What does it mean to call something good? It’s a qualifier, used to attribute the quality to a given thing. Used rightly, it means a relational quality, one that relates whatever is described to a person or persons: to be good, it must be beneficial, meeting a human interest. A parent says veggies are good because they contribute to the health of the body. Good is also an emotive quality, as in desirable for producing pleasure. A good party is one that delights. These criterion show that it has an active connotation: something sitting around cannot rightly be called good if no one is interacting with it. We see this in calling someone a good person. They are good because of what they do, because they are kind or helpful or thoughtful or just, not merely because they refrain from stealing your mail or tripping you in the street. Lastly, the good qualifier in its highest sense denotes right behavior, what we call morality, and on this level it is absolute, not relative. You can deny absolutes and metanarratives, and say “no one system can impose its views of reality upon another one” and reject my moral system, but then you have neither right nor grounds to judge my views and no capacity to even understand or communicate with me. Relativized, even rape cannot be philosophically condemned.
What is actually good? We are made in the image of God, who is good, so we can learn what it means from Him. First, we see that relationships are key: God is triune and exists in community. No human being should live in isolation or even emotionally distant from others: community is the proper way to live. Second, we see that service is integral to relationship, since love is other-focused. The corollary is that selfishness, living focused on our own self and desires, cannot make us truly happy or fulfilled. Third, it becomes obvious that the goal is unity in diversity, not sameness. Each person of the Trinity is distinct and has its own role to play. This is part of why we have gender, and thus marriage.
Additionally, the Lord has told us about goodness directly in the Bible. Micah 6:8, for example, says “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In the end, “God is the only one who can meet every human need, and is therefore the ultimate definer of goodness.” To make the matter clearer, we have the Incarnation, Jesus showing us what is good through his life. The problem we face is letting go of our own desires and justifications, the things that shape how we interpret scripture, and clinging instead to the actual choices and actions of Jesus and the way he modelled goodness.
We come, at last, to the matter of applying goodness to our own lives. In the words of Gandalf, what will you do with the time given to you? Hopefully not run away from most of your friends to take a cursed object four-hundred seventy miles to an active volcano, densely guarded by the sort of creatures who think torture is fun and breathing optional! Truly, though, Frodo was implicitly asked how he would live his life by the circumstances confronting him and he answered the way we all ought to, by doing what is good. He persevered through suffering to accomplish a work that was both personally and corporately beneficial. Not for glory and renown, though he earned it, but for love of his home and his friends. We see this dichotomy in the Sermon on the Mount: be a shining city on a hill before all, but don’t be showy and seek praise with your good works. And if being good seems a waste of time or too dull, Ecclesiastes 2 notes that the author indulged in every pleasure available in life, and found them all empty and unsatisfying. Instead, he concluded “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” God has determined what is good and satisfying for mankind, and instructed us in it. Because of our self-centered nature, truly good acts are usually against our instincts and desires and are therefore a step above the mundane. So instead of chasing after the selfish desires of heart and body, dedicate yourself to the high and noble cause of seeking goodness.
Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 204-205.
Fred Liggin, 27 February 2018 Lecture of GENE 150: The True, the Good, and the Beautiful, Regent University.
Sam Allberry, Connected: Living in the Light of the Trinity (P&R Publishing, Kindle Edition), 78-89.