God does good work. And his success doesn’t rely on us.
This paired premise of the Bible—and the experience of many who know him well—is obvious in principle. But it isn’t so easy to accept in practice. If this sort of confidence in God was widespread we would see much more of the transformation faith produces.
A couple of obstacles help account for this gap between promise and practice. For one there is the question of whether God is truly good or, more to the point, whether a God who meets these traditional claims actually exists. In a world filled with godless discord and natural tragedies all these claims about God seem empty. The “problem of pain” makes the idea of a good God seem implausible.
The second obstacle seems to follow from the first. Humans share an instinct to trust self in place of God. The person who greets us in the mirror each morning knows best: so why look for a second option? Seen in this light every life is a problem-solving exercise and we’re all called to make life work.
Yet the view that God is trustworthy and we should trust him is central to Bible content. All the faith stories of the Bible eventually point to God’s persistent providential care. Joseph, whose brothers arranged for him to be enslaved, still became the prime minister of Egypt. Ruth, a destitute widow, became a key link in Jewish history. David, a family runt, eventually became an exalted king. Peter, a village fisherman, became a world emissary for the church. God is the star in each of these stories.
So let’s explore this tension between what the Bible portrays and what most of us experience by taking the two obstacles just noted in reverse order.
Sin, as a reminder, started with the human declaration of independence from God in Eden. So our experience of life is shaped by that reality… or, to be accurate, misshapen because of that reality. So if we challenge God’s goodness because of the distress sin brings to our lives—causing our own “problem of pain”—some spiritual humility is in order. We caused the problem.
It’s not that we have any direct links to the distant computer whiz who stole our identity and is now making a mess of our credit reports. Or that we have immediate culpability for the terror reports we watch in the news each night. Or that we produced the cancer in our beloved friend.
Instead the point is that when we look in the mirror each morning and decide to trust self in place of the God who made us, we’ve voted for the serpent’s scheme: “You can be like God.” His Lie—that spiritual autonomy is harmless—is behind computer hackers, terrorists, thieves, killers, gossips, liars, and more—even behind the defects of a universe still under Adam’s curse. All the evil we hate is birthed by one basic sin. Yet too many of us still embrace it on a daily basis.
So what we really hate are the consequences of our sin but not the sin itself. Pride then blinds us when we blame God for the terrible-tasting stew we help cook each day.
The solution is for us to put out our personal and corporate “help wanted” signs. The same Lord who said, “apart from me you can do nothing,” also called on us to “abide in my word” and to “abide in my love” as a way of life. We were made both by him and for him.
The point isn’t to ask for assistance while we remain in our sin; but to give up our sin by acknowledging our failed rebellion. Remember where we started: God is good; and his success doesn’t rely on us. The point is that God’s goodness appears to us only in the realm of our dependence and not in the space of our autonomy.
Paul offers a reminder of how this works in his letter to the Romans in chapter 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The solution starts with our response of love to the God who already loved us.
This passage and many others—as in Genesis 50:19-20 and Matthew 26:51-54—tell us that God’s goodness is never derailed from reaching its ultimate destination, not even by Satan’s most overt ventures. God knows what he’s doing.
But God, as with Adam, also gives us freedom to love and trust the face we see in the mirror each morning; and to reject his love in the process. It seems innocent enough but it isn’t.
The ultimate answer is to wait on the Spirit after we put out our spiritual help-wanted sign and then begin each day with a good read of his word that helps set us free from our former nonsense.
Another way to say it is found in Psalm 34:8—“Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”