For Goodness Sake

by Brian L. Watts

What we mean
by goodness

Goodness Redefined

God's moral quality
in the word good

I have been told that "Indecent Proposal" is supposed to be a good movie. I have not seen it, and have no intention of doing so. But, according to the reviews, the title gives an accurate description of what the movie is about.

What we mean by goodness.

I am not concerned about giving an amateur movie critic's review of that particular movie; in fact I have very little interest in the movie itself. What is interesting is that several people have described it as "good." That opens up the whole question of what we mean by goodness.

In previous times, the word "good" was a moral term, understood in relation to its opposite, "evil." Literature and the arts were full of the drama surrounding the conflict between good and evil. But it would seem that good has now come to mean something different.

It would not be possible to describe an indecent proposal as good according to the old definition of the word. If the proposal is indecent, then in moral terms, it is evil rather than good. But that is no longer what people mean when they describe something as good. When we say that a particular movie is good, we usually mean that it is entertaining. A bad movie, by contrast, is one that is boring. It is an interesting commentary on our society that good and bad should have become so transformed as to mean entertaining or boring. Here we see how our values have changed.

Alternatively, we may speak of a movie as being good in a technical sense:

the film was not particularly entertaining but we appreciated the quality of the acting ability or of the photography. We use the word as we would speak of a watch that keeps good time; it refers to technical efficiency or effectiveness.

Goodness Redefined

So we have come to redefine goodness. A good movie is one that entertains us. A good car is one that will not let us down. A good preacher is one that we don't find boring. A good church service is one that holds our interest.

David Wells, in his penetrating book, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: William B.Eerdmans, 1993), sharply describes the the linguistic transformation that has occurred. He writes:

We are replacing the categories of good and evil with the pale absolutes that arise from the media world - entertainment and boredom. It is not by struggle, still less by grace, that we have eliminated the corruption from human nature... We have done it simply by a fresh definition. Evil is boredom, and that is remedied not by Christ but by cable hookup.

The truth of this observation may be seen in the classrooms of most schools. The most damnable remark that a student can make about the content of the lessons is the modern teenagers' most overused word: "Boring". The content of the material studied is now considered irrelevant. It used to be a good lesson if the material was true; it is now a good lesson if the material is presented entertainingly.

God's moral quality in the word good.

But Jesus was uneasy about the word good being used in this way. One day a man came up to him and said, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). Jesus replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." Jesus wanted to reinstate the sense of God's moral quality in the word good.

Presumably the man had heard Jesus preach: he regarded him as a good teacher. He found him entertaining and effective as a communicator. But Jesus would not allow such things to be described as good. Goodness has to do with moral qualities which are defined in relation to how Godlike they are. Jesus' teaching was good, not because it was entertaining or effective (though it was both of those), but because its content reflected the heart of God.

The definition of what is good belongs to God. The first times that we read of the word in Scripture are all in the context of God's sovereign evaluation. He affirms that the various elements of his unfolding creation are good. After he had created man in his own image and placed him in a perfect environment, he declared that His creation was very good. He also pronounced that man's alone-ness was not good.

Having made such declarations, the one thing that he forbade man to do was to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The temptation proved too great - for eating from it carried the Satanic delusion of becoming as gods. When Adam and Eve ate, they disregarded God's Word and set themselves up in god-like fashion to define for themselves what is good and what is evil.

The modern inclination to define goodness in terms of entertainment is but the latest variation of this ancient rebellion. But as with its original counterpart: it is deadly. The day that we eat of such fruit we will surely die. As Neil Postman says in the title of his insightful book on the way that the media is transforming our view of reality, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

All of us make judgments countless times each day. We assess people, work, circumstances and many other things - judging them on a scale between good and bad. Jesus' words to the rich young ruler are a reminder to us to make judgments in a God-centred way. Everything has to be evaluated in terms of its conformity with God's word.

An indecent proposal may be entertaining, but it is not good. Goodness does not refer to how much I enjoy or appreciate something; it relates primarily to how closely it conforms with God's standards. To say that something is good is far more profound than merely saying that it is not boring!

This article was previously published in U-TURN

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