"But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." - Psalm 86:15Now who could dispute such a wonderful, affirming statement? Well, actually, Ned could. He did so by quoting what he believed was a contradictory passage ...
"While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was discovered gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who caught him at it brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly. But they kept him in custody, for there was no clear decision as to what should be done with him. Then the Lord said to Moses, "This man shall be put to death; let the whole community stone him outside the camp." So the whole community led him outside the camp and stoned him to death as the Lord had commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-36 NABNed intended to dispute my friend's assertion that our God is "compassionate and gracious", "slow to anger" and "abounding in love". Now before you respond with righteous indignation, consider that Ned has truly struck near the core of a basic theological argument against Biblical Christianity ... that the loving God whom we celebrate is essentially a bipolar dictator, capricious and arbitrary in judgment while dangling before us hopes of clemency dressed up as "mercy". Or, in Ned's words:
God (as portrayed in the Bible((which version?)) does not sound compassionate to me, or slow to anger, or loving. He actually exhibits several personality types. Sometimes he is loving, and sometimes he is very full of rage. I guess I draw issue with the cherry picking of the "nice" God and the forgetfulness of the "mean" God.I wonder how many in the church know how to respond to this kind of criticism? I fear our inclination is rather to forget about the "mean" parts of the Old Testament (or even the New) and dodge such questions when they arise, for in fact we have not settled the problem in our own minds. To neglect them, however, not only makes us poor witnesses, it indicates a failure to come to know our God as He is.
Here I will quote from my own Facebook comments (directed at Ned):
The idea of a man facing the death penalty for a seemingly innocuous crime shocks our sensibilities because our perspective is a man-centered one, but consider an analogy ...
I am the commander of a military organization. I recently discharged a young man who told a lie. Actually, he committed perjury before a court-martial, but in his mind all he did was lie a little to protect his friend. In his "morality", what he did wasn't really so bad, and certainly not enough to lose his career over. From the military's perspective, he committed a felony offense and was unfit for continued service. He never really "got it" and left bitter and angry, because he never was able to grasp the larger context of his offence.
God is the largest context there is. He is the author, creator and sustainer of all things. As such, He is perfectly right to expect us to obey Him in all things, but we disobey Him flagrantly and constantly. Every such transgression is worthy of death, but instead in His mercy He sent Jesus to bear the sins of all men who follow Him. This is why those who do follow Jesus can say that God is both just (to punish sin) and merciful (to lay our sins upon His own son, who freely bore them for our sake). Hence:
"For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:2-3)
This explains our amazement over grace. For if our sins were not an offence to the God of heaven, there would be no need of grace. Instead, as those who have been delivered from certain death, we celebrate life everlasting by the grace and mercy of our God.Ned proclaimed himself astonished: "I honestly did not believe anybody could defend killing somebody for picking up sticks." This makes sense, for in the context of his theology the two "personalities" of God are incompatible. He lacks the godly context. In his words: "God is still hardly compassionate, or loving if he holds us 'lesser beings' to an impossible standard, and sentences death to those who transgress."
From a man-centered perspective, his reasoning is understandable, though no less wrong. The church needs to relearn how to answer him, for his sake as well as our own:
Gathering wood on the Sabbath in OT Israel signified more than just a need for more firewood. It signified a blatant and public disregard for God's holy law ... The theme throughout Scripture is that the infinite, eternal, almighty God is holy, holy, holy! Our refusal to regard Him as such (for example, by flagrantly breaking His commandments) is a sign of our arrogance--very serious business indeed. The fact that we are so dismissive of His holiness is what makes his compassion so remarkable.Grace is "amazing" only in light of our sin and God's holiness. We proclaim a gospel of peace with God, which means little to a world -- and a church -- which doesn't recognize that absent Christ's interceding work, our sin has put us at war with Him.