Can there be good without God?
Often I hear Christians saying, “There is no joy/peace/goodness apart from God.” and “I can’t imagine a life without God.”
And I’m torn.
I ache because I value my life with God so immensely. But I certainly can imagine, or more accurately, I can remember having a life apart from God. I know that all good things have been richer and fuller with God and that I have no fear or pain that can’t be covered by God’s steadfast, stable and secure love. My reconciled life has become a wildly cosmic and unbelievably personal dance of God in me and me in God.
But what about the people without a faith relationship who exhibit joy and peace and love and work hard to live harmoniously with others? Many times they’re quicker to put love into action than the church. It is simultaneously beautiful and difficult to watch. These friends have been key in my spiritual growth, pushing me to ponder more deeply God’s goodness in and through and for each of us.
Maybe the bigger question is can there really be life that is absent of God?
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible says a lot about spiritual freedom, abiding in God, living apart from God, and bearing fruit. In the verses below, I’ve emphasized a few key points in italics. Some verses acknowledge God in all things, while some imply there is nothing good outside of Christ Jesus.
No matter which direction you’re leaning, these verses are bound to stir up discomfort. Growth is never easy. Stick with it though. Invite your mind to read without judgement, allowing your spirit to listen.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:16-17
There is nothing we can add or take away from this. All things. All things. All things.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. *For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. Galatians 5:13-26
When we live by the flesh, which includes the lustful but also the everyday selfishness, anger and envy, we are pulled away from what we really want to accomplish. *The footnotes on verse 17, as well as Paul’s telling of the inner conflict between flesh and spirit (Galatians 5:15-25), show us there is an inherit desire to do better than we are able to carry out.
Some would say this desire points to an inherit goodness without God. Some would say the inability to achieve all of our moral desires is evidence of inherit evil without God. I say this points to an inherit longing for God where the soul can finally rest and be at real peace.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” John 15:1-6
It is important to interject an additional interpretation that almost swallowed me whole with love upon my first reading!
In my experience, it is a much truer reflection of God’s character toward creation than what appears at first glance.
I’ve quoted it directly here:
i. There is an alternative understanding of this passage that bears some consideration. James Montgomery Boice (among others) believes that the ancient Greek verb airo, translated, takes away is more accurately translated lifts up. The idea is that the Father lifts up unproductive vines off of the ground (as was common in the ancient practices of vineyard care). Those caring for ancient grape vines made sure to lift them up off the ground that they might get more sun and bear fruit better.
ii. “The verb translated ‘cut off’ (aireo) means literally ‘to lift up’ or ‘to take away’; the second, ‘trims clean’ (kathaireo), a compound of the first, means ‘to cleanse’ or ‘to purify.’” (Tenney) (See full Study Guide for further depth).
This understanding of the Greek verbs allows us to view spiritual fruit as a result of continued growth and the tender mercy of purification. The Spirit works to remove that which is hindering growth while also setting us up to bear good fruit. This fruit goes beyond our best effort and is the result of being forgiven and healed.
Being Good Without God
If all things are created in and through and for God and then held together by God, wouldn’t that mean that all things reflect God?
Even before they’re perfected in grace?
Wouldn’t that mean that we all start out with a propensity to reflect God perfectly, even before we have uttered a conscious “yes” to this arrangement? And even if we deny God, could any human ever drive God out?
Certainly God grows the spiritual fruit with eternal impact, which is what I interpret as Jesus’s meaning that apart from God we can do nothing but wither. And because I believe that God is the ultimate source of every good gift, I also believe that abiding in God is the only way we can find these gifts in their pure form.
This is the difference in Fruits of Being a Good Human and Fruits of The Spirit.
If everything is created in and through and for, then held together by God, each and every human has the ability to sprout good things, and usually does; with or without a conscious yes to God’s redemption.
I grew up in a church that taught the opposite and for a long while I walked in fear of an open mind. It wasn’t a conscious thought. I didn’t purposely keep a closed mind or closed heart.
But it was evident in my judgments. In my arguments. In my fearful grappling to stay above rather than go deep. Now though, I’m enamored with the mystery and the hard-to-figure-out because I know God is bigger than my questions and never shrinks back.
Moving from “Good without God” to Spiritual Thirst
There are many scenarios that lead to spiritual thirst. Most fall under these two umbrellas, where someone falls short and we feel an instinct to search for deeper meaning and solace.
- We desire a spiritual gift deeply and as we pursue it, we find success but still aren’t completely satisfied.
- Or we naturally have the gift to love, be at peace, spread joy, show patient restraint, spread kindness and goodness, be faithful and gentle (not having to force things but resting assured of what’s to come) or operating with high levels of self-control, but others can’t reciprocate. They fall short and hurt us, seemingly beyond repair. When we are harmed this way, we seek an anchor that never fails.
What are the Fruits of the Spirit?
As a reminder, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).
God is all of each of these, perfectly, all the time. God is ALL love. ALL joy. ALL patience. ALL kindness. ALL goodness. ALL faithfulness, gentleness and self-restraint.
We reflect fragments of God. With or without him. We cannot be perfect in full in each of these gifts. Nor can we be separated from the full and perfect love of God.
This doesn’t happen just once we’ve accepted the invite, but from the beginning.We are loved. And not once can we be outside of that immeasurable, cosmic, personal, all encompassing love. It is where we come from and it is what we were made for. Click To Tweet
This is why in Romans 8, Paul works to convince us that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Growing Spiritual Fruit in Christ
If we all have a starter set of these spiritual gifts, why pursue a faith relationship? Why not continue being good without God?
Because in many ways, this is the same fear I experienced growing up, just played out in a different way.
The same grappling in fear to stay above the surface and avoiding the deep that kept me from viewing the good in others, keeps many from viewing the goodness of God.
If you’ve felt a call to question or go deeper, I believe that’s God. And if so, what would happen if you answered?
What would it mean if even a part of what I’m writing is true? That none of us are outside that Love. That this Love opens us to be what we’ve desired all along; free, loving, at peace and generous of spirit with endless grace on the days we opt out, followed by confidence to repent and return.
Why is Spiritual Fruit better than the Fruit of Being a Good Human?
When we become intimate with Love Eternal we gradually become and offer a more holy love.
When we receive Real Peace we gradually make peace with ourselves and others in a way that is not of this world and cannot be shaken or snatched away.
When we are gifted joy that doesn’t come or go but is supplied by our secured identity in Christ, we aren’t dependent upon circumstance.
When we recognize God has been present all along, consistently courting but never pressing us, we can patiently sit with rough feelings, persisting in hope that we will see good things happen.
When we see God as over all and in all, even if not fully manifested, we can be kind and good toward ourselves and others. We can be faithful when others fail us. We rest and don’t have to force our way, our agenda, our misaligned goals for saving the world. In fullness, we aren’t dissecting who’s in and who’s out.
When our thirst is met with abundance from a bottomless cup, we are confident enough to speak only in love and encouragement (self-control), realizing anger doesn’t produce God’s plan for humanity (James 1:19-20).
Christians Not Bearing Fruit
What does this say to those of us walking with Christ who don’t yield perfect love, joy, peace, forbearance (patient restraint and tolerance), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? Does it mean we’re apart from Christ? Does it mean we haven’t yet reached a spiritual level where God is actually making change? Did we answer the invitation wrong?
No. Only our salvation is instant. Becoming like Christ is a process.
Drawing lines in the sand to compare and contrast brings opposition to authentic spiritual growth. This is the biting, devouring and destroying of one another pointed out in the verses above.
We’re also adept at doing this tearing down within ourselves. But how freeing to see God’s pruning and lifting up as a process! A place to submit ourselves to the master plan and at the same time encourage one another’s growth.
Moving Beyond “Good Without God”
My sister recently shared with me a bit of wisdom. She said it is helpful to remember that God is All Love and All Truth. We can never be all of either. Some of us err on the side of love, some on the side of truth. Some alternate through life.
Remembering this speaks life into lifting up others and allowing for individual growth. God doesn’t offer a different version of himself to each person. God offers himself fully every time. We partake what we can, at first to our own ability, then more as we’re strengthened.
I’m certain most people can be good without God. What we need God for is more than moral correction. We need God when we aren’t assured of our value.
When we realize our choices and fears have put separation between us and the Source of All Abundance.
When we long for deeper love and connection with the world around us and all our brothers and sisters, so we seek better understanding of the story that connects us.
We need God when we’re ready to move from striving to produce the Fruit of Being a Good Human, to clearing space for the Fruit of the Spirit. We only yield that perfectly pruned and abundant crop when we are connected to the Source.
And once we’re connected, like the old hymn says, the things of this world grow strangely dim.
I know that certainly applies not just to my troubles, but also my best human efforts to consistently produce l.
There’s just no comparison!
And turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
His word shall not fail you, He promised
Believe Him and all will be well
Then go to a world that is dying
His perfect salvation to tell