The sixth piece of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Goodness.  For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’

Goodness is closely related to kindness in that it can be another word for generosity or a benevolent act.  This has led to some difficultly in distinguishing these two pieces of fruit from each other.  Perhaps the writer was essentially repeating himself.  Indeed, goodness can be related to generosity, but it can also represent more of a virtue – a moral quality of being upright in heart and spirit.  The Greek word at issue here is, in fact, unique to Biblical and other early religious writings.

It is for this reason that I would distinguish goodness from kindness by focusing more on the internal aspect of the meaning – the virtue.  While kindness is more associated with an act performed for the benefit of someone else, it could be said that goodness is more of a condition of the heart and spirit.  And while it is true that each piece of fruit is associated with action in Scripture, it should not be overlooked that these acts originate from a heart full of the Spirit of God.

So what would be a distinguishing characteristic of someone full of the virtue of goodness, as we have now clarified it?  I would contend that it is the ability to recognize the kingdom of God at work in his or her midst – in the people and circumstances that person finds themselves among.  If we are a people that hold to the belief that heaven is not just a place we go when we die, but rather another way of expressing God’s kingdom.  And, as Jesus often suggested, God’s kingdom is advancing and breaking through on an ongoing basis, then it stands to reason that goodness would be a way of recognizing God’s kingdom at work in the world around us.  Goodness is the spiritual eyes – the glasses we wear – that suddenly make visible what otherwise might have been overlooked or ignored.

It is not always an easy way to view the world.  Surely, it is much easier to view the copious visible evidence with cynicism and a lack of hope that God’s kingdom can ever overcome so much that is wrong with our world.  Nor does the outlook of goodness withdraw and merely endure this life.  Rather the virtue of goodness chooses to identify ways in which Jesus’ words are evident: The kingdom of God is in our midst and advancing, whether we recognize it or not.  And it keeps the faith that God is true to his word that one day the kingdom of God will prevail and creation will be restored to the way God originally desired it.

Then again, goodness is not a Pollyanna outlook that naively disregards the evil and brokenness around us.  It chooses to see beyond the surface – beyond the visible – to recognize that pain can bring healing, to find transcendence in the mundane, and to see the wonder of creation.  It is also at this point that goodness is put into action by fostering the good that is discerned in those around us and working to right the wrongs in our circumstances.  Perhaps there is more action to goodness than first acknowledged.

  • Am I recognizing God’s kingdom at work in the people and circumstances around me?
  • Recall an event or interaction from this past week.  How could you view that event/interaction differently if viewed through the lens of goodness?
  • How might recognizing God’s kingdom in your midst prompt you to acts of kindness?
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Yesterday, December 21st, was the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight. Which means that from now until the Summer Solstice, the days will be getting longer, and that’s a good thing! Yesterday also marked one year out until the Mayan prediction that the world will end on the Winter Solstice of 2012. No doubt we can look forward to many doomsday movements and predictions in the year to come. Mayan ruins are quickly becoming a tourist destination for next year and Mexico’s tourism agency is already selling the hype.

But some Mayan researchers are now insisting that the prophecy has been misunderstood. Instead of the world ending, they say that the Mayans actually recorded that date as being the end of an era, and that 2012 and beyond should be seen as a time of renewal, not destruction. “The world will not end. It is an era. For us, it is a message of hope,” says Yeanet Zaldo.

That word renewal caught my attention, as I had just run across that same idea earlier in the day. In an article I was reading, the author mentioned that the word translated as “new” in the Bible, is often actually the word “renew.” It has been this mistranslation of Scripture that has led to the belief that God will create a new heaven and a new earth.  In other words, if God is going to create a new earth, then this current earth doesn’t matter much.

But if that word actually denotes renewal, then that changes things.  The world won’t end in apocalyptic destruction.  On the contrary, it will be renewed!

In fact, when you read the New Testament, it is evident that God is currently in the midst of renewing all creation. We can’t always see it clearly, and there are plenty of examples that would seem to support the opposite view, but it is happening.  And God has granted us the privilege of being partners in this renewal.

So if the Mayan predictions are correct – that 2012 marks some end of an era and the beginning of a time of renewal – maybe they aren’t that far off from what Scripture is saying as well. So here is to hoping that 2012 is a time of renewal!  After all, that is what God has been up to for quite some time now.

While N.T. Wright has been one of my favorite authors, having read many of his books I was often left with the question, “So what does this mean for daily living, the stuff discipleship is made of?”  In his book, After You Believe, Wright attempts a long-awaited answer to that question.  However, if easy answers are what you are looking for, N.T. Wright is not the author to read.

After You Believe starts with this basic premise:

Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed.  The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it.

Wright has been passionately and convincingly refocusing believers of that goal: God’s kingdom here on earth, rather than the long-held belief of abandoning earth to spend eternity in heaven.  Quite simply, if heaven is the goal, then how we live on earth correlates little to that goal.  But if God’s kingdom is the goal, then how we live this life is only a precursor to life in the kingdom of God.  And this is where Wright reclaims the idea of Christian virtue.  What follows are some of my thoughts.

After You Believe

I have personally done a lot of reading on transformation.  Christians use that word a lot, but few seem quite sure of what it is.  Does it take place at salvation?  To a certain extent.  Does it continue to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit?  Again, that is definitely an aspect of transformation.  Will it only occur upon death/new life?  Some believe so, but I think it is more available to us now that we realize.  Now comes the controversial one: Can we be engaged in activities to bring about transformation?  Many get uncomfortable answering “Yes”, but I believe “Yes” is the correct answer.  Dallas Willard has written, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”  The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our efforts, not our attempts to justify ourselves.  And while the ultimate outcome may be out of our control, we are never-the-less called to put in effort toward transformation.  I appreciate that Wright is not afraid to suggest this.  Transformation does not just happen to us while we lie around on the couch.  We go to the gym – to use his language – and develop our moral muscle.

This leads to another observation, a broader topic mined from the entire book.  It is the idea that virtue prepares us for this “kingdom-in-advance life” – we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience kingdom life.  Now I have to say that this sounds great, but it can be difficult to live out, given the lack of immediate payoff and the time it takes to build up moral muscle.  I also say it can be difficult because, let’s face it, we are largely judged by this world’s view of success. And God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to that view of success.  I am concerned that many churches today are primarily promoting the idea that following God will lead to that same view of success promoted by the world around us.  The more I read Wright, the more I grow uneasy with that idea.   Am I willing to develop virtue for a kingdom life that may or may not ever lead to success and fulfillment in this lifetime?

Another quote from the book jumped out at me:  “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.”  I couldn’t agree more with Wright on this point.  Christians should be some of the most thinking people around and yet are still largely perceived of as simpletons or naive.  Where did we get so off track?  His chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the mind” was really good on just what that chapter title suggests.  Ironically, many Christians assume that the renewing of their minds is a very unthinking process – it is something that will eventually just happen to them.

In After You Believe, Wright calls for a transformation to take place through the reclamation of virtue.  But this transformation is different than what is encountered among many nowadays.  It is proactive, it is at least partly driven by our own efforts, it is mind-engaging, and it has a different goal: God’s kingdom on earth.  True to his other writings, I am left with more questions than answers, but I have been offered a different path to those answers as well.

About three weeks ago, my wife’s cousin suffered two heart attacks.  After spending about five days on a heart and lung machine, she passed away.  I was among some of the family members at her bedside when she died.  She was only 50 years old, in good health, and just beginning to enjoy her “grandma” years.  Out of respect for the still-grieving family, nothing I am about to write has anything to do with the family itself or the funeral, which celebrated her life in meaningful ways.

Everyone deals with death and dying in their own way.  Perhaps my way is to over-analyze the theology embedded in people’s comments and prayers during a stressful time.  But I remember a moment in the car when my wife was reading me a poem that someone had suggested be read at the funeral, that I got really angry at the belief system inherent in that poem.  I understand the poem (which, by the way, was not read at the funeral) was only meant to bring comfort to a grieving family.  But for me, it was the culmination of several well-meaning attempts to make sense of death that left me puzzled and frustrated.

A few that left me wondering:

  • “I guess when it is your appointed time, there is nothing you can do.”  Does each person really have an appointed time of death?  Maybe this is one interpretation of Hebrews 9:27, but I believe what is appointed is that we will all die one day, not that each of us has a fixed day of death predetermined somewhere in the future.  Yes, our days our numbered, but that simply means nobody will live forever.  This idea reflects a fatalism that bemoans, “however I live, whatever choices I make, my life (and death) is already determined.”  I don’t see this reflected in scripture.
  • “At least she is home now.”  My issue isn’t so much with the statement itself, but what many mean when they use it.  Inherent in this statement is the belief that we really aren’t supposed to be here on earth anyway, we are supposed to be in heaven; this world is just a throw-away.  But the more I read, the more I am convinced that heaven is a temporary realm until God’s kingdom is fully established here on earth.  Heaven and earth will then be one.  Yes, when we die we are at home with Jesus.  But our home is not ultimately away from this earth (if heaven is even away, in a spatial sense).  We will be home when God’s kingdom is fully established on earth.
  • “She isn’t really dead, she is only sleeping.”  Again, I understand the poetic license behind a comment like this, but while death is not the end, it is still very real.  This takes me way back to a church advertisement I once heard on the radio.  The commercial featured a widow at a funeral laughing and being positively engaging.  When someone asks her how she could be so strong at the death of her husband, she responds that because she is a Christian, everything is fine.  No need to mourn.  Is that how we are supposed to react to death?  Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

So what is it about death that brings out sketchy theology?  There is nothing like trying to make sense out of the senseless to make one pause and consider what is held to be true.  No doubt, some are simply grasping at anything that will bring comfort.  And I realize that not many would enjoy a good theological discussion in the moment of their grief.  But if the way of Jesus is the way of hope, why must we alter his words so badly to hold on to that sense of hope?

What are your thoughts?