When God created the world, he called it “good.” But today the world seems anything but good. How can we find and create good in our fallen world?
Hannah Anderson’s new book, All That’s Good (Moody Publishers, 2018), addresses this question and more. Anderson is a writer who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and three children, where she and her husband serve in rural ministry. She also co-hosts the podcast Persuasion, which made our 2017 “Recommended Podcast” list.
Recently we had a chance to talk about discernment, goodness and her new book, All That’s Good.
We need discernment and wisdom more than ever.
Why did you decide to write All That’s Good?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the last few years extremely disorienting and discouraging. It’s a combination of things: living in an age of abundant (and often conflicting) information, the larger loss of civility, and shifting power structures. Ten years ago, we generally knew who we could trust, who experts were, and where the boundary lines fell. Today, it’s hard to know whether you’re reading a news article or a paid advertisement, and celebrities have more influence than trained professionals.
All of this makes for a very noisy, very confusing world. We’re not uniquely gullible or unwise, but we need discernment and wisdom more than ever. We need timeless principles to guide us, and I think the Scripture offers those principles—but in ways that we may not necessarily expect.
When we think of the word discernment, our minds often conjure images of disgruntled bloggers or excessively nitpicky people. What do you have in mind when you talk about discernment?
In my experience, Christians tend to take a negative trajectory when we talk about discernment. But when the word is used more broadly, discernment simply means having a taste for goodness or an eye for quality. We say a celebrity chef has a discerning palette or an art historian has a discerning eye. What we’re describing is their ability to spot goodness in their particular area of expertise.
So as part of my research, I read a lot about how we develop discernment in other areas—how you cultivate good taste in art, in fashion, in books, etc. And I found that the process is very similar to how the Scripture says we acquire wisdom or spiritual discernment. Discernment is not something you’re born with or that you absorb from the ethos. You must cultivate your ability to recognize goodness by training and testing. Like a chef or a curator, you must learn the fundamentals of goodness—what makes something intrinsically good—and then develop your ability to recognize it through practice.
And always, the goal of discernment is to spot goodness so you can embrace it. Of course, discovering goodness will also awaken your senses to what isn’t good, but simply avoiding bad things is not the same as taking goodness into your life and being changed by it. So when I think about practicing discernment, I’m thinking about the wisdom that is necessary to a good life.
In the book, you speak to the importance of seeking good in the world. We’re constantly inundated with bad news. What tips would you suggest to someone who wants to find and create good in the world?
The first thing you must do is affirm that goodness exists and is powerful. You must believe that God exists and is powerful. In Psalm 27:13, David makes this interesting comment about how difficult it is to believe in the reality of God’s goodness: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (NAS). And I get this. I get what David’s struggling with here.
We read the headlines; we experience pain in our own lives; we struggle through relationships. And our natural disposition is to despair. But if God is still God and Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, then we have hope—not just that we’ll see God’s goodness in the next life but that we will see God’s goodness in the land of the living.
Beyond this, we need to know what goodness looks. Ultimately, something is good if it reflects the character of God, regardless of where we find it. That’s the significance of Paul’s call in Philippians 4:8, when he tells us to seek “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” Goodness is not found only in religious spaces (and honestly, what we do find in religious spaces doesn’t always meet the standard of goodness). So if you want to find goodness, you need to look for things and people who act and look like God. You need to know who he is and pursue whatever reflects his truth, glory, justice, purity, and loveliness.
If you want to find goodness, you need to look for things and people who act and look like God.
Sometimes we assume that an absence of conflict is good, but you argue that seeking goodness may require us to voice unpopular opinions that could potentially create conflict. When is it appropriate to voice these unpopular opinions, and how can we wisely do so?
When we seek goodness, it will sometimes mean speaking against established opinions and ideas. We do live in a broken world; things are not as they should be. So when we start to discern what’s truly good, we’ll also see how it contrasts with established systems, opinions, and cultural values. And sometimes that will mean voicing opinions that disrupt the status quo.
But even in the midst of conflict, the goal is always, always goodness. The goal is not to be proven right or win people to our side. The goal of voicing an unpopular opinion must be to promote the common good, so the people around us can experience goodness, too.
And ultimately this requires humility. It requires a willingness to be corrected, not just be the one correcting others. It requires a willingness to question ourselves and our motives. Too many of us actually enjoy the role of the tortured “prophet” and count negative response as a badge of honor. But just because your opinion is unpopular doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. The criticism and negative feedback you receive might be justified. You might be self-righteousness. You might like the sound of your own voice. You might just be a jerk. But this is not discernment because it centers us and our experience over the common good.
So how do you know when to voice an unpopular opinion and how to do it in a healthy way? For me, it’s a question of whether my words promote the common good. Do my words promote what is good for everyone including those with whom I disagree? Do my words bring truth, honor, justice, purity, and beauty to the situation? If they don’t, they are not truly good.
Discernment is directly tied to spiritual formation. You cannot make wise decisions without becoming a wise person.
What are the primary takeaways you hope readers gain from your book?
The first thing I want readers to understand is that the world is full of God’s goodness and to become wise, they must seek goodness. You will never become wise by hiding way, avoiding the world, or playing it safe. You must actively seek and embrace things and people who reflect God’s goodness.
Beyond this, I want readers to realize that discernment is directly tied to their spiritual formation. You cannot make wise decisions without becoming a wise person. The genius of God’s plan is that he uses the process of seeking goodness to do this. When we seek things that reflect his character—when we seek whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable—our own character will be tested and laid bare. And ultimately, the process draws us back to the goodness of God as revealed through the Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. So when we seek all that’s good, we’re also seeking to be made good. We’re seeking God’s work of redemption in our own hearts as much as we’re seeking it in the world around us.