Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Getting to the Good

“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.”

The word “resolve” in my ESV translates a Hebrew noun that shows up elsewhere in Paul’s writings as “desire”, “good pleasure” and sometimes even “good will”. So the phrase “resolve for good” is not so much concerned with cultivating a steely determination as it is with the orientation of a believer’s desires.

I mean, how exactly do we arrive at an understanding of what “good” means in the first place?

God’s Good Pleasure

When we speak of what pleases God or what God desires, we have no difficulty with seeing how that relates to “the good”. God himself is intrinsically good, and so it follows that the things he spontaneously desires and wills are always in line with an established and unvarying character never subject to corruption, manipulation or poor judgment. It is impossible that God would fail to desire the very best ends in all circumstances.

So when we read in Ephesians of believers being predestined for adoption as sons according to the purpose of God’s will, or of God “making known to us the mystery of his will according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ”, we embrace these ideas with full confidence in their goodness. Is it remotely possible that being adopted by God himself could end badly? Is it possible that knowing what God has accomplished in Christ could be less than wonderful? Of course not. When God is pleased to do something in this universe, every right-thinking created being rejoices in it. It is “the good” by very definition.

Right in my Own Eyes?

Not so with you and me, right? The natural instincts of human beings — even human beings in loving relation to God — are not 100% reliable. Readers of Judges recall a time in Israel’s history when everybody among God’s people did what was right in his own eyes, and it was a moral quagmire, a mess of epic proportions. In fact, in the very next chapter Paul will go on to refer to people who “had pleasure” (same word) “in unrighteousness”. Our desires are not always to be trusted. And even when we do have a noble end in view, we often set out to achieve it in ways that are less than ideal, or that will not get us where we are trying to go. Even for Christians, meaning well and doing well are two different things.

Frankly, I would not want God to be obligated to fulfill every one of my desires or grant every one of my wishes. That would be a nightmare, not just for me but everyone else. And I don’t think that is what Paul is praying for his fellow believers in Thessalonica — at least not unconditionally. There is a little precondition to the fulfillment of one’s will by God, and that is this, “that our God make you worthy of his calling”.

Testing the Good

Being adopted into the family of God is the rarest of rare privileges, but it is no guarantee of an instant likeness to our heavenly Father. Becoming worthy of God’s calling is a process, and not a process that is forced upon us, but one in which we participate. Here I am not at all concerned with the process of initially coming to know Christ, but about saved people being made worthy. One can be saved and unworthy, and we often are. So, sometimes we learn the easy way and sometimes we learn the hard way, but we are all learning all the time. The transformation from unworthy to worthy involves what Paul elsewhere refers to as “the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”.

This testing process is not the least bit theoretical. It is very much boots-on-the-ground. This same word is used in Luke by the man who excused himself from the banquet because he had bought five yoke of oxen and was on his way to “test” them. Maybe he took them by teams out into his field, or maybe he simply poked and prodded them a bit, looked them up and down and evaluated them. Were these “good” oxen? He couldn’t tell from a distance. He had to get up close and see for himself.

The Things That Give Me Pleasure

Likewise, you and I find our way to the “good” by first reading what God calls good, and then trying it out by faith in the real world. And it works. Of course it works. And when we have learned by the experience of regular obedience that what God commands is both trustworthy and desirable, we find the things that give us pleasure and for which we wish most fondly beginning at last to fall into line with God’s own desires for us.

In that state, Paul or anyone else could enthusiastically pray for God to fulfill our every resolve for good: once we have first come to know and embrace what “good” really means.

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