Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mercy Triumphs over Judgment, but Judgment Comes First

We are embarrassed by God’s promises of judgment, especially in the face of liberal criticism of the “genocidal” Old Testament accounts. We tend to feel that He is a bit extreme at times. Some self-designated Christians have even abandoned this biblical conception of God. Karl Giberson, in Saving Darwin, tried to argue in favor of how we can readily be an evolutionist and a Christian. However, at his Biologos blog, he later revealed:

• “In The God Delusion [evolutionist and New Atheist Richard] Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities. But who believes in this deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.” http://biologos.org/blog/exposing-the-straw-men-of-new-atheism-part-five/

However, this discomfort with the righteous God of the Bible is not new, nor is it merely found among the unfaithful. Even though God had given Israel everything (Jeremiah 2:21), Israel rejected her God so thoroughly that he challenged Jeremiah to find just one truth-seeker:

• "Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city” (Jeremiah 5:1-2).

Jeremiah was convinced that God’s assessment of Israel was way off, and that he’d have little difficulty finding one such individual, especially among the educated:

• I thought, "These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God. So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God" (Jeremiah 5:4-5).

Jeremiah was like the rest of us. He thought that God’s assessment was overly harsh, and therefore, His threats of judgment were inappropriate. He was convinced that the educated elite were of a wholly superior caliber and merited forgiveness instead of judgment. We too see as Jeremiah. We find little in our peers, colleagues, or family that merits divine judgment. Our peers kiss their wives goodbye in the morning and tell stories to their children at night. They are respected, get promotions and are honored by the community. They might not be perfect, but who is? They’re not like the drunkards and wife-beaters, who clearly deserve judgment. However, according to Scripture, appearances can spread a deceptive veneer over reality. Paul quoted and affirmed the Old Testament’s assessment of human degradation:

• "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (Romans 3:10-12)

Failing to understand this, we remain convinced that humanity only requires a face-lift and not a complete overhaul. We also fail to fathom the necessity of God’s judgments. Failing to understand the necessity of judgment, we also fail to grasp the radically underserved grace of God.

However, if we are going to represent and serve God faithfully, these truths must become our bedrock. If we fail to realize that everything we receive from God is because of His mercy and not because of our merit, we will become intolerably arrogant. It is for this very reason that our Savior chose the lowliest, those who realized that they deserved the least (1 Cor. 1:26-29) and made salvation entirely a matter of a free gift to prevent any boasting (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:24-28; Luke 14:11). In contrast to God, we tend to regard some as worthy candidates for salvation, honoring some, dishonoring others. However, Jesus adamantly denied that any were worthy of salvation (Mat. 19:25-26; Luke 18:14).

It’s all about God’s merit and has nothing to do with our own (Titus 3:3-5). If we fail to understand this, we cannot give God the worship He requires. Jesus taught that we are to worship God in spirit – in the depths of our being – and in truth (John 4:22-24). This means that He gets all the praise and glory.

This may seem egotistical, but it’s this very understanding that we need for our relationships to flourish. Once the Corinthian church strayed from an awareness of their humble estate, love was soon replaced by conflict and unity by factionalism. They began boasting about themselves and their meritorious associations. Paul warned that this was highly destructive of Christian fellowship:

• Dear brothers and sisters... If you pay attention to the Scriptures, you won't brag about one of your leaders at the expense of another. What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that God hasn't given you? And if all you have is from God, why boast as though you have accomplished something on your own? (1 Cor. 4:6-7; NLT)

Boasting will not only undermine human relationships, it will also jeopardize our divine relationship. If Jeremiah was going to serve faithfully, he would have to see as God sees, and there would be no better place to learn this skill than in his home town of Anathoth, where he had come from a respectable family, a family of priests. However, he soon learned that the Anathothians also wanted to kill him:

• Then the LORD told me about the plots my enemies were making against me. I had been as unaware as a lamb on the way to its slaughter. I had no idea that they were planning to kill me! (Jeremiah 11:18-19)

And this was only the beginning! The Lord then warned Jeremiah:

• Even your own brothers, members of your own family, have turned on you. They have plotted, raising a cry against you. Do not trust them, no matter how pleasantly they speak (Jeremiah 12:6).

Jeremiah was beginning to see what it meant to truly follow and identify with the Lord. As the entire nation had turned against their God, they had also turned against Jeremiah:

• Then I said, "What sadness is mine, my mother. Oh, that I had died at birth! I am hated everywhere I go. I am neither a lender who has threatened to foreclose nor a borrower who refuses to pay—yet they all curse me." (Jeremiah 15:10)

After we’ve walked in God’s despised shoes, the idea of judgment becomes far more acceptable. It’s inevitable that rejection will impact the way we regard humanity, and it did for Jeremiah. Before, he struggled with what had seemed to him as God’s lack of compassion for Israel:

• ”Why are you like a stranger to us? Why are you like someone passing through the land, stopping only for the night? … Are you helpless to save us? You are right here among us, LORD. We are known as your people. Please don't abandon us now!" (Jeremiah 14:8-9)

However, after he experienced God’s rejection, his calls for compassion fell silent. Now he wanted the very thing that he had been against – judgment!

• Then I said, "LORD, you know I am suffering for your sake. Punish my persecutors! Don't let them kill me! Be merciful to me and give them what they deserve! (Jeremiah 15:15)

• LORD, you know all about their murderous plots against me. Don't forgive their crimes and blot out their sins. Let them die before you. Deal with them in your anger (Jeremiah 18:23).

• LORD Almighty! You know those who are righteous, and you examine the deepest thoughts of hearts and minds. Let me see your vengeance against them, for I have committed my cause to you (Jeremiah 20:12).

We understand God through the lens of our experiences. When we find acceptance among men, we ask for divine compassion and fail to appreciate God’s reticence. When we don’t experience acceptance, we don’t want our detractors to find acceptance. Instead, we ask God for judgment, and are disturbed when the judgment is slow in coming. Israel had more thoroughly rejected their God than had any of the other nations rejected their own worthless gods:

• "Go west to the land of Cyprus; go east to the land of Kedar. Think about what you see there. See if anyone has ever heard of anything as strange as this. Has any nation ever exchanged its gods for another god, even though its gods are nothing? Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols! (Jeremiah 2:10-11)

It is only after we understand the weightiness of the judgment that we deserve, that we can have any appreciation for grace we don’t deserve. Likewise, it is only after we become aware of the extent of our treachery – something that can only come from God – that we can value forgiveness as we ought.

Jeremiah was beginning to appreciate the extent of his betrayal – even his own family had betrayed him – and the necessity for judgment. He was now ready for a lesson in God’s glorious mercy:

• "I will send disaster upon the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for," says the LORD. This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: "Instead of leading my flock to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them. But I will gather together the remnant of my flock from wherever I have driven them. I will bring them back into their own fold, and they will be fruitful and increase in number. Then I will appoint responsible shepherds to care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one of them will be lost or missing," says the LORD. "For the time is coming," says the LORD, "when I will place a righteous Branch on King David's throne. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. And this is his name: 'The LORD Is Our Righteousness'” (Jeremiah 23:1-6).

From the darkness of judgment, Messiah is best seen for who He is and most fully embraced through a veil of tears and desperation. As the hurricane precedes the rainbow, the bad news must precede the good. The reality of our deserved judgment must serve as the herald for grace. We must suffer with Christ so that we can reign with Him. Judgment (1 Peter 4:17) must precede comfort. There are certain truths we must first learn – the hard way – even as Jeremiah had to learn them.

No comments:

Post a Comment