The Picture of Relational Goodness

January 26, 2017

I am an anxious, fitful sleeper these days, and it is not unusual for my tossing and turning to make its way into my dreams, its presence insidious and desolating. In the dream world, my loved ones have a habit of abandoning me, and I often can’t stop searching for something that’s been irretrievably lost.

My mother, on the other hand, once told me that my father—a gentle man, kind and honest, loving and brave—sometimes wakes her up at night from laughing in his dreams. She and I both wondered what it must be like to be so untroubled, so at peace, that when the subconscious bubbles its way to the surface as it does in dreams, the result is a spring of laughter.

My father, as I mentioned, is a good man. Yet good is a slippery word. It can refer to nothing more than well-behaved schoolchildren who dutifully follow each new rule, or it can refer to our active participation in the abundance of compassion, faithfulness, and integrity that overflow like a waterfall from God’s very being. This latter kind of goodness is present in the psalmist’s description of the one who may dwell in God’s sacred tent and live on his holy mountain:

The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
(Psalm 15:2–5a)

Despite its appearance, this description is not a checklist of rules to follow. Rather, it is a description, almost a verbal painting, of relational goodness. Just as God’s goodness is made known to us in his dealings with his people, so too is the righteous person’s goodness made known in their dealings with other people. We are not to do any wrong to a neighbor, or speak less than charitably about him or her, or break our promises, or exploit the poor or disadvantaged for our own gain (whether economically, socially, or spiritually). In other words, we are to share in the faithful loving kindness and the justice that characterize God’s relentless pursuit of his people. Sometimes this mandate takes on grand forms, like social justice efforts on behalf of the marginalized, while at other times it takes on much quieter forms, like resisting unkind words—something that, frankly, I find quite a bit more difficult to achieve.

The beauty of this psalm is the promise we find within it, once we no longer see the psalmist’s words as a list of boxes to check and gold stars to earn. Rather, the last verse tells us what happens when we try to live a life of goodness: “Whoever does these things will never be shaken.” When we participate in God’s good actions, we come to share in the stillness, strength, and peace of God’s being.

The opposite of that divine stability is the frenetic, anxious energy that fills our lives when we pursue our own good instead of the relational good of Psalm 15. Like trying to impress people but never quite being certain that they actually like us. Or buying just one more piece of clothing that we think will finally make us feel confident and happy. Perhaps making sure that everyone knows just how well-read or well-traveled we are. Maybe posting the perfect, envy-inducing photo on social media. These strivings promise peace and contentment, but the horizon recedes endlessly, and we never quite get there.

The psalmist has a straightforward answer to this problem: Stop thinking about yourself. Think about God and others. Then, we will live on the holy mountain—that is, in God’s very presence—and we will never be shaken. Of course, there are factors like mental illness and “dark nights of the soul” that are part of human existence. But in more peaceful seasons, happiness—the deep kind that comes from goodness, the kind that makes you laugh in your sleep—is not a great mystery or a problem to be solved. It comes from a way of living that is taken one interaction at a time. It is a climb up the holy mountain, step by step, with our eyes on God.

About the Author
  • Erin Zoutendam is a student at Western Theological Seminary. She enjoys researching ancient methods of scriptural interpretation and medieval women’s contributions to theology. When not reading, she is usually gardening, cooking, or hanging out with her cats.

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