Sunday, January 16, 2011

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What About the "Mean" God?

One thing about social networking is that deep theological discussions can emerge out of thin air. Such was the case yesterday, when a dear friend of mine posted a celebration of God's goodness:
"But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." - Psalm 86:15
Now 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 NAB
Ned 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.

7 comments:

  1. I think this may be the best post you have written (at least from my reading), Jailer. Thank you!

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  2. I like this topic for various reasons. I confess that I too often have questions similar to Ned's. Up front, please know I do see your points expressed about God being Holy and our limitations limited from an earthy perspective.

    Through my continued walk and growth with the Lord I have received discernment to recognize when others and myself are either in the "Spirit" or "flesh." And I believe God directs my path, often.

    My short take is: Just as the Israelites battled spiritual warfare, so do we. Different scenery, same inner battles and triumphs.

    Several times each week I wonder why God spares some people ( even crooks and murderers ) from diseases, or ruthless dictators live, yet allows suicide bombers get their way on busses in Israel? Why not have the bomb blow up against the terrorists enough times and they might turn away from murder of innocent lives.

    My late dad passed away in 1979 at the young age of 46 from a struggle with pancreotic cancer. I watched helplessly as he turned into a skeloton, while being brave. I spent countless days, as did he, in prayer and in church. My dad never even got to see me graduate high school. At times I remain angry at God for taking him away when my sisters, mom and I needed him so much. I lost out on a mentor and drifted through my adult life from job to job. I take responsibility now, but for years I was jolted, because my sisters and mom clung to one another and casted me aside ever since.

    My mom recently died of cancer in November and last week my best friend died of a brain aneursym at age 50. To add insult, my dog is dying of a brain tumor. Oh, and did I mention I am trying everything I can do to hold my marriage together!

    Yet, I do feel blessed by enough friends and a caring God who wants me to see the big picture -Heaven - where we should build our treasures. This Christian walk is not easy.

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  3. Very good read and as Christians we need to be able to give an answer to these kinds of questions, where folks either of the World or of the Church claim that God has personalities, He's mean in OT and nice in NT....almost as if the Father is mean and Jesus is nice. I lead a Bible study at the Chinese church and the majority if not all the students have no concept on how to harmonize the OT and NT. It's no wonder, today's modern bubblegum theology largely ignores the kind of teaching that brother Raymond addresses here.

    What folks don't realize and I at once had this same problem is that whatever God does is good. If God decides to take someone for reasons our human minds cannot explain, that is good. God is the standard, He defines the term, He is the rule. God is sovereign over morality, over judgement, death and life.

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  4. I understand what you are saying however I do not see God refer to himself anywhere in the word as mean. I realize as a Church we must recognize there are consequenses to our actions however like my children I am not mean to them. I love them and desire good even in the midst of correcting there behavior. You see even in the word when God gets angry, he is not angry for any other reason than love. Unconditional love has nothing to do with the behavior of the one receiving it but has everything to do with nature of the one givng it.

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  5. Yes, in my five years as a "new" Christian, I have never heard a sermon on Hell. Like a Christian friend said the other day: "No one talks about Hell anymore." We only talk about God's mercy and love and grace -- not about His holiness and righteousness, which bring out the "meanness" in Him. However, I for one am in love with God because of His nicer attributes -- His mercy and humility are so beautiful... I don't know if I could love Him if I did not first come understand His nicer side first..

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  6. I don't think we have a mean God. I think we provoke Him to discipline or wrath because of His rules, His holiness, HIs plan

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  7. Another great word from you jailer. God has not gone soft on sin. It must be punished. However, thank you Father that the sins of believers in His Son Christ Jesus have already been punished on the body of Jesus. He who knew no sin became sin so that we may become the righteousness of God.

    The new covenant is one of grace. The law hasn't changed and our commandment to be perfect hasn't changed but almighty God chose to fulfill the law through the blood of the perfect lamb, Christ Jesus.

    When you accept this through faith, I guarantee that your love for Jesus will be incredible

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