When my religion class was recently discussing “goodness,” I asked them a tricky question. How is it that, in the creation account of Genesis, God calls His creation, including man, “good” seven times (Cf. Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31), yet Jesus says in the Gospel “None is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19)? A bright freshman named Anne gave the best answer. God, she explained, is goodness itself and the source of all good, while a creature is not. Feeling obliged to teach something more after that excellent reply, I added that God is absolutely good — or simply good — while creatures are relatively so, only inasmuch as they participate in God’s goodness.
According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, being and good are the same thing, but they may be logically distinguished. That is to say that we may distinguish them in our thought even though they are really the same. Aristotle, whom Saint Thomas follows here, defined “good” as “that which all things desire.” God is self-subsisting being; the only Being from itself; it follows that God is the greatest Good, and is therefore supremely desirable.
Saint John Marie Vianney used to refer to God as “the good God.” It seems like very childlike language, but it says so much. Reflecting on God’s goodness may help us to simplify many of the complex questions of the day. It may also help us deal with many of the confused or unhappy aspects of our own lives.
Let us then go back to Anne’s wise words about God being the source of the good in which creatures participate. I may say analogously that “God is good,” that “Saint Anthony is good,” and that “salt is good.” In each of these three statements, something is the same while something is very much different. (That is the nature of analogy.) Inasmuch as every creature reflects something of the divine goodness that made it, it is good. This remains true even after the fall, as Saint Paul affirms when he tells Saint Timothy that “every creature of God is good” (1 Tim. 4:4).
But if every creature is good, how comes it that evil, or sin, exists?
The short answer is that evil is not a thing, but the absence of a thing, much as cold is the absence of heat. A person or a thing is said to be evil only to the degree that it is missing a perfection it ought to have. Evil is, therefore, “privative” — i.e., it pertains to a deprivation, a lack, an absence. This was one of Saint Augustine’s great thoughts, and it helped him to extricate himself from the Manichean heresy, which wickedly postulated a good god and an evil god that were equal in power.
If the good is that which all desire, it is also something we pursue, sometimes well, sometimes badly. We seek goods not only of the body, but of the mind and of the soul. Most of us, not being saints, stop short of our greatest Good and satisfy ourselves with secondary goods. Our Lady of Fatima said that most people go to Hell because of sins of the flesh. This is a sobering affirmation of the truth that the bodily good of sex, which is a true good invested with a noble purpose in God’s providential designs for our race, becomes sinful when sought for the sake of pleasure alone in contradiction to God’s Law. But the same may be said of any kind of good, including spiritual goods. The spiritual sin of pride, which is a disordered exaltation of self, can be far worse than lechery. Even the aesthete, whose life’s pursuit is created beauty, sins gravely when he puts that pursuit above God, who is both the Absolute Good and Uncreated Beauty.
The evil of sin entails the use of some creature that is in itself good, but in a way contrary to the purpose God put in it. No man sins simply because sin is evil; rather, we sin under the aspect of goodness. (This is not to say that we actually think that we are morally good when we sin.) The thief steals because of his attraction to the real bodily good that his sticky fingers grasp. The glutton is overly attached to the good of food and the drunkard to that of spirits. (Yes, spirits are good in due measure; Puritanism, on the other hand, is evil). The lecher sins by a disordered appetite of the bodily good of the marital act. Even purely spiritual sins, like pride, are directed to something good — our own exaltation — but in a way that is disordered. (On the other hand, God is willing to grant us the good of exaltation, but He exalts only the humble.)
In short, we sin by seeking something good in itself but contrary to the command of Goodness Itself.
Consider Eve’s sin. The Serpent did not present her with the hideous malice of disobeying God, but with the goodness of the fruit: “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat” (Gen. 3:6). For this reason, “Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light.” (2 Cor. 11:14).
Our God is a God of order. When a created good is exalted above its station, it can easily become an idol. So, of those gluttonous “enemies of the cross of Christ” Saint Paul warns the Philippians about, he says that their “God is their belly” (Phil. 3:19). On the other hand, we are enjoined to receive God’s material blessings of food and drink “with thanksgiving” (I Cor. 10:30; I Tim. 4:3,4).
The remedy is suggested in that same passage to the Philippians, where the Apostle goes on to say “But our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). Let us look to our highest Good, and love only Him absolutely. Then, as Saint Augustine says, the Love of God will set in order all our other loves.
Our Medieval brethren said that bonum est diffusivum sui: Goodness is diffusive of itself. Like heat, which radiates out from its source to warm things around it, goodness issues from the good thing to those around it. The saintly person edifies others. God, in creating us and elevating us by grace to share in his divine nature, diffuses His goodness into us. Jesus, who is both Saint and God, continuously breathes forth goodness from His Cross and from the Altar. If we but appreciated the radiation of goodness that is the Mass! No wonder Padre Pio compared it to the sun.
For our part, we must be receptive. Just as a cold object can be shielded from the warmth of a hearth by remaining outside, we can insulate ourselves from God’s goodness by remaining aloof. In approaching near to Him by prayer, meditation, reception of the sacraments, holy reading, and good works, etc., we warm ourselves, drawing near to the Source. All we have to give up are our sins, but, because we are attached to these, it hurts to see them burnt by that “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) that is God’s goodness and love.
We know infallibly that if we hunger and thirst for justice, we will be filled. The fourth Beatitude is confirmed by Mary’s Magnificat: “He hath filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53). Saint Louis de Montfort recommends that we apply this to ourselves by reciting the Magnificat as part of our thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion.
Being a mere dabbler in these things, I feel as though I am taxing my readers’ patience with my poor words on the subject, so I will cite a master of the interior life on the Good that is God. It is Saint Bruno (+1101) writing from Calabria to his friend, Raul Le Verd, a priest and the dean of the Cathedral Chapter of Rheims. The Founder of the Carthusians is begging Raul to leave the world and take the monastic habit, fulfilling a vow that he had made together with Bruno and another friend named Fulk One-Eye:
“For what could be more perverted, more reckless and contrary to nature and right order, than to love the creature more than the creator, what passes away more than what lasts forever, or to seek rather the goods of earth than those of heaven.” (Early Carthusian Writings, pg. 19)
“For what could be beneficial and right, so fitting and connatural to human nature as to love the good? Yet what other good can compare with God? Indeed, what other good is there besides God? Whence it comes that the soul that has attained some degree of holiness and has experienced in some small measure the incomparable loveliness, beauty, and splendour of this good, is set on fire with love and cries out: ‘my soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when shall I enter and see the face of God.’[Ps. 41:2-3]” (Ibid, pg. 26).
Thus spoke the founder of the only Order in the Church that has never been reformed, because (as is said) it has never needed reforming.
If we Catholic faithful do not conceive of God as good, then we will serve Him not out of love, but out of some other motive, perhaps fear. There is a place in the spiritual life for salutary fear (and we have written about it elsewhere), but suffice it to say that fear is no replacement for love. The Father loves us and wants our love in return. Even when we express our sorrow for sin in the Act of Contrition, we offer as the highest motive of our repentance that “I have offended Thee, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” If we truly hunger and thirst after the good that is God, we will be less anxious in His service; we will not be as offput by the machinations of our enemies, bad as they may be; we will be more simple in our outlook, trusting in God’s Providence to take care of us; and our efforts to convert our neighbor will bear more fruit. At the same time, if we are rooted and fixed on our true Good, we will not so easily be led astray by the goods — real or apparent — of this world.
“Give praise to Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 117:1).