Tuesday, July 23, 2019

No Way to Think About God

“Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.”

“You shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel.”

Throughout history, when God has made his dwelling with men, he has always made gracious provision for our fallen state and inevitable sinfulness. Proximity to perfection is a dangerous thing, a fact God has stated repeatedly. Yet somehow, the idea continues to circulate that God’s holiness is some sort of optional feature of his character, one that may be turned off and on at will.

Nobody puts it quite that way, of course.

Shifting Polarities

Rather, they say things like:
“Why was the Old Testament God so angry, yet Jesus was so peaceful?”

“The problem I have with the Bible is that the Old Testament seems to conflict with the New. The Old demonstrates God’s wrath, whereas the New demonstrates his love. Does God have a split personality?”
If these descriptions of God alternating between anger and peace, wrath and love are the least bit accurate, then we are talking about an all-powerful being whose personality switch flips unpredictably from one mode to another, an unfortunate tendency God should surely learn to manage better if he wants to be as stable and integrated as we human beings are. Or so goes the thinking. The implicit argument is not just that one mode must be “wrong” and the other “right”, or that one way of revealing himself to man is preferable to the other. It is that the very process of alternating back and forth is evidence something is wrong with the Creator at a very basic level; or perhaps that the Bible, in ascribing such a colorful emotional palate to such a powerful being, is simply not credible at all.

Needless to say, this is a highly misleading way to think about the Divine nature.

Split Personality?

Notice nobody is saying God turns his holiness on and off at will, though some certainly seem to think he should be better able to manage his anger. In fact, if you Google twenty of this sort of quote at random, you’ll find a funny thing: the word “holiness” will almost surely not appear anywhere. You’ll find the word “wrath” all over the place, but never the original cause of God’s wrath, which, biblically-speaking, is the violence done by men against his holy nature. His anger is never petulant or merely emotional. He does not overreact. How could he? God is never caught by surprise.

Of all things, God most certainly does not show the least evidence of what we would call a split personality. As any careful study of the Old Testament invariably shows, God not only manifested himself as gracious and merciful throughout Israel’s history, but his people perceived him that way most of the time too — by which I mean the very people who were most frequently the objects of God’s Old Testament wrath. Further, as any careful study of the New Testament shows, Christ’s wrath is as unequivocally displayed to us as is his love.

These are the facts. Half an hour with a concordance should make them crystal clear to anyone. God’s character is quite consistent from one Testament to another.

Why So Confused?

So then, why is God’s consistency of character so poorly understood?

Well, one obvious factor is time. In print, the Old Testament takes up only three times as many pages as the New, but it actually covers more than fifty times as much human history. Viewed with this is mind, it is apparent God’s expressions of wrath in the Old Testament are actually rare events, not daily occurrences. Many generations passed in which sinful men and women went about their business unperturbed and heaven remained mercifully silent. In the Old Testament, the process of God developing his relationship with mankind over time is severely condensed in a way that is not readily apparent to the cursory reader.

A second complicating factor is what gets reported. For example, one great catastrophic expression of God’s wrath took place during the New Testament years that is not recounted there at all. Though prophesied by Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus himself, you have to look to secular history to read about Titus’s A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem, in which it is claimed that up to a million lives were lost. This is obviously a vastly greater expression of God’s wrath than many or even most of the recorded Old Testament incidents, but again, the cursory reader does not notice this.

A third confusing factor is proximity. The closer God comes to mankind, the more dangerous it is for us. If God is indeed innately holy, as scripture describes him, then this is exactly the sort of problem we should expect to encounter. The frequency with which Israel experienced God’s judgment in the Old Testament is directly related to the fact that God was dwelling among them at the time, and doing so very much at their own request. His from-a-distance judgments of the nations are far less common events. If the issue of proximity is not noticed, the expression of God’s wrath against sin may seem intermittent and arbitrary. In fact, it is quite predictable.

Emotions and Wrath

However, the greatest and most obvious difficulty with easily apprehending God’s consistency of character from testament to testament is our tendency to associate expressions of wrath with angry feelings, when they ought properly to be understood as originating in God’s abiding, innate holiness.

This is a very natural mistake. We humans feel furious, and we react. Some of us can’t wait even a moment to do so. Having, so to speak, ‘got it out of our system’, we are sometimes even prepared to tolerate worse behavior after we have vented our wrath than we tolerated before it. After all, most of us have only so much ire we can express at any given time. Our ill-temper subsides, our attention drifts and minor violations become overshadowed by greater ones. There is no particular consistency or justice to unmoderated human wrath.

But God is not like this at all. If we allow the anthropomorphic language of scripture to give us the impression that God is as emotional as we are, and his wrath merely an intermittent thing whose expression is dictated by the state of his digestion, we will end up grossly mistaken about him. Because he is always utterly holy, God’s wrath against sin is continuous and unending. The expression of that wrath may be delayed, sometimes for centuries, but it can only be finally satisfied in one very specific, prescribed way.

Abiding Wrath

Consider the following verses:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction ...”

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven ...”
God’s wrath abides. It does not come and go like the anger of men. Sometimes he reveals it, and sometimes he draws the curtain on it. Most of the time he endures “with much patience”. But until the question of human sin has been dealt with once and for all, God’s wrath remains. How could it not? After all, his holiness does not come and go with the weather. “I the Lord do not change,” he says. He cannot think differently about sin today than yesterday. He cannot excuse it the way we do because he is feeling particularly magnanimous today, then recall it tomorrow and suddenly and unexpectedly express his fury.

This being the case, we ought to be very careful how we think about God’s wrath. The fact that he expresses it in a particular way at a particular time and place does not at all mean it has been permanently sated. It doesn’t mean it is not simmering away at other ongoing violations of his unremitting holiness. It doesn’t mean just because things seem to be going well for us, that you and I are not rightful and inevitable objects of God’s wrath — unless, of course, we have taken refuge in Christ.

All this is to say that so long as we live in a fallen world and continue to sin against God, it is never a question of whether his wrath is eventually going to be expressed. It is merely a question of when and how it will be expressed. His holiness demands that.

The Effect of Proximity

We can see from the quotes at the beginning of this post that when God made his tent with the people of Israel, his proximity made expressions of his wrath a regular occurrence in the Israelite camp. There was no getting around this. A holy God requires a holy people. There were only ever two options: for wrath to break out whenever Israel sinned egregiously, or for God to go away. So God made every possible provision to ensure the people did not sin against him, not because he was hateful or intemperate, but because it was impossible for a holy God not to respond to direct and deliberate provocation in due course. To fail to do so would be to deny himself. What may initially appear to us as ominous mutterings from an unstable deity are actually acts of grace. The whole point of the exercise, as God repeated says himself, is that “they NOT die”.

Likewise, the expression of God’s wrath that occurred in the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was directly related to the persistent, deliberate, wicked rejection of God’s beloved Son. And if we listen carefully, we can hear that same carefully contained wrath and that same difficult choice between expressing it and going away articulated by the Lord Jesus himself:
“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”
Just like his Father, the Son kept his anger in check until the appropriate time. Believe me, it’s coming.

Bisecting the Eternal

Depending on who is doing the talking, the split-personality God is a figment, a false trope or even an outright lie. The person who takes this position may have been misled into genuinely believing it. It could be the product of confusion, misunderstanding, inadequate reading of the Old Testament ... or it could be the product of unbelief, bisecting the eternal God into a pair of wholly inadequate and misleading characterizations for the purpose of turning men and woman away from him, and toward a contemporary and false “Jesus” of our own construction, one who will give us exactly what it is we have already decided we want from him.

That is no way to think about God.

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