Magazines 2021 Sept - Oct Great is good, but good is better

Great is good, but good is better

29 October 2021 By Larry Hurst

Why is it that a sermon entitled "God Is Good" doesn’t have the same punch as a sermon entitled "God Is Great," asks Larry Hurst.

It seems the concept of goodness has fallen on hard times. Greatness trumps goodness when it comes to goals and aspirations. While greatness is tied to performance and results, goodness is somewhat ambiguous and intangible. If greatness is measured by statistics, what is goodness measured by?

Today our concept of greatness is linked to competitiveness, performance, productivity and the statistics that validate it. Think about common phrases like “Make America great again,” “The Great One” (Wayne Gretzky) or designating a particular athlete as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their sport.

The church world isn’t much different. After more than a year of reduced in-person Sunday services, I have regularly heard small church pastors long for the return to pre-pandemic attendance levels of attendance.

What is it about our culture that feeds this obsession with numbers? Quantity is not the only aspect of greatness, but it is hard to wean ourselves from thinking significance comes with greatness. Metrics and stats have become the measuring rod that tells us if we are successful – which usually means achieving more than the next person, team or organization.

In the retail industry it used to be “Good. Better. Best,” but since the 21st century kicked off our business model has become “Good to Great” (to quote the title of a 2001 book by Jim Collins). Even church leadership consultants promise they can take us from great to greater.

Spiritual values difficult to quantify

As a pastor I always found spiritual values difficult to quantify. Spiritual fruit cannot be measured by the bushel. We are told the kingdom of God is not “eating and drinking” – two quantifiable activities. Rather, the kingdom of God is “righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Measuring and tabulating those things created significant problems for the Pharisees.  

Taking time to reflect on this, I have discovered that God is amazingly comfortable with “good.”

  • God’s self-evaluation at creation is that every day’s work has been “good” (Genesis 1). On day six, it is “very good.”
  • God is “good and his love endures forever” (Psalm 118:1). And see 145:9: “he is good to all.”
  • The prophet anticipates the feet of the one who brings “good news” (Isaiah 52:7) or the “gospel” to use a New Testament word.
  • Prophetic summary statements remind the child of God that God has shown you “what is good” (Micah 6:8), and that God’s people are to “seek good … and love good” (Amos 5:14–15).

Jesus’s life can be summarized in one simple phrase – He “went around doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38). Jesus not only did good, but He also taught about goodness:

  • Jesus elevates goodness when He says, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
  • The tree that bears fruit is a good tree, not a great tree (Matthew 7:17).
  • The multiplying seed falls on good soil, not great soil (Matthew 13:8; Mark 4:8; Luke 8:8).
  • To the dismay of their Master, the disciples debate who will be greatest (Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-26).
  • Jesus self-identifies as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14).

Paul’s closing words in Galatians, which declares that justification is by faith not works of the law, are loaded with goodness: “Share all good things with their instructor” (Galatians 6:6). Do not become weary “in doing good” (6:9). Do “good to all people” (6:10). Other New Testament passages include goodness as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22; see also Romans 14:16; Ephesians 5:9; James 3:13).

Overall, the Bible seems content with “God is good.” He does not have to be great, even though He is. Although it is not an either/or proposition, goodness rather than greatness seems a more accurate goal for the follower of Jesus and the bride of Christ.

Greatness from sacrifice

In the benediction of the Epistle to the Hebrews there is a place where Jesus is described as the “great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). As the rest of the letter reveals, this greatness came about from His sacrifice and death, and God’s exaltation of Him to the Father’s right hand. His greatness was not based on how many followers He had or how many enemies He defeated.

Jesus does say, “Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). Also remember that elsewhere Jesus says greatness in the kingdom comes from being the “least.”

Jesus does promise His disciples that they will “do greater works than these” (John 14:12). This needs to be kept in tension with another teaching, “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all” (see Matthew 18:1–5; 20:26-28; 23:11; Mark 10:43–45; Luke 9:46-48).

Greatness must be tethered to goodness. It tempers our aspirations. It moderates our demands.

Greatness has its cultural baggage, with many of its analogies being related to sports and competition. “Doing good” also carries its own baggage from an earlier time when the social aspect of the gospel was minimized against the truth of the gospel. Belief was seen by some as a more essential requirement for followers of Jesus, even though “doing good” is a dominant phrase in several New Testament letters (pastoral epistles, 1 Peter).

Goodness and servanthood

Goodness is a value, a quality. It avoids quantification. Even though our evangelical church culture may view it as secondary, that is no reason for followers of Jesus to leave it on the shelf.

While we cannot separate the business model from how we do church, we can make a stronger emphasis on goodness and servanthood. Stories in the news related to the abuse of athletes by coaches often relate to performance. The push. The drive. The challenge. Pastors can be like this too – highly directive and controlling as they drive their congregants rather than shepherd their flock. On the other hand, servant leadership is not averse to critique and review. It does not need to have its own way.

How do you measure goodness? Perhaps the question itself betrays a cultural bias. Why should you?

Which culture can handle failure better – a culture of goodness or a culture that aspires to greatness?

Why is it that a sermon entitled "God Is Good" doesn’t have the same punch as a sermon entitled "God Is Great"?

The next time you are looking for a descriptive word for your promotional material, is “good” good enough?

Two events in the life of David shed an interesting light on this topic. Regarding David’s well-known sin with Bathsheba, the terminology is simply that David “sinned” (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51:3–4).

But on both occasions, when David refers to his lesser-known sin of the numbering of the soldiers (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21), he sings a different tune: “I have sinned greatly” (2 Samuel 24:10; 1 Chronicles 21:8).

When it comes to counting, Joab’s question to David (2 Samuel 24:3) may be worthy of our consideration, “Why do you delight in this thing?”

Larry Hurst of Regina served in pastoral ministry 40 years and remains active in transition ministry. Photo by Volkan Olmez from Unsplash.