The word good is a staple of my vocabulary. I use it frequently, describing my mood, the work others have done, the experiences I have. It comes naturally as a quick and easy response or a casual compliment. As a result, it has lost potency and sharpness, too tired to mean much. When I come, then, to the fruit of the Spirit and find goodness, ambiguity meets me. What is the goodness produced by a life united to Christ and sanctified by his Spirit?
As with all the fruit in Paul’s list, goodness can only be understood when we look first to the character of God. Jesus tells the rich young ruler that “only God is good,” and Augustine calls God “the true Good and the steadfast Sweetness.” Goodness is an intrinsic part of God’s character having to do with his perfection and righteousness: nothing that he is or does is wrong or evil. More than that, this goodness (in Gal. 5:23, from agathos in the Greek — one of three words translated as “good”) goes beyond describing the upright nature of something; it has to do with being beneficial, with the goodness moving towards someone else. We see this movement of goodness in creation; as Augustine also says, “it is from the fullness of thy goodness that thy creation exists at all.” Out of his goodness, God creates the cosmos. His goodness does not stay within himself but moves outward in the creation and blessing of a good world and its creatures. Agathos is not an isolated, personal goodness, but one that works itself outwards in benefit towards others. It is a practical good.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 can help us see the significance here. A man travels on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbers attack him, beating him, stripping him, and leaving him for dead. Then, a priest and a Levite pass by, presumably on their way home after serving in the Temple. They see the man on the side of the road, “half dead,” as Jesus describes him. To figure out whether or not the man was actually dead, the priest and the Levite would have to approach him, to touch him. But if he was dead, then they would become unclean.
For the priest, this was complicated: Leviticus 21:1-3 puts restrictions on a priest touching a dead body. Even within these restrictions, touching a dead body resulted in seven days of uncleanness, followed by ritual cleansing. Yet, if the man was not dead, the priest would fail to protect and preserve life, a fundamental aspect of the law of God. The priest, surely considering the risks and consequences of uncleanness, decides to pass by.
However, even though he has remained pure according to the ceremonial law, Jesus’ story clearly indicts him. He is not, like the Samaritan who chooses to help, good. He has chosen his own purity at the expense of another’s life. This is why the word “good” is so often paired with “works” in the New Testament: to be good is not about who I am in isolation, but about who I am in my relationships with and to others.
Because of this, goodness requires wisdom. It is easy to think we understand the people around us and what they need. We can be quick to do things that we consider to be “good” for them, and yet, either through naivete or ignorance or selfishness, we act in ways that are in fact harmful. Our weakness in acting with true goodness reminds us that goodness is not a fruit of our own effort, but of the Spirit. Only through the work of the Spirit will we be able to discern rightly what others need and how we can meet those needs. The Spirit also illuminates our own hearts, revealing the sinful desires and selfishness that get in the way of goodness. The Spirit’s guidance enables us to work for the true good of others.
How does this happen? As with the other fruit of the Spirit, goodness does not grow in our lives through self-reliant effort. Paul’s metaphor of fruit reminds us of Jesus’ own metaphor of the vine and the branches in John 15. Before he faces the cross, Jesus tells the disciples that bearing fruit is an expectation of those who follow him. The crucial piece to this fruit-bearing is in Jesus’ command: “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4). The fruit that we bear as followers of Jesus, including goodness, comes out of a life lived in closeness to Jesus. We receive our sustenance, our very lives, from Jesus’ own life. The more our lives reflect this dependence, the more goodness will grow.
When we bear the fruit of goodness, our lives bear witness to the goodness of God. This goodness stands in stark contrast to the evil that fills our world. For those who live as if God and an ultimate meaning does not exist, this goodness is both incomprehensible and familiar. Incomprehensible because it turns on its head every selfish value and desire that our culture applauds; familiar because it is the longing of every soul. And so we press on, not becoming weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9), but trusting the true gardener to bring forth the fruit of the harvest in due time.
Originally published at Morning by Morning