In the days following 9-11, when the teachers in my school gathered for faculty devotions, we often related stories we had heard of people who had miraculously escaped injury in the terrorist attacks. One person knew someone who worked in the very offices of the Pentagon which were hit by the plane. He was out of the office at the time of impact and escaped injury, while every other person on his staff perished. Someone else knew a friend who missed the New York City bus and therefore was late to work, causing her to be outside the twin towers when they were hit. As each person related another miraculous delivery, they remarked on the goodness of God. I couldn’t help but wonder how the thousands of people grieving a loved one lost in the attacks felt about the goodness of God at that time.
We tend to equate the idea of God’s goodness with His acting in ways we feel is appropriate. The truth of the matter is that God is always good, whether He is doing what pleases us or not. He cannot be anything but good. It is an essential and uncompromising piece of His character.
When the Israelites were in the desert, it didn’t take long for them to reveal their true colors. While Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Law written on tablets of stone by the finger of God, the people were down in the valley below fashioning an idol out of gold to replace God as their object of worship. In a short period of time they had already rejected the One who brought them safely across the Red Sea on dry ground.
God punished the stiff-necked Israelites with swift judgment. Three thousand men fell that day. Moses spoke to God and admitted the people’s sin. He pleaded for God to forgive and not abandon them. God responded by promising His presence would remain with Moses and the people. Possibly needing further assurance, Moses made a request of God: “I pray You, show me Your glory!”
God responded, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” (Exodus 33:19) Did you note the change in nouns? Moses asked to see God’s glory. God told him he would be shown His goodness. In other words, by showing His goodness to Moses, God would be revealing His glory. The two words are used interchangeably throughout the rest of the account.
Moses was about to see the essence of the glory of God: His goodness. But first Moses needed to have the idea of goodness qualified for him. Yes, God was totally good. Yet He would pick and choose who would benefit from His compassion and grace and who would not. The goodness of God did not stand in opposition to His justice, wisdom, and righteousness. All of these existed in perfect harmony together in God.
When difficult circumstances come into our lives, they make us wonder if we must choose between believing in the goodness of God or in His determination to bring glory to Himself. Romans 8:28 promises us, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God. . .” All things. The planes careening into the twin towers, the tsunami rushing in to drag thousands out to sea, and the earthquake trapping hundreds of students under a crushing pile of rubble will all bring glory to God. “My glory I will not give to another,” God proclaims in Isaiah 48:11. Yet He also promises to work only toward our good in the worst of times. This also is an expression of the glory of God.
In recent days I have watched someone close to me in the agony of despair. As she attempted to serve God with all her heart, He chose to move her out of a much loved ministry and into a place of helplessly waiting on Him. She is sad and hurting. As I wept with her in her pain, I had to once again examine my understanding of God’s goodness. I knew He would bring glory to Himself as He worked through her life. But would she somehow be cheated of benefit as He did so? Was God truly being good to her?
Our good and God’s glory are never at odds. One does not preclude the other. They are one in the same and mutually exist in a God who loves us wholeheartedly yet unswervingly demonstrates His glory at the same time. We can trust Him to do the right thing for us even in the small details of our lives while still capably running the universe. His goodness is just another compatible dimension to the glory which is His.