar is not right it means the way I act and react will change and may not always be right, but God is consistent in his dealing with humanity. It shows itself in his keeping his promises. Again in 1 John 1, John assures his readers that if we confess our sins… God will forgive our sins… why… the whole phrase is if we confess our sins God is faithful and just. God is consistent and dependable.

God’s love is constant: Another way of putting it is that God’s love is covenantal, the story of the Old Testament, the old covenant is God’s relationship with his people, based on promises and covenants God made with Israel. Firstly in genesis it shows that the Sinai covenant is a result of God’s promises to Israel’s ancestor’ s Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Exodus shows us that it is based on God’s saving acts and compassion, leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The covenant itself gives the law where YHWH

The greatest way we see God’s goodness is in the sending of his son Jesus to live and to die.  God’s goodness is shown in grace and in sacrificial love… in the Cross. Again a gracious act of God to bring us out of slavery to sin and death that we might live as God’s people. To be a new creation, in relationship with him that in how we treat each other and those around us we might reflect God’s love and goodness. A new commandment says Jesus that I give to you… that you love one another as I have loved you. 

So goodness goes deeper than kindness which is the word it is often associated with, to talk about our very character, that there is wholesomeness and a purity about us that expresses itself in good deeds. There is a rightness in our lives that is reflected in us endeavoring to live in right relationship with God, with each other and the whole of creation. 

It does tend to be down played in our culture… terms like ‘a goodie two shoes’ or ‘
do gooder’ are used in a derogatory way. What about the phrase “O They think they are too good for us”, Jesus sets that on its head because his goodness was not an aloofness but a being with and alongside, the very opposite to the Pharisees who thought goodness meant excluding and separation. 

In the passage which contains the list of the fruit of the holy spirit, we see that Paul gives a list of behaviors that are destructive to a community and society, in contrast to that in verse 11 and 12 Paul had already outlined what constituted goodness to the Galatians he had said serve one another… love your neighbor as yourself: Sacrificial love. Goodness is translated in some versions as ‘generosity’ be gracious and generous to others. In chapter 6 of Galatians Paul goes on to talk about being good to others. He says being good manifests itself in how we rebuke and discipline people, how we react to wrongs committed by others. We should be gentle (verse1) and do it not out of an air of moral superiority but with an awareness that we too are fallen and tempted. In verse 3 he says that goodness is not self seeking but actually we should have a sober judgment of ourselves. We should carry our own load. He concludes his letter in verse10 and 11 by saying we should as we have opportunity do good to all people especially to the family of believers. There is a long Jewish tradition of good deeds which includes alms for the poor, taking care of widows and orphans, offering hospitality to strangers, but maybe Paul does not need to define it more because in doing so it might feed our legalistic tendencies to want such things defined and tied down and thus limit our goodness.

This hasn’t been very nuts and bolts how to be good, and express goodness message. It’s interesting that in Goodall and Trask’s book ‘the fruit of the Holy Spirit’ there was a tendency to focus on high moral standards as defined in sexual conduct and how we interact with entertainment and media. But I’m not sure that strict definition of goodness is helpful it possible represents where they are at rather than where Paul is at. It’s there when you see what Paul has to say about the work of the flesh, So we do need to take it into account, but if we focus on that we miss the wider understanding of Goodness being relational, as acting in a right way towards each other, that includes sexually, as well as the use of resources, whole heaps of ways. It’s interesting to note this fits in with what Paul says about the gifts of the Holy Spirit as well in 1 Corinthians 12, that they are for the common good. 

Trask and Goodall,  do however point us to ways the spirit can cultivate goodness in our lives. One of course is allowing our minds and character to be shaped and developed by reading the scripture, as Paul tells Timothy because the scriptures are God breathed they are good for teaching and correcting that we may be equipped for every good deed.  Also Paul tells us in Philippians’ 4: we should set our minds on what is good and honorable, what is pure and acceptable, if we focus on q diet of wholesome goodness for the soul as well as for the body (just a public health message there… Howard are you listening) then the spirit can use that to develop goodness as a fruit in our lives. 

The hope is that as we expose ourselves more and more to the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit that we might be caught up in and inspired and filled with the goodness and graciousness of God that the result in our lives in character and in actions will be that we and other will be presently surprised, giving glory to God, because …  well… surprise  “goodness, Gracious…me? Goodness gracious.. you. “Goodness, gracious… us.”

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