Monthly Archives: September 2015

Letter 26: The God with Two Faces

Last week, I finally finished reading through the Old Testament. I’ve been at it for a few years, which probably says something about my diligence. It was not easy, especially the last few books, which can get repetitive. God is very angry and will punish His people for their sins.

And yet the Old Testament ends on such a hopeful note:

“Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments.  Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.  And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”

Malachi 4:4-6 (NKJV)

Reading the Old Testament might be likened to viewing God through a kaleidoscope. We see lots of bits and pieces, and as we turn it this way and that, it changes. The one thing we can never see is the whole. It can create significant dissonance, trying to reconcile the bits and pieces. Much like God.

The God revealed in the Old Testament is frequently one many people wish to avoid. He is petulant, angry, direct, vengeful, and terribly forbidding. Many people are put off by Him. His judgmental behavior and apparent willingness to sanction the deaths of millions of people is a primary objection to belief in and acceptance of Him.

The contrast with the New Testament is stark. Jesus reveals a far friendlier face of the Almighty. As is often presented, Jesus is all about love, as opposed to the judgmental God of the Old Testament. We are living in the time of grace. We look down on those who cling to enforcing the old rules as hypocritical Pharisees, and who can find fault with that?

Yet it is our very gleefulness in rebuking others for judgmentalism that gives the lie that there are two different Gods, and that we can choose which one to believe. For in casting our stones, we too, are judging, often with a passion matching an Old Testament prophet. If we look deeper into both Testaments, we can see that this apparent dichotomy permeates the whole of Scripture.

If Jesus is the face of God’s love and acceptance, let’s start with an obvious exception, Jesus’ running exchanges with the Pharisees. He judges, and is harsh in His rebukes. He will later turn the moneychangers and sacrifice salesmen out of the Temple with a whip. Repeatedly, He urges faithfulness, accompanied with the warning that judgment is coming, a time when men shall be divided as a shepherd sorts a mixed flock. For those not destined for the Kingdom, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus has come, He tells us, for Judgment.

Turning to the broader New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira die suddenly and dramatically for lying about giving the whole of the proceeds from a sale of land. (Acts) Peter tells both of them that they have sinned against God, whereupon they die. Peter later calls out Simon the Sorcerer for attempting to buy the power of God. Simon responds in terror. (Acts 8:9-24). A few chapters later, Herod, having put James to death and Peter in prison, receives the adulation of the crowds in Tyre and Sidon, who proclaim him a god. He is suddenly consumed by worms, in a manner worthy of an Indiana Jones film, because he does not dispute this claim to divinity. (Acts 12:19b-24) Still later, Paul’s shipwreck holds echoes of Jonah’s encounter with the great fish.

So what of the Old Testament? Does God show a loving face? There are many passages in the Psalms that speak of God’s love and tenderness. In the prophets, His anger with Israel speaks more of the anger of a spurned lover. He relents of demonstrating His anger at the Israelites’ idolatry in erecting the Golden Calf at the pleading of Moses. (Exodus 32:7-14) He tells the exiles, who have just heard the Law for the first time, that they should not weep, but eat and drink and to take joy in the Lord their God. (Nehemiah 8) And what of His concern for even the cattle of Nineveh? (Jonah 4:11)

So God is both loving and judging. They seem to be an inescapable essence of His Character. I’m not sure if they can be readily reconciled. The stock answer would be to say that they are reconciled in Christ, but He, too, exhibits the same character. I have no answers myself. I only know that God shows both.

Thinking a bit more about it, this kaleidoscopic impression of God actually makes some sense. There are parts of me that are warm and loving (sometimes, at least), and others that can be very judgmental. There is no one consistent thread running through them, except that they are all me. If one wants to look at titles, I am Son, Husband, Brother, Nephew, Cousin, Neighbor, Co-Worker, Employee, etc. Sometimes I am several of these things at once. Is God not the same, though we separate out the personas of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? We are made in His image.

Re-reading these passages, what I see is a God who is very much alive. He loves with passion. He expects much, but He also gives much. He refuses ready categorization, and is full of surprises. One of the curiously common phrases in the Bible is that God is slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6, Num. 14:18m Ps. 86:5, 15, Ps. 103:8, Ps. 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2) I think God realizes that we can easily forget His grace in the face of His wrath.

So, does God wear two faces, Janus-like in His dealings with men? It can seem that way. Justice and Mercy are held in tension, and must remain that way, until all things pass away and we shall know perfectly. For now, we rest in faith upon his goodness, remembering He with whom we contend.

The Two Faces of God

The Two Faces of God


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Letter 25: The Sign of Jonah

In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like the prophet Jonah.  You may remember him chiefly for being held captive inside a large fish for three days.  That’s certainly the part I remember from Sunday School all those years ago.  But that’s not the part I’m thinking about.

If you remember the story, God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh to declare God’s punishment on them.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which had subdued Israel, and now ruled them as a client state.  We can think of it today in terms of being asked by God to travel to an ISIS camp to declare God’s judgment upon them.  Jonah, of course, wants nothing to do with this, and so he takes a ship bound in the opposite direction.  Why?

We have to wait for the end of the book to find out.  In Jonah 4:2-3, the prophet explains himself.  While the mission would seem to be an Israelite’s dream, Jonah knows better.  God isn’t going to smite the Assyrians, He is going to have mercy on them.  And Jonah won’t abide that.  He pouts indignantly.  It’s not clear what he hates more, God’s mercy itself, or his own role as an agent of that mercy.

God is nothing if not patient.  Previously, He had Jonah swallowed by a great fish in the face of a terrific storm.  Jonah was saved from certain drowning, and after repenting of his desire to flee God’s call, Jonah was released to obey that call.  He could appear before the Ninevites as living proof of God’s mercy.  Since Jonah remained recalcitrant, God tried yet again.

While Jonah kept his watch over the city, God caused a gourd vine to rise up to shelter Jonah from the fierceness of the sun (4:6).  The next day, God took the vine away, sending a worm to eat it.  As if that were not enough, God then sent a hot wind off the desert and a blazing sun.  Jonah was scorched, so he pouted, again.

At this point, God chooses to confront Jonah directly.  Why is Jonah so upset?  He has done nothing to help the vine grow or preserve it from pests.  Yet Jonah is so distressed about its fate that he wants to die.  But what, then, of the city of Nineveh, teeming with humans made in the image of God, or the many animals within its limits?  Does God not have the right to be upset about their fate?  Does He not have the right to show mercy?

For the past several years, I have felt increasingly out of touch with the church I attend.  Most of the people I have known, and consider friends, have left.  I do not have much in common with those who remain.  I would much rather be somewhere else, and yet there I remain, and Elder of the church.

Is my discomfort a sign that I should leave, or a sign that God wishes stretch me?

Jonah was clearly stretched.  It amazes me that having received such an extraordinary demonstration of God’s mercy, he could not extend that grace to others.  But am I all that different?  I struggle to extend grace.  I get hung up on others’ sinfulness.  I don’t want to be seen condoning it.  So how do you hate the sin, yet love the sinner?

If I am to serve them, I must love them.  But if that does not come naturally, what then?  Only God’s love and love them, and He can only love pour that love through me if I yield to it.  We make it sound the simplest thing to do, yet I am finding it so hard.  It’s the funny thing, we all yearn to be used of God, but we rarely give a thought as to how He might choose to use us.

Pray for me.jonah

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