Cultivate Goodness

(The following is a transcript of Steve Carter’s message “Cultivate Goodness,” part V of the Cultivate series. The video is also available to you.)

Let’s jump into Cultivate.

So, over the last four weeks, we have been looking at the Holy Spirit. What it means to be people who are Spirit-led. People who are birthing these virtues, these Christian values, this Fruit of the Spirit that Paul writes about... in a culture that often teaches us and instructs in something entirely different. 

And so we’ve looked at what it means to be the kind of people who are cultivating love in a culture of self-interest. Or cultivating joy in a culture of more. The kind of people who are cultivating peace in a culture of pieces. And cultivating patience in a culture of productivity. But today, I want us to talk about what it means for us to cultivate goodness. Goodness.

Now, to really do this, I want to unpack for you a theology of good. But, before I do that, I wanna unpack just a little bit more about the Spirit. Cause every time I begin these kinds of Cultivate teachings, I think, for many of us, we have such a unique relationship with the Spirit of God. For some of us, we’ve never really received it. For some of us, we’ve pushed it away. For some of us, we’re kind of scared of it. For some of us, it doesn’t make sense. But to the New Testament writers, to the prophets and the kings in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of God was a gift. And all of the ancient cultures tried to make sense of this.

But let’s think about it in regards to creativity. You know, for many of us, we probably wonder, why is it that musicians, artists, writers, actors, actresses—many of these creative types, at some point in their story, their lives basically implode. Ever just wondered this? What leads them to abusing narcotics or alcohol? What happens within them?

And I was listening to a TED talk in 2009 where this writer got up and began to kind of create a little story about why this happens and took us all the way back to Greek and Roman cultures. Elizabeth Gilbert was talking, and she said, “You know, in Greek and Rome, they believe that every person had a dæmon, had this fairy that basically followed you round. And all of creative inspiration came from this dæmon. And so, basically, you would be walking, and this dæmon would just decide to give you the gift of a poem. And if you had a pen and paper, you would write it right there, and then you would give credit to this dæmon.

In Rome, they referred to this dæmon, they called it, literally, “The Genius.” The Genius. But something happened during the Renaissance. When the Renaissance happened, we began to actually propel humanity to be above the gods and the spirits. And people... it became focused on you—only you. You can make it happen. You can build this. And what happened was, instead of having a genius who gave you inspiration, we began to refer to each other as the genius. Which began to create pressure, Gilbert talks about. And began to actually take creatives down, because the pressure to create, it’s all on me. And if I don’t deliver, oh man, and people just began to implode.

This is what the gift of the Spirit of God is. The gift of the Spirit is that there is a God who whispers, who inspires, who gives you insights, who helps you along the way. There are so many times in my office where I will be sitting there with a pen and paper, and it’s as if God whispers, and I begin to write down ideas. And I know, I know without a shadow of a doubt, those ideas did not come from me. They came from the Spirit of God.

And maybe you’ve experienced that. You’ve experienced the goodness of God whispering, giving you an insight in the midst of a board meeting, giving you composure in the midst of a tense conversation with a spouse or your kids. Giving you the word or the verse or the idea that was perfect for that scenario. That is the Spirit of God.

And in a culture that wants to put so much pressure on us, the gift that God gives us is this mentor and advocate. And when we think about cultivating goodness, it really begins with us being aware of where does the inspiration and the ideas and the truth actually come from. So for us to break down what it means to cultivate goodness, today, I want to teach you about the theology of good. I want us to walk through this book. And I want you to understand how the poets, prophets, and preachers, how the first disciples, how they understood the theology of good. And these three points that break down the theology of good, I believe, if you harness them, you receive them, you live into them, it will transform how you bring goodness every day, everywhere, to every person you encounter.

First off, the theology of good begins with this. First and foremost: God alone is good. God alone is good.

In the little church that I grew up in, I’d ride my bike there, my parents didn’t go to church. I rode my bike there. We had this worship pastor who played the saxophone and played the keys. But before every worship service, he would begin by saying, “God is good...”

And the whole crowd would say, “...All the time.”

And then he’d say, “All the time...”

“...God is good!”

I did not know what that meant. But I loved to say it. And every weekend, I would sit there and hear this. And as I began to learn and read the Scriptures, I began to see, man, this was central. God alone is good.

Look what it says in Psalms 34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” The writer here is just saying, “God is like the greatest meal ever. Just sit down. Taste it. Experience it. Delight in it. You will see what this good God is all about. Blessing to any person who builds their home, who finds refuge, or takes up residence in His good presence.” And that’s what I want us to see. God alone is good. He is not divided. There is no sin in Him. There is no evil in Him. He alone is holy. And solely good. Good.

Look what it says about a God who creates. Genesis chapter 1, you see God forming for six straight days, shaping and making. Creating and filling this earth. And after everything He creates, after everything He creates, there are these simple words, just like it says in Genesis 1:25, “And God saw that it was good.” Everything He makes. He saw it, He looked at it, and was like, “That’s good.” When God creates, it’s good.

God’s creation is good. But, even more than that, the writer saw, it’s not just what God creates, what He creates has this intended purpose. God’s purposes are good. Look what it says in Psalms 119:68: “You are good”—referring to God—“and what you do is good; teach me your decrees.” Teach me how you do it! You are just solely and entirely good. All of Your purposes, Your desires, Your dreams, Your intents—they’re so good.

But it’s not just that God creates and it’s good. It’s not just that God’s purposes are good. God’s heart, His heart for every one of us is good. Look what it says in Psalm 105: “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever, his faithfulness continues through all generations.” It’s like it never ceases, never stops. It’s like waves in the Pacific Ocean—they just keep breaking and breaking and breaking and breaking. It’s God’s love and kindness that’s so good, and it’s for you and it’s for me. When God creates, it’s good. God’s purposes are good. God’s love and kindness, His faithfulness, is good. And, lastly, the writers would say, goodness was deeply connected to integrity. God’s integrity is good.

Psalm 25:8 says, “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.” The idea in a culture in which we live, where there are many people who say one thing over here and do another thing over here, or say one thing to make these people happy over here and say another thing over here to try and make these people happy, God is one. He’s not fractured. He’s not divided. He’s not wishy washy. He’s not jumping from this side to this side. God is who He says He is. God is consistent. God is steadfast. God never changes. So you can trust who God has been for generations and generations... and generations. It’s His faithfulness. It’s His integrity.

And so, the writers, they begin to see, this is what it means to understand goodness—it’s that it begins with God. God alone is good. But, underneath that, what does that mean for us, you and I?

Point two: We have the potential for both good and evil.

Anyone who has kids knows this. I remember one time, sitting at the table, we are talking about our son. And my wife and I are just, “Oh, he’s just so deep. He asks such cute, good questions.” And it was so beautiful. And then we walk in the living room, and he’d taken a marker, and just drawn all over the wall and the sofa. And I was like, “You’re so good, and you’re so evil!” You know? You have these moments where you see it, right? And what God made us.

I love what Genesis 1 talks about. God made us and created us with a purpose. Look what it says in verse 26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man and woman in our image,”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—“in our likeness,”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—“so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”

God made you, whether you are a follower of God or not, in the image of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And that word “image” in Hebrew is the word tselem. And it literally means that you mirror characteristics of God. Everywhere you go, you take this mirror and you reflect the light, the nature, the characteristics of the divine. And it’s unique to you. God made you in His likeness. It’s powerful. And He didn’t just make you going, “Ah, just put my characteristics and image in you.” He actually gave you a responsibility to rule—to rule over creation. He gave us a responsibility so that you can actually put that creative effort to work. God made you good.

The Bible begins in Genesis 1 for a reason. That He made you in His image. And, for many of us, we don’t really believe that. For many of us, our Bible does not begin in Genesis 1—it really begins in Genesis chapter 3. Where everything seemed to get fractured and broken and where sin entered the story. And you know that your Bible begins in Genesis chapter 3 is when you begin to see people by labels. And you don’t first see people created in the image of God.

Latin, they had this phrase for the image of God, they called it the Imago Dei. And the quest for the disciple, the quest for the follower of Jesus, was to be able to recognize the image of God, the Imago Dei, in every person. But post-Genesis chapter 3, after the fall, there was this reality where in us, you and I, we had this potential for both good... and evil.

And I want you to know, God, in His lovingkindness, God in His goodness, He knew this. And He didn’t want you just to kind of live in this tension. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, what many of us refer to as the Old Testament, what we see is God gave us the Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments so that we could walk in good standing. Ten Commandments in which we could walk in step with God. They were wedding vows to the Hebrew people. But God also knew—God also knew that there was a good chance that people weren’t going to do this. And that shame, contempt, brokenness, sin, and more patterns of destructive behavior would come.

So God didn’t just say, “Here are the rules. Figure it out.” What God says, “Here are the Ten Commandments, and here also is the Tabernacle, where My presence will be. And at any moment where you fall short and you wonder, am I good? then just come over here. And I want you to sit in My presence. And I want you to actually do some things so that you can be at one with Me. And that you can then go back to trying to live out these teachings.”

I don’t think many of us think about this, but, even from the very beginning, God was saying, “I know you might not be able to do this every day. So I’m giving you a way to stay connected to me.” And when you think about even getting to the New Testament, this is really so much of what the gospel is—the picture of Jesus, how to live in step and in tune with Him. But many of us, every day, fall short. And yet the gift of the cross is this reminder of God’s presence, that we can come freshly again and again and again to the foot of the cross, where the ground is level for all of us, and be at one. Have our sins forgiven. To be set free.

And as the Hebrew people are beginning to move into the Promised Land, Moses, inspired by God, says these words in Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 19: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.”

See, we have the potential for both good and evil. And, every day, we get this choice—what will we choose? The things that bring goodness and life and blessings to... our world? Or will we choose the things that bring about curses and destruction and sin and brokenness and patterns that unravel and distort the story and message of God? We were created with the potential for both good, and also, inside us, is evil.

So what is evil? What really is it?

The most simplistic definition I know of, but it helps me, is that all evil is, is distorted and co-opted good. Just think about this. There are so many things that God created and intended for good. Leadership. Power. Sex. Money. Relationships. All of this stuff, though, can be co-opted and distorted and manipulated and transformed into something that is quite oppressive and abusive and is something that is truly destructive. But when you look at it, step back and see it, there is some grain inside of it that was the beginning of good.

Power. Power’s not always bad, cause power can set people free. Gifts that people have been giving, man, they can use those gifts to proclaim God’s name, or they can use it for their own glory. Do you see how things can be so co-opted? And within you and I, we have the potential for both good and evil. And Paul, Paul knew this. Paul understood this. Paul says this in Romans chapter 7, verse 18: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—”—for some reason—“this I keep on doing. Now, if I do what I do not want to do,”—the evil—“it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

Isn’t this the great human condition? You want to do good, but, sometimes, in that moment, it’s just hard. It’s hard to forgive, and it’s hard to listen, and it’s hard not to get defensive, and it’s hard not to slander, and it’s hard to be generous, and it’s hard to be kind. And so we choose this. And there comes a point for every one of us where we have to come to the fact that within us is both good—good, the image of God—but also profound brokenness. And Paul came to this moment, and he says this in Romans chapter 7, verse 24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

I think, for some of us, we never want to look at this side of our lives. We only wanna focus on, I’m living a good life. And I hear so many people say, “You know, I’m doing good. I’m doing really good.” And they almost wanna downplay the patterns, the brokenness, the addictions, their own sin. And this is Paul, one of the greatest theologians in the Scriptures, saying, “I had to come to a point where I understood there is good and there is this nature in me that wants to go the other way. And I had to get down, and I just had to say, ‘God, help me.’ And thanks be to God, He sent His Son.”

Friends, thanks be to God that you can live free of the shame, free of the guilt. Thanks be to God that you have a way out. And even as much as you try to do good, it’s not going to cover up what you have done. And the only thing that can actually pay for that was Jesus going to the cross for you and for me. And coming to a point of surrender.

But what’s so beautiful about God is He doesn’t just stop there. When you think about a theology of good, you’ve gotta first and foremost, God alone is good! And the second point, we were both created for good and evil. But thirdly: God’s kindness doesn’t stop. Cause the third point is that the Spirit of God wants to cultivate good in you. Wants to transform you from the inside out, wants to renew you. And as you flip through the Scriptures, you see this. Now, the Spirit doesn’t want you to have this old heart.

And even David, after one of the biggest blowouts in his story... he prays this beautiful prayer in Psalms 51. He just says, “God, create in me a pure heart.” Create in me a new heart, “Oh God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” God loves those kinds of prayers. “I’ll give you a new heart, my son. I’ll give you a new heart, my daughter.” And the Spirit of God wants to cultivate that in you. It’s not just about surrendering to God and saying, “Please, save me from my sins.” God’s love and kindness goes, “Oh, but I wanna just give you a new heart today.”

And even more than that, God doesn’t just want to give you a new heart. The Spirit wants to give you unique gifts! There are some of you in here, without even knowing it, God has given you the spiritual gift of leadership or generosity or hospitality or evangelism or teaching. And you don’t even know this, but this is the goodness of God that has poured out gifts upon gifts upon gifts. And many of you are sitting here today or watching online, and you don’t even know!

And this is what the Spirit wants to do—it wants to cultivate good gifts in you. And God creates in you a new heart. He gives you these powerful gifts to proclaim and make the good news your life’s work. But even more than that, God has a specific purpose for those gifts. For those gifts. God has a specific purpose for you and you and you.

And you look at the Scriptures, Ephesians chapter 2, this was Paul’s mantra. And he says, “For we”—every one of us in this room—“are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That word handiwork in the original language is the where we get the word poem. You are God’s poem. You are a line, you are a song, you are better than anything Shakespeare could ever write. You are God’s handiwork. And God made you, fashioned you, gave you these gifts. Wants to cultivate a good heart, good gifts, for good works. So that the good news can be proclaimed. This is what God wants to do.

So let’s just kinda play with this for a second. If we look at these three as being a theology of good: God alone is good. We have the potential for both good and evil. And the Spirit wants to cultivate good in you. Here’s what I think. I think every one of you in this room would go, “Yes.” I think this one [we have the potential for both good and evil], you’d say, “Yep.” And I think many of us don’t lean into this one [the Spirit wants to cultivate good in you].

I think many of us just kind of stop with these two. I think, for many of us, we don’t really lean in to that there is the Spirit of God that wants to cultivate goodness in me. For the sake of our world. I think it’s easy to go, “Oh, God just probably wants to do that with this person or that person, but not me. But not me.” And for some of us, it’s so vulnerable to lean in and become aware of the unique gifts that God has given to us. You know what it becomes easier for us to do? It’s to start looking at how God is using other people.

And for our remaining time, I want to play with this idea. What does it mean for us to be a people who are cultivating goodness in a culture of copycats? And here’s what I mean by this. If I walked up on stage, and said, “I wanna do a message today. I’m cultivating goodness, and I’m going to read from my book, The Power of a Whisper.” Which, if you know, that was written by our senior pastor. But I just opened up, and I said, “Allow me one final point. ‘While it’s true that God sometimes seems silent, and His whispers seem few and far between, all—” and I just started reading this as this was mine, some of you would raise your hand and call foul. And then some of you would email me and say, “Steve, that was plagiarism. You took Bill’s writing as your own.” And, deep down, you would say, “Why would you do that?” And something inside you would say, “Steve, God gave you a gift, God gave you a voice—why are you plagiarizing? Why are you reading someone else’s material? Why aren’t you doing the work yourself?”

So here’s my question for you. Are you plagiarizing? Are you looking at somebody else’s story and copying that? Are you taking how somebody else encounters with God, and just going, “I’m gonna do it that way. I’m gonna try to have my gifts look like this.”

You know what’s fascinating is, there’s this whole movement called fast fashion. Have you heard about this? They bring people with cameras to Seattle, to Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, and to Soho in New York, to Miami, to the Fairfax district in Los Angeles, and all they do is they walk the streets taking pictures of people without them even knowing it. Which seems creepy. But they take those pictures of people who are walking who have a style. And they take those pictures, they put it into a database, and some stores that are in every mall have bought a subscription because they call these people “cool hunters,” and they’re hunting the next best line of clothing.

And they take all of these pictures that are in a database, and someone just goes, “Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.” Some designer starts to make some mock ups. Then they send it across the seas, and they end up using not great material, not paying people fair wages, and they’re trying to get this clothing into the mall as quick as possible. And they’re making billions of dollars doing it. Because we keep going to these fast-fashion stores made with clothes that aren’t great material trying to stay in style with clothes that go out of style every six weeks.

And we’re like, “I’m out of style, I gotta go back. I gotta go back. I gotta go back. I gotta go back.” Just do yourselves a favor. Just wear black. That’s all. That’s all you gotta do. Save you some money!

Now, here’s the thing. Here’s the thing. I want you to get this. There are six people, probably, who are controlling an industry by them taking pictures of what they think will be cool, sending those off, people designing it, making it. And we keep buying it. We don’t have to think about our own look or what we think is fashionable, what we think is comfortable. They’re doing all the work for us.

And I just sit there, and I wonder. How does that not leak into our spiritual journey of God cultivating goodness in us when all we start to do is take and see what other people are doing? 

One more example.

I love cooking books. But here’s the thing, I can’t cook. I barely can make a grilled cheese. But I love the pictures of a cooking book. And this one called Hartwood is stunning. It was this couple who were big time brokers in New York City, they worked to 2 a.m. every night. But they found themselves going to Tulum, Mexico. About an hour and fifteen minutes south of Cancún. And it was so restful.

And they had this dream. What if we opened up a restaurant? They sold everything, they raised some money, the opened up this beautiful open-fire-pit restaurant. It’s stunning. Fresh fish and everything. And people line up for hours to try and get into this restaurant. You can’t get reservations. And you just stand there, hoping to get in. And this restaurant has just taken off because these people had this dream, they had this vision, they’re like, “We weren’t meant for the business world. We were meant to be here.” And they felt this, and inspired, and they went.

And people have been so moved by their story that they actually made this book. And I had the chance to go there. And the food was fantastic. It was so fresh. And I started to think about this while I was there. What if I saw this piece of fish, and it’s good, it was a great piece of fish... and I started to see the design of this restaurant, and I said, “You know what? I think the suburbs need that.” And I went to their idea, and I basically just said, “You know what? I’m gonna take some pictures. And I’m just gonna copy it.”

And what ends up happening is... you get this... copy of it. And it looks very different. But here’s the problem. For many of us, we’re not just copying the original. We are making copies of copies of copies of copies. And we just keep making more and more copies. And they’re losing the entire essence and soul of the original intent or inspiration that God gave. And, finally, you get to the point where you go, “Is that even a fish?”

I’m asking you. Is there someone in your life that you are plagiarizing? Is there someone in your life that you are copying? Is there someone in your life that you find yourself looking at their story, looking at their gifts, trying to do it their way, and you’re going, “Man, if I could just be them!”

And I’m telling you. You were never meant to be a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Cause you are God’s handiwork. You were created for good works and good purposes. And the Spirit of God wants to cultivate something unique for you. We don’t need another person. God already made them. You know what the world needs? You. Fully you. Fully filled with the Spirit of God.

So how do you do it? How do you do it when everything inside us wants to bend to go, “Don’t do the work, man. Don’t just try to receive from God. Look to somebody else and copy.” How do you do it? Because there is this inner temptation to not just try and allow the Spirit to cultivate goodness in you but to look to somebody else to see how they’re doing it and copy it.

Here’s what I want to leave you with. Four easy ways for you to cultivate goodness. The first thing is when you feel that bent, when you feel that lean, to start to put your head on a swivel and go, “I need to be like that. I need to do it like that. I need to look like this. I need to be like this.” Retreat. As fast as you can. Retreat back to the theology of good, to where God alone is good. And inside you, you were created with both the potential for good and evil. And remember that the Spirit wants to cultivate good in you. Return to that place. You retreat. You return. And then, in that moment, open your hands, and receive. Receive God’s goodness for you. Receive the power of the cross, but receive the power of the Resurrection, receive the truth that the Spirit of God wants to do something new to you. And have integrity with that. Be true to you.

And, lastly, respond. Which is one of the hardest and bravest things any of us can do. Is to recognize, this is me. This is my lane. This is my gifts. And I’m gonna step up, and I’m gonna take my space for Your name’s sake, God. And when you do that, I guarantee you, you’re not gonna be looking over here, you’re not gonna be looking over here. You’re gonna be looking up right here. And you’re gonna feel God’s pleasure. And when people taste and see the fruit that God has produced in you, they’re gonna say, “That is good.”

But a copy of a copy of a copy? No one wants that. Who are you copying? Who are you plagiarizing? What’s preventing you from living true to who God dreams you to be? Do that. Watch how God moves. Amen? Amen.