What is Goodness?
By Khouria Faith Potter
What is goodness? What does it mean for something to be “good?” Being human is messy, to put it in painfully polite terms. How can God be good if He created a world that is full of so much cruelty and allows so many atrocities to happen? If God looked at Adam and said it wasn’t good for him to be alone, what does He say about the suffering in our world that goes far beyond aloneness?
This week has been the Apostle’s Fast, a fast I confess I hadn’t paid much attention to in my life in the Church thus far. This fast falls after Pentecost following the Sunday of All Saints and before the feast of the martyrdoms of Sts Peter and Paul. Because of how these various feasts vary in date, some years this fast is weeks long while others it doesn’t exist at all. What is the purpose of it, though? Within what mental and spiritual framework should we approach this fast?
Meditating on the feasts around a fast is a good way to be mindful about a fast. What do the feasts around the Apostle’s Fast mean for us? Pentecost marks the Holy Spirit being given to the Church. All Saints falls on the Sunday after Pentecost and is a day for us to commemorate all of the known and unknown saints. Following All Saints is when the fast begins, culminating in the feast of Sts Peter and Paul on June 29th. The Apostle Peter famously denied Christ during the crucifixion but also famously at the end of his life did not consider himself worthy to die in the same way as Christ, so he asked to be crucified upside down. The Apostle Paul, who had been transformed by his blinding encounter with Christ and subsequent regift of his sight, went from persecuting the early Christians to eventually being beheaded for his own Christian faith. All the saints, and specifically these two, show us through their lives that it is possible to rise above our flesh and endure suffering, trusting that there is a deeper Reality than what we see.
It seems so fitting that the feasts of All Saints and the Apostles Peter and Paul follow so closely after Pentecost. In reading the stories of the saints, I often get overwhelmed by how untouchable they feel to me. These feasts falling after Pentecost remind us that the saints did not live the lives of suffering and self-denial they lived in their own strength alone. The saints were reliant on the Holy Spirit, the true Comforter, who makes it possible for us to live for more than just our flesh. The Apostle’s Fast in particular reminds us that through the gift of the Holy Spirit we can live the life the image of Christ in us leads us to live, whatever that may entail. The fasts show us a way of obedience and of not letting our desires dictate how we live our lives. We can learn to rely more on Christ’s presence in us through the Holy Spirit by following the rhythms of the Church’s feasts and fasts.
Before coming to Orthodoxy, I had really struggled to know how to pray for people and situations. The older I got, the more I realized how I had no idea what should happen. It has been such a gift to learn to pray simply, asking for God’s mercy over people and situations. I no longer feel required to know what a manifestation of His mercy looks like.
What about the deep suffering in the world though? Can we reconcile our faith in a good God with the suffering of the innocent and vulnerable? Can we still believe in a sovereign God during what seems to be repeated triumphs of evil over good, foolishness over wisdom, hate over love? I come back to these questions often; I struggle with them deeply. I don’t want to just look away. I want the mystery of God to be something that anchors my heart as I wrestle with difficult questions, not something I use as an excuse to keep myself from having to ask them in the first place or to keep from acting where God would have me act.
How easy it is for me to declare God’s goodness in my comfortable home in safety with all my needs met. I always come back to that sense of mystery though, because the lives of those who have suffered unimaginably yet still clung to the goodness of God point to resting in that deeper Reality while continuing to struggle on earth. The joy, strength, and peace their faith gave them humbles me and again reminds me how little I know, either of suffering or of faith, as well as how little I know how to recognize God’s mercy. St John Chrysostom’s final words while dying in exile were “Glory to God for all things,” a title used for the Akathist of Thanksgiving, which was found in Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov’s things after he died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940: