An extended meditation on the goodness of God’s creation, based on a sermon I preached on January 22, 2023.
The account of the six days of creation, as told in Genesis 1, reaches a crescendo in the chapter’s final verse with a declaration of the goodness of creation: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
This theme—that everything God has created is good and continues to be so—runs throughout the gamut of written revelation. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul uses this doctrine to attack the legalistic asceticism of certain religious teachers, affirming that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:1).
But what does it mean for a thing to be good? The meaning of the Hebrew word tov includes both utilitarian and aesthetic goodness. A piece of land, for example, is “good” when it yields crops; likewise, men or women are called “good” by virtue of their physical attractiveness. But it is the literary structure of the days of creation that gives us a clearer glimpse into what it means for a thing to good. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:3-4). God’s speaking brought about the existence of a thing, and once it existed, his seeing observed the value of that thing. This teaches us this: just as something exists in fulfillment of God’s spoken purpose; so it is good as it fulfills that purpose. Simply put, a thing is good when it fulfills the purpose for which God created it.
We can cheerfully join in this positive evaluation of much of what God created. We behold the “purple mountain majesties,” the breathtaking splendor of a sunset, and the innumerable starry host. The song of a little bird can make our hearts ache with its beauty. There are fish that live in watery depths whose faces can make us giggle; there are majestic elk whose dignified bearing invites our sober admiration. Every square inch of this universe, at every moment and to some degree, sparkles with the greatness and goodness of God’s mind.
But we should frankly admit that, although much of the universe appears beautiful and useful to us, it does not yield a consistently uplifting message. True, “the heavens declare the glory of God,” but what are we to conclude when those same heavens throw lightning bolts, hurricanes, and tsunamis? And what about congenital diseases, deformities, and viruses?
When we ask what has happened to the goodness of creation, we must go further on in Genesis, where, in chapter three, we read about the rebellion of our first ancestors. They took something good God had made, and sought to use it for their own purpose. They grasped for goodness in the creature rather than in their Creator. This, in fact, is the very root of all sin: a distrust in the goodness of God, leading to a grasping for goodness outside of God. Although many mysteries remain about the whys and wherefores of natural disasters and deformities, we can at least point to where it all started: Adam’s and Eve’s decision to declare their independence from the only one in whom true goodness may be found.
When it comes to the goodness of creation, our problem is this: instead of seeing the goodness of a thing in its fulfilling the purpose for which God created it, we are bent to evaluate the goodness of a thing in its fulfilling the purpose we want for it. So we take money, time, marriage, sex, children, hobbies, career, friendships, influence—all good things created by God—and turn them into tools for our own self-centered purposes. When we do, the result is an inevitable loss of both beauty and usefulness.
We understand that this holds true in physical things that are most precious to us. An eyeball, for example, is both attractive and useful only when it is fitted specifically and attached precisely within one’s eye socket. Suppose someone said, “Since the eye is beautiful on the face, how much more beautiful will it be hanging on my wall, or attached to a necklace around my neck, or set like a gem on a ring”—and actually acted upon such a preposterous notion, the eye would lose both its beauty and usefulness. There is something markedly grotesque about an eyeball detached from its owner’s face, and it is certainly not doing what it was designed to do. But this grotesqueness and uselessness is mild compared to what we have done to things God has created. God has given them for our enjoyment, but we have forgotten the Creator. We have said, “I can do quite well without you, God; just give me your gifts, and I’ll be fine.” The result is as tragic as it is inevitable: we become angry and confused; we assume that the problem is with the goodness with the Creator himself. These created things—meant to delight and aid us—become a source of frustration as we try to squeeze from them what they cannot provide: deep and lasting soul-satisfaction.
It’s hard to deny that this is an accurate description of our behavior within the world today. Who can argue with the observation that we human beings tend to take the most precious things in life and consume them in such doses or wield them in such ways that they become the agents of our sickness and destruction instead of health and flourishing?
But if this grieves, saddens, and convicts us, we have a thousand times more reasons to rejoice in this: that the God who created all things will not abandon us to destruction. His goodness is displayed not only in what he has created, but in what he undertook to re-create us. The Author writes himself into his story. The Artist paints himself onto the canvass. As the Apostle John declares, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus, God manifest in the flesh, entered a world in which the very elements he had created were crafted into instruments of death. A crown of thorns wreathed his majestic head; nails of iron skewered his limbs into a cross of wood. What could do more to display the depths of our depravity?
At the same time, what could more powerfully display the heights of his power and love? He took our reprehensible rebellion, and in allowing it to pierce his own heart, won our forgiveness and restoration.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
The cross, proof of human depravity, we may now receive as a proof of his goodness. Here the fathomless expanse of his love is open for us to view and believe. Now we, marred creatures, can become new creatures in Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:21).