Nov
10
2011

Goodness (Greek, agathosune; Antonym: moral or ethical evil)

Goodness is a hard word to get your arms around; it is a nebulous word and can mean many things. Benevolent, gracious, humane—these might words when one thinks of the word ‘good.’ What images come to your mind if someone were to say, “She did a good thing?” What did you picture this person doing? Did she hold the door open for someone? Did she anonymously send someone a card with a hundred dollars? Did she visit someone at the hospital who had failing health? Again, if you were to pour over a thesaurus and look at the synonyms for the word good, did she do an admirable thing? A valuable thing? An honorable thing? And what exactly would that be? As you can see from a language standpoint, the English word for good is a strange and vague word. However, when the Bible uses the word, it has a very distinct meaning and uses it in a way that is very decided in what it means.

To begin, agathosune, the Greek word for goodness, is a unique word that is found only in biblical writings. On the one hand, it is characterized as an active goodness; it is when I proactively do something ‘good’ for someone. Specifically, you can think of the word generous. But as we spoke about earlier, isn’t this just kindness? What then might be the difference between goodness and kindness? Aren’t they the same thing?  Here is the unique aspect of the biblical word agathosune: it is being generous with someone in some way, but also at the same time, offering spiritual help or guidance to them. This is the key difference between goodness and kindness.

When you are ‘good’ you help someone in some tangible way, but at the same time, you also offer the person some form of spiritual guidance through the situation. This could be an encouragement or a challenge in some way. Let me give you an example of both kindness and goodness. When I show someone kindness, I help them in some tangible way, perhaps I assist them in repairing their deck which has seen year of neglect. In doing this, we worked together and I helped them. That’s chrestotes—that’s kindness—nothing more, nothing less. If I were to show this same person goodness, I would help them with their deck, but then I would also help them in a tangible and spiritual way. Perhaps as we took a break over a cup of coffee I would ask them how they were doing and while we were talking, they shared a struggle they were having. This would be an opportunity I might have to offer some biblical into their situation. I might share a passage from the book of Proverbs or a good book that I recently read that might help them in the problem they are facing. This is an example of agathosune or goodness—spiritual care coupled with practical help.

The challenge with being a ‘good’ person is that it requires you to enter into someone’s life and offer direction. This sometimes might require a difficult conversation. What I have found with others is that they are really bad at doing this or too good in doing this. What do I mean by that? First, you can have one person who does not like to enter tough situations at all, and they avoid them at all cost. They know in their heart they need to bring up something with their spouse or a good friend, but to do so would mean calamity, chaos and hurt feelings and they don’t want to do that. On the other hand, you can have someone who is too good at having hard conversations and they do so at a moment’s notice and with a lot of calamity, chaos and hurt feelings! When a person like this goes into a conversation, they are usually not patient or gentle, and the words they share are hurtful.

To offer someone any form of advice or spiritual counsel requires three key ingredients: 1) you must be humble and you cannot talk down to the person; 2) you can only take the person as far as you have gone yourself in terms of life experience; and 3) you have to know how to genuinely listen. With regard to that last one, I have seen that some people when they are offering advice to someone jump in too soon and give the person their observations too soon. What sometimes works best is that instead of always offering answers to someone is to first ask them questions and allow the person to come up with solutions for themselves. So do you think your son is going to respond well to you if you share that with him? From the standpoint of the Bible, what kind of answers do you think it offers for what you are facing? That is a difficult spot your boss has put you in—what kind of decision do you think you should make in this instance? Empowering people—this is how Jesus often taught others—he often put the responsibility on them and asked them to find the right answer. This then can be another form of goodness.

Questions you can ask yourself: how good are you with others, doing something kind, but in the same breath, gently challenging them where they asked for help?  To grow in goodness, we need to step into uncomfortable situations sometimes; often this requires us to sacrifice ourselves in some way for someone (e.g., our time, money, etc.), but also to move into another person’s life and offer spiritual care. How good are you at that? In terms of your ability in confronting others, do you need to shed your fears and become more resolved in speaking with others or do you need to be more humble and gentle when offering advice or counsel? In this area, are you typically too timid or are you too harsh? What do you need to change in your life to become a ‘good’ person?


In: Spiritual Formation
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