Goodness – a lost fruit?

by Andrew Roberts.

I was having one of my occasional tidy ups in the study when I came across William Barclay’s Prayers For Young People.[1] In an instant I was transported back to the 1970s: to teenage years, flared trousers, Brut 33, a crush on Agnetha from Abba and the days when books cost 40p. I was also transported back to a time when prayer and the pursuit of holiness felt different somehow.

As I wandered through the prayers that I first read in my youth I was struck by two recurrent emphases of Barclay’s. An emphasis on goodness and an emphasis on self-control. Here is one example.

“O Lord Jesus, help me to be a good follower of yours.
Always to follow your example;
Always to ask what you want me to do before I decide to do anything,
Always to ask for your help and your guidance;
Always to remember that you are always with me to hear what I say, to see what I do, to keep me from doing wrong, and to give me the help I need to do right;
Never to be afraid to show my loyalty to you, and never to be ashamed to show that I belong to you.
Never to forget all that you have done for me, and so to try to love you as you first loved me.
This I ask for your love’s sake. Amen.”[2]

At first sight there is what seems to be a charming naivety about some of the prayers in the collection. Hard hearted critique might see them as just the next step on from the ‘God bless Mummy’ prayers of infancy. It is possible of course to get transported on a wave of romantic nostalgia back to a time when life and faith seemed more simple and straight forward. But on closer inspection the apparently naïve becomes more challenging. There are echoes in the prayer quoted above of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer – a prayer which is far from naïve. Echoes too, in the way Barclay writes, of Jesus’s seriously challenging word to sophisticated adults, ‘unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.[3] And then there is the recurrent emphasis on goodness and self-control.

In the very welcome renewed conversation about holiness both within and beyond Methodism, I wonder if the part played by these two fruit of the Spirit – and goodness in particular – has been overlooked or at least undervalued. As we become ever more sophisticated have we lost something articulated by Barclay in his prayers that could be reduced to simply ‘Lord help me to be good’?

Now this begs a big question, what do we mean by good or goodness? They are words and concepts that are easy to disparage with a quick ‘goody two shoes’ put down. But biblically they are words of honour. I don’t have the space or knowledge to do a full review of all the biblical passages that speak of goodness but a quick look at two might start some conversation.

In the first creation story in Genesis 1 the word good appears on its own six times (Gen 1.4,10,12,18,21 and 25) and once with the prefix very (Gen 1.31). In an age when adjectives like amazing and awesome abound, not least on social media, I find it fascinating that the Genesis narrative goes with good. Elsewhere in the Old Testament hyperbole abound not least in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 99.3 ‘How great and awesome is your name’). But in the story of origins good is enough. Again compare this with say contemporary education where good is no longer enough with a relentless and often damaging drive to be outstanding.

The creation in Genesis 1 is good because it reflects the character of God. I find this use of good helpful and encouraging when it comes to the pursuit of holiness. In Hebrew writing goodness like holiness is fundamentally a reflection of the nature or character of God. Character we are called to reflect in the great cry for holiness quoted by Peter, ‘Be holy for I am holy’[4]. If greatness and awesomeness are the markers of holiness then I am inclined to give up and despair for others. If good is good enough then that gives me hope, and gives me hope for others too.

Interestingly creation is deemed to be very good in Genesis 1 when it all comes together. Might our goodness become very good when it is expressed through relationships, in community, in harmony with all creation?

In the New Testament the word goodness (ἀγαθωσύνη) occurs only four times, all in the Pauline corpus.[5] Most famously it occurs as one of the fruit of the Spirit described by Paul in Galatians 5. Commentators suggest Paul uses the word ἀγαθωσύνη to convey a sense of kindness and generosity.

Goodness expressed in kindness and generosity. Is this suggestive of a naïve, infantile worldview? Is it a lost fruit? It might appear so in the light of events in the world at the moment. By way of contrast note how popular the BBC programme Call the Midwife Is – a programme full to overflowing with kindness, generosity and downright goodness (and with the Church flavoured by these things at its heart).

I dare to suggest that goodness is a Godly quality, intrinsic to holiness that the Church and the world urgently need to rediscover, celebrate and live.

 

[1] William Barclay Prayers for Young People (London: Collins, 1963). My edition was printed in 1975 (its fourteenth impression). Barclay first published the book in 1963 which just happens to be the year I was born in.

[2] William Barclay Prayers for Young People (London: Collins, 1963), p46

[3] Matthew 18.3 NRSV

[4] Leviticus 20.26 and 1 Peter 1.16. Note how by the time of Peter’s letter the notion of holiness as separateness found in Leviticus has been transformed by Peter’s Cornelius moment.

[5] Rom 15.14, Eph 5.9, Gal 5.22, 2 Thes 1.11.

 

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6 thoughts on “Goodness – a lost fruit?”

  1. Thanks for your elucidation on Barclay’s prayers. Now contextualize what you have written in the context of the African Holocaust? Theology is meaningless unless it is contextualized fully in the transatlantic slave trade that was invented by Western European nations, Britain and America racially and economically.

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  2. I struggle with theology that sees God only represented in goodness and beauty. In an ideal world we would all be good and kind but this is morality, not spirituality. I prefer the alternative orthodoxy preached by Richard Rohr that God is in everything that exists. This is reality. It is our dualistic minds which separates and divides everything into categories, good or bad, right or wrong, sacred or profane. When Moses asked God what His name was He said ‘I AM WHAT I AM’ not ‘I am what you would like me to be.’

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    1. Yvonne, the God that I know is only a God of love. If he were otherwise why would I wish to worship him? Out of fear? It is man that is imperfect, we try to be God without God’s love or wisdom.

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      1. John, I agree God is perfect love and man is imperfect but to have the mind of Christ is to see everyone and everything through God’s eyes. Some people can only see God in those of good moral conduct whereas Jesus looked beyond the imperfections to the inherent goodness at the core of everyone. Jesus loved the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors while they were still sinning. He didn’t wait for them to change their behavior before he loved them.

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  3. Thank you for this reminder of the fundamental nature of God. Whenever I think about goodness I recall the lines from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C. S. Lewis. When the children first hear that Aslan is a lion one of them asks “Is he safe?” The wonderful answer (from Mrs. Beaver I think) is along the lines of “Safe? He’s not safe, but he’s good”.

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