Word of the Week
January 28, 2023
Agathōsunē: Getting Practical about Goodness
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness . . .
Good fruit is easy to identify. A good watermelon is red, juicy, and sweet. A good apple is crunchy and tasty. A pear is good when you catch it in the ten-minute window between hard-as-a-rock and too-squishy-to-eat.
Spiritual fruit is tricker. When the apostle Paul scrolled out a list of character traits that constitute the “fruit of the Spirit,” he included obvious items like love and joy. But “goodness” can seem a bit vague, a nebulous concept.
We talk about good cooks, good athletes, good accountants, and good bank robbers. That’s a wide range of meanings for the word “good”! Clearly, we need to narrow things down if we want to understand what “goodness” looks like in the Christian experience.
Let’s look at the Greek word translated “goodness” in the spiritual fruit list found in Galatians 5:22-23. Paul used the word agathosunē (ah-gah-thoh-SOO-nay). It only appears four times in the New Testament, but it stems from an adjective – agathos – that shows up over 100 times!
Agathos, “good,” is a versatile word, meaning excellence of many kinds. It can describe fertile soil (Luke 8:8) or productive trees (Matthew 7:17). A rich man might boast of the “good things” he had accumulated – his possessions. (Luke 16:25).
Secular Greek philosophers argued at great length about “the greatest good,” the highest goals in life.
But the New Testament measures goodness in a different way.
- Goodness involves moral uprightness.
Jesus often divided people into two categories: good and evil. He said that the Father “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45), and declared that the good man produces what is good, while the evil man produces what is evil (Matthew 12:35).
When a rich young man addressed Jesus as “Good teacher,” He replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
In these passages, agathos means “good” in the sense of “righteous, free from sin.” God alone is totally righteous, so He alone is good in the highest sense.
However, there is a second aspect to goodness in the New Testament.
- Goodness involves generous gifts to bless needy people.
God, as usual, sets the pattern. James 1:17 says that every good gift comes from the Father, because He is the One who consistently acts for the good of His people. In fact, “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
The New Testament is sprinkled with examples of goodness that lovingly gives:
- The landowner in Christ’s parable gave bonus wages to those who only worked an hour, reminding his critics that he had a right to be generous (agathos) (Matthew 20:15).
- Dorcas was known for the deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did (Acts 9:36).
- Paul instructs Christians to work with their hands, doing what is good so they can share with those who have needs (Ephesians 4:28). He goes on to command them to focus their speech on words that are good, words that will build people up and give grace to the hearers (Ephesians 4:29).
- Paul praised widows who showed hospitality to strangers, helped those in distress, and devoted themselves to those kinds of good works (1 Timothy 5:10).
Right after the passage that gives the fruit of the Spirit, we find two more verses that recommend this kind of goodness. Galatians 6:6 – “The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.” And Galatians 6:10 – “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”
That’s a sketch of the adjective agathos. Now how about agathōsunē, the noun form where we began?
This fruit of the Spirit is best understood as a sample of the second meaning of agathos: generous actions intended to help those in need. This kind of goodness notices the points of pain in the people around us. It moves forward to treat them with kindness, doing what it can to ease that pain, to smooth the path for them. Every good gift is ultimately from God, but He loves to use His people to deliver those gifts. The good person is a conduit through which the goodness of God flows to those He loves. Sharing His goodness is a lofty privilege.
Greek has more than one word for “good.” The two most common are agathos and kalos. The two are often used interchangeably. Christ is called the kalos shepherd in John 10:10, for example. The difference between the two words is that agathos tends to emphasize that which is useful, especially moral goodness, while kalos leans more toward the idea of outward beauty, that which is aesthetically pleasing. There are many cases where either word could be used, because they are describing someone like God who is both inwardly and outwardly good, both morally righteous and relationally gracious.
Q: Is it OK to worry? I understand that Philippians 2:20 compliments Timothy for being concerned about the welfare of the people in Philippi, using the same Greek word that Paul uses in Philippians 4:6 when he tells us not to be anxious about anything. What should I think?
A: You’re right about the Greek word. Both verses use the word merimnaō, usually translated as “be anxious, care for, be concerned about.” This is a good example of the fact that words have more than one meaning, so you have to look at the context to understand them properly. Here it’s clear that there is a legitimate kind of concern and an unhealthy type. My suggestion: It’s commendable to be thinking about the welfare of others, keeping an eye on them because you care about them. But it’s not OK to be constantly anxious about possible dangers or disasters that might happen. Healthy concern leads to action – prayer or practical help. Unhealthy worry simply paralyzes you.
The next fruit of the Spirit is “faith” in some Bible translations, “faithfulness” in others. Next week we will try to figure out which translation makes the best sense here.
©Ezra Project 2023
Thank you for you timely insights, they are always helpful!