Getting to Know God Meditations: 17. God of Under-girding Love
1 Jn 4:8,16 God is love
Ex 34:6,7 “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
God is Love? The apostle John said it most simply: “God is love”. Notice He IS love, not love is God, but He IS love, everything about Him is love. It has to mean that everything He thinks, says or does is an expression of love. This love under-girds everything that happens to do with God! When He revealed Himself to Moses (one of the early revelations about the character and nature of God) see the descriptions above, especially “abounding in love”. Abounding suggests overflowing with, excessively so. Now this is a challenge when we come to read the Bible because it means we need to read what happens through this filter and sometimes ask, “How is what is happening here, an expression of love?” and when we do that we will start thinking more intelligently and with much more understanding, not only of God but of ourselves, the human race.
But what about…? Now let’s face the elephant in the room, as they often say today, the big thing lurking in the background that we prefer to ignore. Christians try to ignore this ‘elephant’, this enormous thing in the background, which is the complaint of the atheistic skeptic, “If your God is a God of love, how come He is involved in genocide, wiping out whole nations, men, women and children?” I confess I struggle with the hypocrisy of this in the light of a period of recent history where it was recognized that for the greater good, whole cities were bombed into extinction almost, by both sides (Coventry and Dresden), and entire populations wiped out twice by H-bombs in Japan. But that is a bigger story but the lesson is still basic: in this fallen world we sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils. Evils yes, but the only path through horror to reduce it.
Misunderstandings: Part of our confusion – the negative question above – comes from an inability to read scripture comprehensively. For example, the above accusation arises again and again in respect of the incident that was part of the whole Exodus scenario where Israel are told to oust the occupants of Canaan. Now I have never yet come across a critic who has carefully read the entire Pentateuch (the first five books, and for good measure add Joshua) for if they had they would know that the instructions from God to Israel contain the words “drive out” over thirty times and the words about ‘wiping out’ less than half a dozen times. The full picture is that God’s intent was for the land to be cleared. Most people in the area heard of the might of this people (over a million) moving through the lands and fear went ahead of them, fear that was designed to get the enemy to flee. God’s primary intent was that the occupants would be driven out of the land and only if they resisted and fought Israel would the normal effects of war follow (death for all involved – talk to people who experienced the Blitz in London in the last World War!).
Discipline or Judgment: Again another aspect of this same cavilling criticism comes in the form of, “Is the God of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament, one a God of love, the other a God of judgment? The Old Testament seems full of His judgments!” Well, actually so is the New, but let’s examine the language that is being used. ‘Discipline’ means to bring about correction. Discipline may or may not be part of so-called ‘judgement’. Now I researched for a book entitled “The Judgments of a Loving God” and investigated every judgement in the Bible that originated with God (be careful, some acts of destruction were not God originated, but people originated). Let me tell you some of my careful conclusions.
First, we may categorize judgments in two ways: a) as ‘disciplinary judgments’ that are designed to bring about change of behaviour, and don’t focus on death, and b) terminal judgments or judgments of the last resort, that bring death.
Disciplinary judgments: These, I would suggest from the record, showing the principle in Rom 1:24-32, where we find such words as “God gave them over to” which implies God lifted off His hand of restraint or protection (that we so often take for granted) from mankind or a part of it. The result is that either i) the sin that was running rampant is allowed total free reign so that it implodes upon itself until people repent (which is happening in the West at the present), or ii) His hand of protection is removed from His people so that they stand on their own, as their current behaviour indicates they want to, and become vulnerable to attacks from surrounding enemy neighbours, until they repent. We see this latter cycle again and again, we’ve already noted, in the book of Judges. Note in both cases the pain that comes in such instances is not from God but from increasing sin or the behaviour of other sinful people. We so often blame God in such situations but the reality is that He just steps back and lets the effects of our own sinful behaviour run amok.
Terminal Judgments: These are ones where people die, apparently at the hand of God. People do die at the hands of other humans sometimes in disciplinary judgments but that is the work of sin and not God. Where there are terminal judgments, apparently brought by the hand of God, I have given these a sub-label of ‘judgments of the last resort’ because it appears that nothing else God could do would restrain or control the situation to halt the destruction that mankind was already bringing on itself. Again and again in such cases we need to investigate carefully what was going on and see the awfulness of the pagan practices or behaviour that God was acting against to limit the self-destruction that was going on – and which was spreading like a cancer.
Over-riding Principles: Because these criticisms seem to arise again and again, even among the poorly read Christian community, I find I have to write these things again and again, and again and again I have to declare Scripture and say, think about what it says. Where there are general criticisms against the God of love, just think of the wonderful world He has given us (which we abuse) and observe in Scripture the wonderful things He did for His people, despite their constant failings. Where there is a song of praise and expressions about God’s love, they are so often linked to His acts of redemption and salvation generally, for example, “Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes,” (Psa 17:7) or “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? …. “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.” (Ex 11:13,15).
However, the big declarations of God’s intent come through the mouth of the great prophet Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23), and, “Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:31,32) and, “‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezek 33:11) which perhaps is also captured by the apostle Peter in his second letter: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) supported by his later words, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” (v.15)
And So? The Bible speaks of God as a God of love. That love is often shown by restraint, is always shown by His grace and His provision (both of which we need to consider more fully in the days ahead), is sometimes seen in the way He steps back and allows us to do our own thing until we come to our own senses, and rarely by His acts where life is forfeited for the good of the greater population (always after much time has been given for change of behaviour and attitude to come about after many warnings had been given).
Always at the conclusion of such a study as this, I feel we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ amazing parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24) where the son demands his rightful inheritance, goes and wastes it until he is left envying the pigs in his care for the food they have. There are two primary aspects of the parable: first the son, representing us and our folly in rejecting the Father, and then the amazing father, representing God, who allows the son his demands, allows him to ruin his life, but welcomes him back with open loving arms the moment he decides to return. THAT is the God of love we see throughout the Bible.