A college philosophy class many years ago pushed me to think about what the word “good” means. I used the word all the time. In fact, everyone around me used it continuously to describe things they liked or approved of. But what did we mean by it? And, did the way we use it do the word justice? Other than coming up with other words or phrases that described what we meant such as “nice,” “high quality,” “moral,” “virtuous,” “acceptable behavior,” I don’t remember arriving at a satisfying definition. And the professor didn’t really help much. His smile gave the impression that he never intended us to find closure on the topic. Frustrating. But, it was just a class assignment and one of many hoops to jump through to get my degree. In the end, I took a “B” and forgot about it, like most all my general-ed classes.
Years later, as I pondered the biblical passage that lists the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), the old question came back. What is goodness? We’re told that it is evidence that the Holy Spirit is dwelling within. So, how do I determine if it’s there, or not? Is our human understanding of goodness the same as God’s? And if not, what makes something or someone good in His eyes?
I still don’t feel qualified to answer that question. The older I get, I see that I know less than I thought I did back in my college days. All I can do is share some of the thoughts I have accrued over the years. But even though I’m hesitant to provide a definitive explanation of “goodness”, I know with certainty that I desire the Spirit of God to make a home in me. So, I want to at least get a little closer to recognizing what such an indwelling might look like. Can the Holy Spirit make me truly good?
What Does It Look Like?
Goodness is one of those qualities in which it sometimes seems easier to identify what IT IS NOT rather than define what it actually is. Most will agree that good people don’t commit cruel or violent acts, don’t abuse others with their fists or their language, don’t manipulate others to get what they want, and don’t ignore the genuine needs of others. So, can we say that someone who doesn’t do all these things is good? Maybe. But is this all that is meant by the goodness the Holy Spirit seeks to produce in us? What might be missing?
I have often wondered if it is possible to do all the right stuff (outwardly) and yet not be good (inwardly). That is what seems true for me many times. I have done and said things, or refrained from doing and saying things, so that I could be seen as a “good” person. It’s true that others may benefit from my good deeds or may be saved from unnecessary hurt because I stop myself from saying something unkind or stupid. But does that mean that true goodness is active in me? Not necessarily.
Those observing me can rarely detect when I do the right thing for the wrong reason. Though many like to think they can determine another person’s motives by merely watching outward behavior, it’s never that simple. Motivations are complex. Some get very good at camouflaging their selfish, fearful, and manipulative reasons for doing what they do. While for others, their right and good intentions come across as clumsy, naive, or even hurtful at times. Does that mean goodness is not active in those people who make others uncomfortable through their lack of knowledge, skill, or social grace? We often judge others as possessing or lacking goodness according to how they make us feel.
Ultimately, I believe true goodness starts within a person’s heart. That is where the Holy Spirit seeks to work. Behavior modification, for all its hype and popularity through self-help books and podcasts, is not the starting point for Jesus’ work in our lives. Heart transformation, dealing with WHY we do what we do, or WHY we believe what we believe is where I find Him most active in my life.
The Bible is clear that even if we don’t know exactly how to define it, God is good and the source of all true goodness. “Oh taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). “Oh give thanks to the LORD for He is good” (Psalm 107:1). James 1:17 gives the impression that anything that comes to us that is truly good is a gift from our Heavenly Father. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (ESV). Thus I tend to understand goodness as godliness—a desire and commitment to live out my identity as a child of God, reflecting who He is in all I do, but even more importantly, in WHY I do what I do. The more I open my heart to Him, the more I can become like Him.
Get It From the Source
So how do I address the motivations of my heart? I find the first step for any deep work in my life is to go to God first and honestly talk to Him about it. I can’t change the intentions of my heart through my own will power, but I can honestly acknowledge the need for it. This kind of confession means I’m simply agreeing with God: “Lord, my motivations are selfish and at best mixed, as you already know they are.” This requires humility, as does the next step: “Lord, I ask you to expose the intentions of my heart, pull them up, and plant the seeds of your goodness instead.”
I must give a warning that this prayer should not be prayed flippantly. God actually takes it seriously and will show you even more places where the secret goals of your heart do not match who He is, or who you are meant to be as His son or daughter. The temptation will be to give up in discouragement and discomfort. But this is merely the plowing of the ground of the heart so that the seeds of His goodness that He so generously desires to give can put down roots.
And as we continue to humbly commit our ungodly motivations to our Heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit is given more ground to produce true goodness. Such a fruit in our lives makes many other things possible. I have seen that living out of God’s goodness makes us more trustworthy in our relationships, stirs our desire to see people treated rightly and fair, releases greater levels of peace, and most importantly, opens the door to deeper intimacy with God Himself. This allows us to better represent His goodness so others can taste it, desire it, and pursue it themselves.
Taste and See that He is Good
After writing all this, I’m not sure that I have provided any clearer definition of the word “goodness.” Maybe my philosophy professor knew something after all. But my hope is that more followers of Jesus will develop an appetite for it. Goodness makes us more godly, like our Heavenly Father, and godliness gives us more than we can fully comprehend in this life (1 Timothy 6:6).
Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to do this work in us, that those around us may taste and see a bit more of what God is truly like.
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let Thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee