Master, I knew you to be a hard man……so I was afraid.(Matthew 25:24-25)
Far too commonly we think of God as did the man in the parable of the talents who regarded his lord as “a harsh man.” In the same way we demean God immeasurably by casting Him in the role of the cosmic boss, whose chief joy in relation to humans is ordering them around, taking pleasure in seeing them jump at His command, and painstakingly noting any failure.
When we come to learn how we can hear God and what divine guidance really is, we must come in such a way that we do justice to the revelation of God in Christ. Hearing God and seeking guidance are an almost universal human preoccupation. It’s hard, however, to cleanse our minds of those motives, images, and concepts that would brutalize the very God we hope to approach.
In the primitive rituals and the “Bible roulette” (picking verses at random for guidance) frequently practiced by present-day believers, we see both the desperate agency and the superstitious character of human efforts to get a word from God, especially a word on what is going to happen and what we should do about it. If necessary, some people are prepared to force such a word from Him. Like King Saul, many of us have our own version of a witch of Endor(1 Samuel 28).
Hearing God cannot be a reliable and intelligible fact of life except when we see His speaking as one aspect of His presence with us, of His life in us. Only our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and Him. And within those communications, guidance will be given in a manner suitable to our particular lives and circumstances. It will fit into our life together with God in His earthly and heavenly family. This is our first preliminary insight to help us in learning to discern God’s voice.
I’ve often wondered what motivated the Israelites to build the golden calf and to later make the request that God’s presence not be among them but for Him just to tell them what He wished them to do. And yet I find that we are not so far removed from this position, at least practically.
The Greeks created gods with fallen humanity’s attributes. They made them powerful enough to carry out their desires; the same desires that lie within humans. The Greeks created gods who were jealous, spiteful, plotters, and control freaks who used humanity to carry out their games. They taught that these gods had no restraints, that they would even have children with humans, such as Hercules, so that there were the super humans.
The Israelites who were in Egypt and later in Canaan took note of the gods of those around them. These gods were different than Jehovah for they fit their idea of what a god should be and do. Among the gods of Egypt, there was one represented by a bull so it wouldn’t have been a stretch for the Israelites to use the calf as a tangible form of God. Later the Israelites would abandon Jehovah and worship Baal the god of the Canaanites. Baal was the god of fertility and harvest so no doubt they believed that by worshipping Baal they would be prosperous. It’s interesting to see that they shipped both Jehovah and Baal alongside each other according to Elijah’s statement on Mount Carmel.
“So Ahab sent word to all the Israelites and assembled the [pagan] prophets together at Mount Carmel. Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people [of Israel] did not answer him [so much as] a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I alone remain a prophet of the Lord, while Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Now let them give us two oxen, and let them choose one ox for themselves and cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. I will prepare the other ox and lay it on the wood, and I will not put a fire under it . Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the god who answers by fire, He is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”
1 Kings 18:20-24
There was another god that was an associate god with Baal. Notice that usually with false gods there are more than one. The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Greeks, and the Romans, all worshipped multiple gods. This associate god of Baal was Astorath who was the goddess of sexuality. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess was as well. This god promoted promiscuity. The third god associated with Baal was Molech. Worship to Molech required the sacrifice of children. His idol was a great iron stature with a tongue and inside a furnace. Worshippers would place their child on its tongue after the iron was heated and the child literally burned to death. Scholars believe that the testing of Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac was more than testing Abraham’s loyalty to God, but also to say that God would not ever require a human sacrifice. He would ultimately provide a sacrifice Himself, the Ram in the bush.
Now I know you’re wondering what this history lesson has to do with us today. I think today that there is, in the words of a Dallas Willard, a “brutalizing of God”. Like the man in the parable of the talents there are those who portray God as some harsh, judging, and uncaring entity who either takes joy in human suffering or initiates it. Insurance companies have created a statement about things that happen which are not caused by human action as “an act of God”. Many believers believe that the reason things are not going better is because they “aren’t living right or praying hard enough.” This seems to me to place God in a demanding, harsh master category. How can we reconcile a loving God with one who will not answer our prayers or protect us and provide us unless we somehow measure up to His standards. Even when we talk to people about coming to church, we hear, “I’m afraid to come, the roof might fall on my head and besides I’m still messed up and when I get my act together, I’ll come.” Behind this thinking lies the concept of an angry God waiting to punish us. How often have we heard, hopefully not believed ourselves, that sickness and disease and trouble comes from our sinful conduct. Now the Bible teaches the law of consequence, but the law of consequence connects the action to the outcome. What we sow, we reap. We don’t get cancer because we sinned. We get cancer sometimes because we have exposed ourselves to carcinogenic substances(law of consequences); but it never comes as punishment from God. For sake of space, and we could spend hours on this subject, let me offer a glimpse of God as portrayed in the Bible.
After the sin of Adam and Eve, the law of consequences was pronounced but the mercy of God intervened.
“The Lord God made tunics of [animal] skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”
God’s mercy clothed them with the skins of innocent animals pointing to the day that that the innocent Lamb of God would give His life.
This picture of love of God is vividly painted by Isaiah in the 53rd chapter.
“For He [the Servant of God] grew up before Him like a tender shoot (plant), And like a root out of dry ground; He has no stately form or majestic splendor That we would look at Him, Nor [handsome] appearance that we would be attracted to Him. He was despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and pain and acquainted with grief; And like One from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we did not appreciate His worth or esteem Him. But [in fact] He has borne our griefs, And He has carried our sorrows and pains; Yet we [ignorantly] assumed that He was stricken, Struck down by God and degraded and humiliated [by Him]. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was crushed for our wickedness [our sin, our injustice, our wrongdoing]; The punishment [required] for our well-being fell on Him, And by His stripes (wounds) we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, We have turned, each one, to his own way; But the Lord has caused the wickedness of us all [our sin, our injustice, our wrongdoing] To fall on Him [instead of us]. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth [to complain or defend Himself]; Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before her shearers, So He did not open His mouth. After oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation [His contemporaries], who [among them] concerned himself with the fact That He was cut off from the land of the living [by His death] For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke [of death] was due? His grave was assigned with the wicked, But He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. Yet the Lord was willing To crush Him, causing Him to suffer; If He would give Himself as a guilt offering [an atonement for sin], He shall see His [spiritual] offspring, He shall prolong His days, And the will (good pleasure) of the Lord shall succeed and prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He shall see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge [of what He has accomplished] the Righteous One, My Servant, shall justify the many [making them righteous—upright before God, in right standing with Him], For He shall bear [the responsibility for] their sins.Therefore, I will divide and give Him a portion with the great [kings and rulers], And He shall divide the spoils with the mighty, Because He [willingly] poured out His life to death, And was counted among the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore and took away the sin of many, And interceded [with the Father] for the transgressors.
As Jesus was teaching about God, He often challenged the thinking of God as being the demanding, harsh master. The Jews of His day believed that if you were prosperous in worldly goods, and fortunate in life that you were righteous and therefore God was blessing you but if you were struggling, if you were sick and poor, you had somehow incurred the displeasure of God and was being punished for your sins. Remember the questions of the disciples? “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” So Jesus gave us the story of the Prodigal to tell us of the love of God for even the straying child and the celebration in heaven when that one came home. If for some reason we still believe that suffering and sickness comes from God, let me ask a question. If God is just, and He is, why would He place those things on Christ to bear on our behalf and then also place them on us? In our justice system there is a law called double jeopardy which states that no one can be punished twice for the same crime. Actually the Bible teaches us that while we were in our sins, Christ died for us.
“But God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Therefore, since we have now been justified [declared free of the guilt of sin] by His blood, [how much more certain is it that] we will be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, it is much more certain, having been reconciled, that we will be saved [from the consequences of sin] by His life [that is, we will be saved because Christ lives today].”
Finally in my argument that God is good all the time and never stoops to human levels of reaction or ways I give you the words of Jesus Himself:
“11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you, then, being evil [that is, sinful by nature], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask and continue to ask Him!”
When I first became a Christian, I struggled with the idea that God could love someone like me. Like most of us I had been subjected to conditional, performance based acceptance and what I perceived as love. When I was “acting right” I was accepted but when I was “acting wrong” I was rejected until I could get my act together and perform at the acceptable level. Prior to being saved my response to those demands often resulted in deliberate rebellion and I would decide to prove my accusers that they were right by doing even worse things. As a result, not only was I experiencing rejection from those around me, I really didn’t even like myself. When I came to Christ and He opened His arms to me, I thought I was just being accepted on a trial basis and as soon as I blew it I was done. I thank God for my pastor and his wife as God’s representatives who took a messed up 17 year old under their wings and kept loving him and believing in him when he didn’t even believe in himself. There came the day when the Holy Spirit confronted me about myself. By the time I came to Christ, not only did I not believe that anyone really loved me. I know now that wasn’t so, but at that point I didn’t even believe my parents or family loved me. Not only did I feel that way about others but I didn’t love myself. When I would hear that we were to love others as ourselves, I thought, no problem. I don’t love me so not loving others is no big deal. Then the Holy Spirit personalized John 3:16 for me and revealed to me the depth of the love of God in that He would give up His Only Begotten Son for one such as I. Never had I felt such love and acceptance. Never had anyone ever made me to feel worthy of anything. I remember sitting speechless and as the tears flooded from my eyes, all the years of rejection, all the feelings of worthlessness, all the frustrations of trying to be loved by performance washed away. What the Holy Spirit said to me that day has forever transformed my life. No longer am I driven to perform to be accepted. Now I serve because I love and am loved. The Holy Spirit said to me that day, “John, God has loved you just as you are. God has made you who you are. God has chosen you as His child. Now, if you can’t love you and if you place more demands on you to be accepted by God than He places, you are elevating yourself above Him.” That so transformed my life. I no longer try to gain God’s love and acceptance by my performance. I choose to live and work in the kingdom because I wish to bring joy to my Father. I no longer have to try to get into His good grace by my actions. I live in the freedom of a love that is at its best even when I’m at my worst. Some would say this sounds very liberal as though how we live no longer matters, but in truth as Paul puts it, the bonds of love and its effect on our conduct is more powerful than rules can ever be. Jesus says that if we love Him, we keep His commandments. So we choose to be a reflection of God because He loves us and we love Him. Every successful relationship is the result of love and respect rather than rules. Rules are for those whose heart has not been captured fully by God. They are really minimum standards, not something that is the ceiling of performance but the floor from which we rise.
O that God would make Himself known as He is. O that the church would see the incredible grace and mercy that God extends to us. O that the world’s perception of God would change from the “harsh master” the that of the “Loving Father”.
Will He correct us? O yes! Will we often suffer the consequences of our actions? O yes! But even the roughest times while reaping the devastating consequences, they are mitigated by our Father who blunts the outcome through His love. O that God would help us to break down our idolatrous perception of who He is and come to know Him for who He is. I pray today that everyone reading this will have such an encounter with the Heavenly Father that you will no longer question His love and grace. May our “performance” come from grateful response of being loved rather that some attempt of trying to qualify to be loved.
Dr. John Thompson