Wednesday, May 7, 2014

God of Wrath? God of Love?

Have you ever come across those passages of scripture which talk about God’s wrath and it caused you to cringe? Recently the major motion picture Noah brought God’s judgment against sin vividly to screen. Would God really kill all those people? What about when God ordered the slaying of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15)? How could the same God who did these things be the God who “so loved the world” in John 3:16?

This question is nothing new. In the second century, a heretic named Marcion became convinced that the God of the New Testament must be different than the one in the Old. His inability to reconcile the “God of Wrath” with the “God of Love” led Him to literally rewrite his own version of the Bible and create one of the first cults in the early church.

This question still remains for us to grapple with in today’s world. We believe that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus Himself told us to imitate our heavenly Father and love even our enemies (Matt 5:45). Yet how are we to imitate a God who, at least on the surface, has a history of some pretty violent judgments upon His enemies? This is not to mention the judgments of Revelation which are yet to come upon the whole world. What about the reality of hell itself?

While I certainly don’t expect to answer this whole question in one short article, I hope I can shed some light on the subject by positing one crucial argument: God’s love and wrath are not opposite attitudes, they are interrelated. In other words, having one necessarily demands the other. Let me explain.

I love my family. I care about them very much. Let’s say I walked into my home and found a stranger doing harm to my children or wife. My love for them is so great that I would instantly be filled with wrath towards the one harming them. That wrath would manifest itself in violence towards the offender.

In this illustration, we learn that anger/wrath is not the opposite of love, it is a derivative of love. The opposite of love is apathy. If (for the sake of argument) I didn’t love my family, then the sight of them being hurt wouldn’t affect me in the least. Sometimes being patient or calm isn’t a sign of one’s gentleness, it could mean they could care less.

On cannot be angry without loving something. A lot of anger we see today is a result of our love of self. Someone says an unkind word and we blow up because our honor has been offended. Some of our anger comes from a love our own plans or agendas. We get mad when we get a flat tire or miss the green light. Why? Because life isn’t playing out exactly like we want it to.

I don’t question that God gets angry and even acts upon that anger. We have plenty of Biblical evidence to prove that. The real question becomes, “Why does He get angry? What does he love so much that would cause Him to unleash fury?”

Let’s explore this question with another illustration from my family. Often a day doesn’t go by when one of my children decide to test me over some command I have given them. Usually it’s not a blatant disobedience. Rather it’s due to absentmindedness or immaturity. However, there are times they are deliberately choosing not to follow my instruction.

When that happens, some form of anger usually rises up in me. I say “some form” because usually it comes from one of two places. The first place is the place of honor. How dare the children that I work so hard to feed and clothe defy me? Am I not the master of the house? This is the kind of anger that arises from pride. I elevate myself to a place of importance and get mad when those around me do not recognize that importance.

The other possible source of anger is my love for them. As a parent, I have been given the responsibility by God to train them up to be disciples of Jesus. I have plans for the kind of person I am helping them become. I can see that their defiance, if left alone, could possible result in a way of life which will be detrimental to them and to those around them. I get angry because I am seeking their good. I love them, but I am angry with them because their actions are harmful to themselves.

So let’s bring this back to God. If you look up the Bible verses which talk about God’s anger, most of them talk about how slow He is to get angry. God is not prone to outbursts. His anger is not irrational. Why does God get mad? Is it because someone offended His honor or because someone is bringing harm to His creation? I would argue for the second option. It is because of God’s love for people that He must judge.

Scripture tells us the story about how the sickness of sin has overtaken the object of His love – people. God made the world good, He made it to share in His goodness. He wants nothing but the best for His creation. Yet mankind threw this gift away and continues to embrace the cancer of sin which eats away at us – making us into mere shells of the image of God we were meant to be.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were depicted as a remedy for the sickness. God told Abraham in Genesis 12, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Ultimately these verses were talking about the Messiah who would come from Abraham’s family. However you can’t miss the tone of the passage. God is looking to bless the world through Israel and woe to the ones who try to harm those bringing the cure.

I believe God’s love for people never changes. Hell isn’t for people whom God hates; it’s for people who hate God. God is in the business of saving the world and there has to be a place to put the people who want none of it. Is there wrath in the book of Revelation? Yes, but it is wrath due to love. Over and over, while God is pouring out judgment, He is giving the opportunity to repent. Yet the Bible specifically says, They did not repent of their deeds” (Rev 16:11) Rather, they chose to curse Him.

God’s default is always mercy. He loves even to the point of sentencing to hell. His wrath is due to a love scorned. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?” (Ezekiel 33:11)

If you have a problem with this concept, go back and read the book of Jonah. God loves bad guys. That’s why He tells Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites. Jonah disobeys and ultimately tries to commit suicide. God saves Him by sending a big fish to rescue him and bring him back to land. Jonah then obeys and preaches to the Ninevites who then repent. God spares them from judgment. The book ends with God’s prophet getting mad because he wants to see the bad people burn. Funny, isn’t it? God’s people being more prone to judgment than the Judge is?

God’s love never fails. God’s love always gives us a choice. Sometimes our choice gives God no other choice than to judge.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pitfalls of Religious Practices

Ever since the beginning of Christianity, we have found certain practices to be helpful (even necessary) on our spiritual journey. Fasting, praying, church attendance, giving, daily devotions, Bible memorization: all of these have played a big role in Christian history. They can be quite helpful, but they can also become dangerous. The blame really shouldn’t fall on the practices, but our misuse of them.

Pitfall #1: Using spiritual disciplines as a way to impress God

What did the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable do? (Luke 18:9-14) He recited the list of all the great things he had done in service of God. Now before someone starts crying “legalism”, let’s make sure we put the blame where it needs to rest. The long list of stuff this guy did was REALLY GOOD STUFF. The problem wasn’t what He did, it was what he was trying to do with it: Impress God.

Isaiah 66:1-3
This is what the Lord says:
“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
    Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
    and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord.

I don’t know about you, but when I read that God’s footrest is the entire world, I’m pretty overawed with the bigness of God. I’d even be impressed if the prophet said that’s God’s easy chair was the size of Texas! But no, he’s even bigger than that. When I reflect on how great God is, I realize there’s not much that I can scrounge up to impress Him – even a perfect attendance Sunday School pin looks pretty silly! (which I don’t have, by the way) The passage goes on…

“These are the ones I look on with favor:
    those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
    and who tremble at my word.

You can’t impress God, but you can let Him impress you. That’s exactly what happened to the guy kneeling next to the Pharisee. The tax collector was so overcome with the holiness of God and his own absolute unworthiness that he beat himself on the chest and simply cried out for mercy. Spiritual disciplines cannot be used to impress God. They can be aids in helping us pursue God. They are not meant to change your status before God, they are simply meant to change you into the likeness of God. So no matter how many prayers you say today, or verses you memorize, never forget the value of humility and contriteness before the Almighty. Remember you have NOTHING to offer Him and He has EVERYTHING to offer you.

Pitfall #2: Using spiritual disciplines as a mask to hide our sin

We’ve all done things we didn’t feel like doing. I’m often guilty as the next guy of not feeling like praying, or giving, or bible reading, etc. We all hit dry spells and we need to push through them and not give up. However, we need to be careful that we are not simply going through the motions as a front to hide what’s really going on inside. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13 that it’s possible to give to the poor, worship like an angel, and die as a martyr and it all amount spiritually to zero without the genuine love of Christ in us.

In the passage from Isaiah, that’s what was happening to God’s people. They were still attending “church”, sacrificing the animals, tossing around the incense, but it all meant nothing to God because their hearts were not right. Finally, God simply told them to close up shop because He was sick of it:

But whoever sacrifices a bull
    is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
    is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
    is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
    is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
    and they delight in their abominations;

Often we know when our hearts are straying from God. We stop listening to the still small voice. We start choosing our way instead of God’s way. It’s often not something we intentionally do. In fact, we can deceive ourselves into thinking it’s not really happening. We do this by keeping up spiritual appearances for ourselves and for others. We might make a “deep” comment in Sunday School about a Bible passage. We may sign up for a new ministry (One that doesn’t require us to be too in tune with God). We can volunteer to pray or keep writing that tithe check faithfully. But deep down, we know that there are doors to areas in our life that we’ve closed off to God. We give God just enough to buy Him off – or at least to get our own conscience to shut up.

Don’t get me wrong. The problem is not the “Spiritual stuff”, the problem is you. Fix you and keep on doing the spiritual stuff. But know that God sees right through our hearts and would rather that we not put on our little shows of righteousness as a cover for our sin. Take some time to ask God if you and Him are really on good terms. Is there any sin that needs repenting of? Is there some area that you’ve been ignoring Him in? And then just listen. And obey.

So those are the two pitfalls of religious practices. I’m sure there are probably more, but two’s enough for now. Keeping fighting the good fight!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hope, Joy & Obedience

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials...Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” - 1 Peter 1:3,6,13-15

Jesus once told a parable about a farmer who sowed good seed upon various kinds of ground. The seed represented the word of God and the ground represented the various kinds of hearts which receive the word. One particular type of ground which I find personally convicting is the weedy ground. Jesus paints the picture of good seed falling on soil which is filled with weeds which sprout and literally choke the life out of the young plant trying to spring up. He goes on to say these “weeds” represent the life’s “worries, riches & pleasures”. The end result is the God’s word goes not grow up to bear any fruit in the life of that “weedy believer”.

The question that I want to pose this morning is, “What is it that we are setting our hope in today? What makes us excited? What is pushing us on to trod through the daily grind?” Too often, I am looking forward to the weekend, or coming home to watch some TV with my wife. I live for the pleasure of reading a book or playing some xbox. These are the “pleasures” of life. They are not necessarily bad. In fact, they are God’s blessing. But they cannot become my self-awarded reward for doing God’s work.

The problem is that when the trials of life come, these pleasures are simply not enough to keep me in the game. Peter tells us that it is normal for hard times to fall upon Christians (unlike the teaching of some “so called” preachers). When these difficulties arise, if all of our motivation is wrapped up in a vacation, or weekend, or new toy, or whatever, we will lose heart. Yes, we ought to be grateful for God’s blessings, such as food, shelter, clothing and pleasure. However, when we cannot define God’s love for us or our joy in the Christian life by those things. Why? Because at one time or another, those things will either be taken away for a season, or those pleasures will not be strong enough to counteract the pain we experience when life knocks us a good one.

That’s why Peter, very carefully, outlines for us a proper motivation, emotion, and response. Peter tells us that our hope, our motivation for living the Christian life, is not the blessings God gives us along the way, but the inheritance waiting for us when Jesus returns to set the world right again. The Jewish prophets painted a beautiful picture of a fairytale-like ending to our planet when the Messiah comes. Because we belong to the Messiah, Jesus, we will have a front row seat in that kingdom. We must always remember that is our true motivation. Our reward is in the next life.

Next, Peter tells us that motivation or hope inspires the emotion of joy in us. Yes, life can be brutal, but our current circumstances will not change the reality that we have a better day coming. No matter how hard it gets, it WILL get better. In fact, it will get GREAT! That’s enough to put a smile on our face and encourage us to press on. That emotion of joy gives us the strength to respond in obedience to Jesus. Hebrews 12 tells us that is was because of the joy set before Jesus which caused Him to endure the cross. He obeyed because He saw the end picture. He saw us with Him living happily ever after.

So enjoy life, but don’t set your joy upon this life. Our hope is still out there. It’s coming. And while it’s coming, we need to being getting ready for it. We do that by striving to become holy, just as He is holy.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Take Words With You

Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount warhorses. We will never again say 'Our gods' to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion." – Hosea 14:3-4

In our society, we tend to value spontaneity over structure. We view anything planned as being inauthentic. In church life, I have seen people who think that the Spirit resides better in unplanned services which are free to move as God directs. I knew a preacher in seminary who literally waited for God to give him a message each week, even if it was not until Saturday night. We often shy away from tradition or liturgy, because it gives us a stodgy feeling of forced worship. Reading a prayer to God is looked upon with distain – especially if we didn’t write it. We have turned worship into a pursuit of spontaneous emotion. This is not necessarily bad, but it ignores the deep, thought-filled aspect of loving God with our minds.

“Take words with you”. Literally, Hosea was telling the people to return to Jerusalem, to the temple, the place where God dwelt. “Take a trip and while you are going, plan out what you are going to say”. Hosea even goes on to give them an outline for what their prayer ought to look like. He is telling them to plan their worship. I think this has two implications for us: One, planning our interactions with God is not necessarily inauthentic. Two, verbalizing is more important than feeling.

I love the story in the New Testament which describes a blind man crying out to Jesus to have mercy on Him. Ironically, Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” I can imagine his disciples awkwardly trying to point out the obvious, “Uh, Jesus, you’re the miracle worker and this man is blind. I don’t think he’s asking for money.” Yet Jesus doesn’t assume, He asks. He wants the man to verbalize His need. Jesus also taught us that God knows what we need even before we ask the Father, yet He still urges us to verbalize those needs in prayer.

1 John 1:9 tells us that if we confess our sin (verbalize – systematically agree with God that what we did was wrong and why it was wrong), then God will forgive it. Paul tells us in Romans 10:9 that if we confess “with our mouths” that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that He arose, we will be saved. For Paul, belief was not enough, it must be verbalized publically.

I believe that having an emotional response to the presence of God is not enough. Yes we can and should love God with our emotion, but emotions are not all that we are (or necessarily more authentic), God also made our minds. That’s why it’s important that we put into words our praises and open our mouths to declare it in song. It’s important to plan ahead for our times of worship and even our sermons. It’s simply not good enough for you to sit or stand there and let everyone else around you sing, you must join in. Don’t just assume that God knows your need and will take care of it, He wants you to verbalize your requests. It’s okay to write out a prayer, to be very specific in what we are asking. Maybe the problem with our generation is that God answers our general prayers generally. Maybe we should endeavor to be more specific, more thought out.

That’s what Hosea tells Israel. “Go to God, and while you are going, plan out what you are going to say. It should look something like this, ‘God we have sinned against you and we ask you to forgive us and restore us. We will never again put our trust in what we can conjure up by our own cunning, instead we trust in you. Without you, we are like orphans, but we come to you because we know you are the father to the fatherless.”

That’s deep worship. That’s thought-out worship. It’s a way to let God know we are not approaching Him casually.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thy Will Be Done

"But I have been the LORD your God ever since you came out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me. I cared for you in the wilderness, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me. So I will be like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk by the path. Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open; like a lion I will devour them— a wild animal will tear them apart. ‘You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.’” – Hosea 13:4-9

C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in this passage. God is depicted, not as a tyrant, not as come sadistic deity whom hates his creation, but as a loving helper who longs for nothing but the best for His people.

Sadly, Israel has rejected the One who is all-good. They are “against me, against you helper.” They have abandoned the one who saw their desperate situation in the land of Egypt. In Egypt, they were slaves - forced to hopeless lives of harsh labor under the whim of the Pharaoh. It was in Egypt that they cried out under the yoke of oppression and it was Yahweh who came to their rescue.

He sent Moses to lead them out. With a mighty hand and outstretched arm, Yahweh worked victory for His people. He led them through the barren desert and yet took care of their every need. He fed them and clothed them. Yet what was Israel’s response this outpouring of love and affection? They arrived at the promised land and demanded a king rather than God to rule over them. Those kings continually led them into idol worship, involving gross sexual conduct and child sacrifice.

There comes a point when judgment can no longer be withheld. God cannot maintain justice by simply giving them more time. God is slow to anger, but He does get angry. God’s lack of enthusiasm to deal out punishment is due to His longing for His people to come to a place of repentance. In fact, the second epistle of Peter tells us that the reason why Jesus waits to return to earth is because He is not willing that any should perish. When Jesus comes, it will be a joyous time for His people as He remakes our world into the paradise it was intended to be. However, it will also be a time of horrific judgment for everyone else. Jesus don’t long to deal out punishment, so he waits. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”

Make no mistake. There comes a time when God will judge. God’s wrath is awesome and terrible. He doesn’t long to show it, but He will. When we give Him no other choice, He will say, “Thy will be done.” And like a ferocious lion, He will empty the full cup of His wrath against His enemies. God will devour them.

There is a healthy thing known as the fear of the LORD. We would do well to not take God lightly.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Control Freaks

“But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.” – Hosea 12:6

How often do we manipulate the people or circumstances around us to keep control on our lives? It is human nature to desire security. We spend most of our day doing things to maintain the status quo of our existence or further advance our ambitions. We run around in effect saying, “What shall we eat, what shall we drink, what shall we wear?” Instead of trusting God for His provision, we act as if we are masters of our fate. It’s up to us.

So the temptation is to cheat. We cut corners on our family relationships so we can put in more hours at the job so we can get that promotion. We make ourselves too busy to be about God’s business because we are too busy on facebook. Why? Because our self-worth is directly correlated to what our “friends” think about us. We deal only in cash so we don’t have to pay taxes to the government so we can buy more toys for ourselves – all the while ignoring the cry of the poor. We lie about something we’ve done in order to save face rather than transparently and humbly admit the truth.
In this passage, God is reprimanding Israel for being just like their forefather, Jacob. Jacob was a cheat. A manipulator. Jacob was always trying to work an angle in order to get what he wanted. It’s interesting that God had to take Jacob through a school of hard knocks in order to get Him to realize that He should have looked to God for His welfare rather than His own conniving efforts.
In Hosea’s day, the people had abandoned their faith in God and instead were cutting deals with Egypt and Assyria to protect them from their enemies. The same national manipulative spirit worked itself out in their private lives as well. It was common practice for the rich in Israel to cheat the poor at the market place. By an elaborate system of deceit, buyers always walked away the losers in any transaction. Using their wealth, they were able to buy off any judge if they happened to be accused by one they had cheated.
God gives three solutions to this outrage: return, maintain, and wait.
First, they were to return to God. Abandon their idols and their ways of trickery. Give up their “control freak” attitudes and recognize that only God holds power over their destiny. Only God has the right to define right and wrong in their life.
Second, they were to maintain love and justice. This pointed them back to the Mosaic law in which they were to deal fairly with their neighbors and treat the poor with kindness – even to the point of loaning money at no interest. Throughout the entire Bible, God displays a heart for those who are downtrodden and needy. One of the marks of genuine Christianity is mercy toward those who are unable to help themselves. Jesus told us to be generous to the poor. He modeled for us a life of servanthood - where we willing give up our comfort to bring comfort to others, both spiritually and physically.
Third, Israel was to wait on God. This is the natural outflow of the first command. Waiting equals trusting. Waiting equals resting and pausing. Waiting on God means placing our dilemma at His feet and asking Him to take care of it. It means seeing what He wants to do about it before we try to solve it ourselves. This means taking our eyes off us and lifting them in faith to the one who is all-wise. Often God will give us something to do, but it will be His ways with His motives and His attitude. Our action then doesn’t become manipulation but a trusting obedience to God.
So, in application, let’s stop assuming control of our life and yield that to God. Recognize Him as the sovereign king who holds our lives in His hands. Let’s repent of doing things our way and do things God’s way. Let’s take time to sit at His feet listen to His voice. Allow our God to fight for us. Give Him room to be God.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A God Who is Torn?

"How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” – Hosea 11:8

Does God struggle? Does God have conflict within Himself? Is He ever torn between two options? We tend to say no. We want a God who is always calm, always level-headed. The rock we can fly to when our lives hit a crisis. In this passage, we see God experiencing a crisis of His own. We see God expressing incredible emotion towards His people. He is so overwhelmed by love for His wayward people, He chooses against His wrath. He is changed in Himself. There is a question for you: If God is perfect, how can He change? Doesn’t change mean moving from a less perfect action to a more perfect action? (or vice versa?) Wouldn’t that imply that God become perfect or left perfection in some way?

Some would say God is simply expressing Himself in these terms to communicate the incredible reality of His love. They would argue that God doesn’t really change, but simply that God communicates Himself in that way to make a point. But wouldn’t that be another form a lying? Presenting yourself as one thing yet truly being another? Besides, if this struggle really wasn’t a genuine struggle, doesn’t it negate the whole message being communicated? I don’t really have the answer, but I am moved by the emotion displayed.
Throughout the passage, God reminds the people of His continual love towards them all throughout their ancestral history. In spite of His overtures, they consistently reject Him in favor of powerless gods. Worse, they attribute to these idols the blessings that only God could give them. How would you feel if one you loved attributed to someone else a gift you gave? They have offended God. Because rejection of God is rejection of all life, love and peace, God must discipline them.
The passage climaxes in verse eight with God crying out. You can almost hear the desperation of the judgment he is about to bring on them. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim?” Admah and Zeboyim were cities near Sodom and Gomorrah which God had utterly destroyed because of their wickedness. Get this: though Israel deserves to be obliterated in a similar manner, God cannot bring Himself to do it. He can’t. He won’t. (There’s another theological problem: Here is something God cannot do)
This clash of emotion breaks out into a glorious chorus recounting God’s plan B. He chooses against annihilation and chooses restoration. “I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man — the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities. They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves. I will settle them in their homes," declares the LORD.” (Hosea 11:9-11)
What results from this “experience” is God’s proclamation of future hope for His people. Judgment is not the end for them. He is going to bring them back from exile. He is not a man who holds onto grudges forever. He is the Holy One. He will not be boxed in by any situation. He can and will forgive and restore. Like a triumphant lion, He will roar and they will come home. When they come, they will not be the brazen idolaters they were when they left, they will come trembling at the voice of the Most High.
Today, take some time to reflect upon the utter beauty of a God who cannot bring Himself to cast His people away. Because of His love, He will not let judgment be the final word. He will not allow Satan to triumph over His creation. His purposes of a new creation free from evil, pain and death will not be thwarted. He will have a people who call Him “daddy”. He will lift them to His cheek and bend down to feed them from His hand (Hosea 11:4). He loves that – it’s who He is.