I think most of us want to be good people. On occasions I have met someone who doesn’t care whether they are good or bad—but that certainly doesn’t happen all that often. Words that connect with goodness are integrity, honesty, uprightness.
Goodness is the simple word for the general quality recognised in character or conduct: e.g. Many could tell of her goodness and kindness. It’s something we can sense in someone else, even though it’s a bit hard to explain. It was Mahatma Gandhi who famously said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.”
The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy said: “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.” Let me say that goodness is doing the right thing for the right reason.
The Problem with Good and Goodness
One of our problems with the word ‘goodness’ is the same problem we have with the word ‘love’. The word ‘good’ is used in so many ways, just as we use the word ‘love’. We love our children, we love apple pie, and we love a beautiful sunset, but each of these ‘loves’ are entirely different.
What do you mean when you say you had a good experience? Each person may mean something different, but I believe there is one principle in common: the idea that there was some kind of benefit to us. A good deed benefits someone in some way. It is an act of kindness.
And what is a good friend? Probably the common quality above all others is someone who is dependable, someone you can count on to be there for you in need. The relationship benefits you.
It’s the same with the word ‘good’. We say, I had a good meal, or I met a good person, or We had a good cry. They’re different, aren’t they? The Greeks believed the word ‘goodness’ referred to uprightness of heart and life.
The Meaning of Good in the Bible
So let’s look at how the word ‘good’ is used in the Bible. For instance, we read in the opening chapters of Genesis that God created the heavens and the earth, and then he created life in the sea and in the air and on the ground. After each creation, God looked at it and said, “It is good.” What does that mean?
Well, I guess it means that when God looked at what he had done, he was pleased with it. So maybe we could say, Goodness means something that pleases God. Or maybe we could go a step further and say, A good person is a person who is pleasing to God. The Bible also tells us that God is good. Now what makes God good? Well, God is pure, God is holy, God is forgiving, God is generous.
So therefore, if we’re good people, then all those characteristics would be true of us too. It makes sense. I suppose we could do the right thing for the wrong reason. I suppose that we could even do the wrong thing for the right reason. But goodness is doing the right thing for the right reason.
Goodness in Action
The Apostle Paul in the Bible, in Galatians 5:22, says “…the fruit of the Spirit is…goodness,” among other qualities. But he says, “God’s spirit makes you good.” Paul is speaking of an active goodness—it’s more than just having a good character. It’s character that shows itself in good deeds, because God is good and he wants us to be like him—caring for others all the time, even if we don’t feel like it. Goodness means doing good. We can’t get away from that. It’s more than just good words.
The fruit of the Spirit shows that goodness is more inward, touching on every thought, word, and action of the godly person. This shows that people are doing good for right reasons. In other words, doing good comes from the person’s inward devotion and love toward God.
We read in Psalms, “God, create a pure heart in me. Give me a new spirit that is faithful to you” (Psalm 51:10). In the New Testament we read in Ephesians 2:10: “God planned for us to do good things and to live as He always wanted us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are.”
Dirk Willems was an early Anabaptist leader who was arrested, tried and convicted for being a Baptist in the years of harsh Spanish rule in The Netherlands. He escaped from the prison they were keeping him in and as he made his way across a frozen pond, a guard saw him and pursued him across the thin ice. Dirk’s weight had been reduced by short prison rations so he made it across, but the heavier pursuer fell through the ice.
Hearing the guard’s cries for help, Dirk turned back and saved his life. The guard then seized Dirk and led him back to captivity. This time he was thrown into a more secure prison and soon after was executed. A good person, foolish to some but so compassionate that he risked recapture in order to save the life of his drowning enemy, despite the possible consequences.
“Create in me a new, clean heart, O God, filled with clean thoughts and right desires.” (Psalm 51:10 – TLB)
Why did he do this? It may have been a reflex action. He was so immersed in the teachings and Spirit of Jesus and so alert to the values of the Kingdom of God that he did it by instinct. He truly was good person.
You see, good people make a difference. I can’t do everything, but I can do something—and the something we do can make a difference.
The book Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage tells of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s brave expedition to reach the South Pole in 1908. It was a journey filled with incredible hardship. As they approached Antarctica, Shackleton’s ship got stuck in the ice and after several weeks it was crushed between the massive flows. His team had to abandon the ship and they set out on the ice using dog sleds but bone-weary and famished they were forced to turn back less than 100 miles from their destination.
In his diary, Shackleton tells of the moment their food was almost gone and they were down to a few scraps of hardtack, which is a bland, dried biscuit. Shackleton distributed the biscuit evenly among the men. Some hungrily ate it right there and then, licking the crumbs off their fingers like starved dogs. Others stored it in their food bags for a time when their hunger worsened.
That night, Shackleton awoke to a sound. He opened his eyes and, lying still, watched. In the ragged circle of firelight he saw a sight that made his heart sink. He saw his most trusted man opening the sack of the fellow next to him and taking out his food bag. And then Shackleton saw a sight that made his heart leap: His most trusted man placing his own hardtack into the other man’s bag.
He wasn’t stealing bread. He was sacrificing his own. Goodness in action.