The Kindness and the Severity of God

Why Jesus is My Hero #47 of 52

Have you ever heard people make a distinction between the seemingly vengeful, angry God of the Old Testament and the kind, loving God of the New Testament? What is God actually like? Which picture of God are we to believe?

In reality it’s an entirely false distinction – time and time again, both the Old and the New Testaments emphasise both of these aspects of God’s character side by side: both the kindness and the severity of God, the mercy of God side by side with the holiness of God.

Numbers 16 is a good representative passage. The constant grumbling of the people of Israel as they wander through the wilderness has finally broken out into outright rebellion against Moses & Aaron, and ultimately against God himself.

“They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?'”

The passage stresses that this grumbling and rebellion is a very serious matter. Grumbling is highly addictive and can spread rapidly throughout a community – instead of responding to God in humble submission and thankfulness for what he had done, all they could see was the negatives and how they wanted things to be different.

As events unfold, it quickly becomes apparent just how offensive this kind of grumbling is to God:

“Moses said, ‘Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.
And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.'”

It’s a deeply sobering passage as we see God acting in judgement against the sin of the people. God clearly displays his severity.

And yet God also displays his kindness:

“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer, and put fire on it from the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.’ So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.”

God provides Moses and Aaron to intercede on behalf of the people, and provides a way for the people’s sin to be atoned for – that is, something to turn aside God’s anger and allow restored relationship to take place.

The God of the New Testament is exactly the same God we see in this passage. Nowhere are these two aspects of God’s character, his holiness and his mercy, more clearly demonstrated side by side than at the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross God shows us more starkly than ever just how serious our sin is, that he can’t simply sweep it under the carpet, that it must be judged according to the holy purity of God’s character – in giving up his one and only Son to die, God shows that there is simply no other way. Yet God also proves his mercy beyond doubt, in punishing his Son in our place so that we can be forgiven, so that we can go free. He died the death that we deserved – his death atoned for us, if we’ll trust in him. Like Aaron and his censer, Jesus’ cross stands between the dead and the living and makes all the difference in the world.

The kindness of God, and the severity of God, side by side, shown at the cross. It’s a thought that should deeply humble us, as we recognise the seriousness of our sin, and how deeply it grieves God. But it’s also a thought that should make us profoundly grateful, as we rejoice in the free and full forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ – that we don’t need to pay the penalty for our sin ourselves, because it’s already been dealth with.

Fretting and Procrastination – What They Have In Common

anxiety disorders

I’m an accomplished procrastinator, and yesterday I did a fair bit of fretting as well, and I’ve come to an important realisation about what these two traits of mine have in common, with some big implications for how to deal with them: both procrastination and fretting ultimately involve wasting time being anxious about a problem rather than dealing with a problem.

Firstly, some definitions:

  • Procrastination is when you know you’re supposed to be doing something, but it just seems too much like hard work, so you put it off and waste time doing something less important that you’d rather be doing instead.
  • Fretting is when you’re anxiously thinking about a situation and all the ways in which it might go wrong and all the problems that might arise and what about this and what about that and… agh, make it stop!

I’ve written before that the root of so much of my procrastination is uncertainty – for example why I never seem to be able to bring myself to wash up my parents’ teapot when I go to visit:

“The reason I always left the teapot is that I never quite knew what to do with it – it clearly needed some kind of cleaning action applied to it and yet it was so grimy and dirty inside and I didn’t really want my future cups of tea to taste of washing up liquid and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it and – Agh! Uncertainty. My brain gets scared and shuts down and prefers to leave it rather than figure it out and deal with it.”

For me, procrastination is a fear of what would actually be involved in solving the problem I’m avoiding. It’s running scared instead of embracing the problem and getting on with it.

And I’ve realised that fretting is exactly the same. When facing a potentially stressful situation, there are two possibilities:

  1. The situation is entirely outside of my control, and no amount of fretting is going to prevent the situation going wrong. In this situation I just need to pray and entrust it to God, knowing that he is good and that he loves me and that if things go wrong it’s only because he permitted it.
  2. Or maybe there is something I could do to address the situation, maybe being prepared for some of the ways it could go wrong, maybe asking some sensible questions of the people who know the situation better than I do, anything at all to actually get on with addressing the source of the anxiety. In this situation, I should probably just get on and deal with things.

But in neither situation is anything achieved by sitting there and fretting! Just like procrastination, fretting is running scared instead of embracing the problem and getting on with it.

Being anxious isn’t just a personality quirk – I firmly believe that it is an expression of my sinfulness. It’s a failure to trust God for the future, and to get on and do what I can to serve him in the present. Realising this fact has been a helpful step towards growing less anxious, by his grace – even if there is still an awful long way to go!

Book Review: Walking With Gay Friends

The following is a guest post by my friend Dave.

Has anyone ever asked you to change?

Not just your clothes – though that could be part of it. Has anyone ever asked you to change your behaviour?
Has anyone ever asked you to change not just your behaviour, but the way you think?
Has anyone ever asked you to change not just your behaviour and the way you think, but also the things you believe and the feelings you have?
To change your behaviour, the way you think, your beliefs, your feelings, the people you hang out with, the places you go, and the dreams you have for the future?
To dump your partner, to ditch the friends who love you the most, to turn away from the only people who seem to understand and support you, and to eradicate pretty much everything that makes you you – your entire identity?

If you can answer “no” then you are probably not a gay person investigating the Christian faith.

We all know that homosexuality and Christianity are not particularly amicable companions. While tempers are especially high at the moment, in the wake of the government’s proposals to allow gay marriage, historically neither side has tended to come to the debate demonstrating a great deal of tact, respect or understanding. In a recent article on the Guardian website, one group’s viewpoint was described as a rampant, sickening plague. In this particular case, that was the author talking about a church – but we’ve all seen the same sort of language wielded by self-professed Christians against the gay community. “Objections to equal marriage rights are, as ever, only bigotry hastily smeared with religious justification”, claims the author of the article, and, sadly, that can often be the case. Even smart, well-educated, Biblically-knowledgeable Christians can be hopelessly bigoted, ignorant, or just painfully insensitive when it comes to issues of same sex attraction.

Which is why every evangelical Christian should read Alex Tylee’s short book “Walking with Gay Friends“.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have any.

For one thing, you may. Same sex attraction issues are common, and most Christians who wrestle with them don’t tend to shout about it. Would you?

For another thing, the storm brewing around the marriage proposals means that more and more people are going to be taking note of what the church has to say on the subject. It is vital that there are at least a few Christians out there who can navigate the turbulent course between the twin evils of Bible-denying liberalism and Bible-distorting homophobia.

Thirdly, even well-meaning Christians, who have thought through the issues, and know how to argue against homosexual practices from the Bible (which means not just crying “The Bible says it’s wrong”, but being able to show how the Bible says it’s wrong), can still be guilty of gross insensitivity toward their struggling brothers and sisters. If you can’t see how the questions at the start of this post relate to this topic, for instance, then you definitely need to read the book. Telling someone that they need to “stop being gay” if they want to become a Christian is not like telling someone they need to stop swearing, or wearing short skirts, or beating up pensioners. There are deep issues of identity involved that will require huge amounts of love, support, understanding and encouragement to work through.

(It’s worth saying that even the top guys mess this stuff up. Around three thousand Christian men recently went to the London Men’s Convention, for an excellent day of Bible teaching, praise and fellowship. Estimates vary hugely as to what proportion of the population experience homosexual urges, but in a group of three thousand there could have been anywhere from 30 to 300 (or more) men there for whom this is a painful battle. Inside the complimentary booklet, Evangelicals Now chose to run a full-page advert featuring a buff, topless man. One of my friends commented that it looked like the cover of a gay magazine.)

Walking with Gay Friends is subtitled “A journey of informed compassion”, and it’s the word informed which, I think, is this book’s strongest recommendation. Written with an insider’s perspective on same sex attraction issues, the book gives the heterosexual reader an eloquent and frank insight into the pains and sacrifices a homosexual person faces when called to be obedient to the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality. Alex includes many quotes from Christian strugglers, highlighting some of the good and bad experiences they have had at the hands of their church families, and while there are some encouraging descriptions of things going well, the overall picture that emerges is of a church family that doesn’t seem to know how to understand their struggle or how to support them in it. A church that is generally ill informed.

In all the debate, it’s easy to lose sight of an important truth: the greatest problem that a gay person faces is the same problem that faces us all. We are all equally guilty in God’s sight – all of us, straight or gay, need to turn to Christ for forgiveness. Gay people need the gospel as urgently as everyone else. And this is why the church desperately needs to be better informed. Because someone who is dealing with the burden of homosexuality naturally wants to find a group who will care for them, encourage them, understand them, and make them feel accepted and wanted. And at the moment it’s the gay community who are fulfilling that role, not the church.

Please read this book.


Why Jesus Is My Hero #46 of 52

Do you ever take it for granted that God would be on your side? That if there is a God out there, and if you could ever find a way to meet him, that he’d be really thrilled to see you? Maybe you’ve spent your whole life trying to live for him, so of course he’s a really big fan of yours!

Well the Bible says that by rights, in a world where people get what they deserve, God should be decidedly against us. By nature, there exists hostility and enmity between God and us. I phrased it that way deliberately: hostility from God towards us, as God rightly stands in judgement against our instinctive hostility towards him. As Romans 1 puts it: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

So we have a problem. It doesn’t matter how much we try and seek God, how many good works we do or how much money we try and donate to worthy causes – if we’re trying to get to God by our own efforts, then we can never overcome God’s hostility towards people who have treated him with the contempt which we have all shown towards him. The hostility is on God’s side, the wrath belongs to God, and so any solution has to come from and originate with God.

This is precisely why the message of Good Friday is such good news, as we discover that on the cross God was providing a way to remove the hostility that existed between us, and to allow for reconciliation to occur – for us to be restored into a loving relationship with him. The apostle Paul describes it like so in this wonderful passage, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21:

“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

… All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

On the cross, God’s wrath against our sin was poured out on the innocent, Jesus Christ. He absorbed that hostility that we deserve so that if we commit ourselves to him, God might now treat us as his friends – more than that, as his children! It means we can pray to him with confidence, trust him to act towards us in love for our good, enjoy spending time listening to him as he speaks to us in his word, delight in the gospel of peace full of the hope of eternal life. None of these are things that we can take for granted – none of these are privileges that we should be able to enjoy by rights. We were by nature children of wrath, and only by his grace are we now made children of light.

That’s why Good Friday is such good news, and that’s why Jesus is my hero.

Jesus Was Innocent

Why Jesus Is My Hero #45 of 52

We don’t often think about it like this, but at the end of the day, Christians follow a condemned criminal. Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a Roman cross on charges of treason against the Emperor, amidst additional accusations of blasphemy. If there’s any truth to these claims – if Jesus was rightly condemned as a criminal – then the whole Christian faith is a complete sham and holds out no hope of salvation whatsoever.

It’s no wonder, then, that in his gospel – designed to bolster the confidence of doubting Christians – Luke should be at such pains to stress the complete innocence of Jesus. His account of the accusation states it again and again, designed to show us that Jesus is utterly above reproach in the matters under examination. Pilate’s initial investigations prompt him to decree “I find no guilt in this man.” After trying to abdicate responsibility to a thoroughly ambivalent Herod, he is forced to respond like so:

“After examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” (Luke 23:15-16)

Even the criminal on the cross next to Jesus is presented as a witness by Luke, stating “this man has done nothing wrong”, and then to wrap up the passage, we have the Roman centurion declaring “Certainly this man was innocent!”

It’s hard to miss the point that Luke is making: yes Jesus was executed on a cross, but it wasn’t because there was the least shred of evidence against Jesus. He was completely innocent of wrongdoing. If Jesus died on the cross, it’s only because he allowed it to happen – only because he chose to die. That’s clear from way back in chapter 9 of Luke, where after Jesus has predicted his death, we read that “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. ” (Luke 9:51). Jesus died for a purpose, freely of his own choosing.

What was that purpose? Simply put, innocent Jesus died so that the guilty might go free. What better visual aid could there be than that of Barabbus, who Luke twice describes as “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder”. This clearly guilty man is released from prison as Jesus is put to death despite his obvious innocence. This is the glory of the cross – that Jesus died as a substitute in the place of guilty men and women so that they might live. The just punishment that our sins deserve was poured out on Jesus in our place instead of on us, so that God can accept us as though we were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

That’s why Jesus is my hero – because he’s the only reason that I can stand before a holy God with any shred of confidence. He has paid the price for my sin, because he had no sin of his own.