Friday, May 11, 2018

A Gentle God

While we are traveling in the car, my wife and I like to listen to audiobooks. One of the books we have listened to is Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. We enjoyed the book so much that I looked for other audiobooks by L. M. Montgomery. I found and purchased her book, The Story Girl. We enjoyed listening to it as well.

The Story Girl was published in 1911 and tells of the adventures of a group of young cousins and their friends who live on Prince Edward Island. The book is narrated by Beverley, who with his brother Felix, has come to live with his Aunt and Uncle on their farm while their father travels for business. The Story Girl is their cousin Sara Stanley, whose many stories fill the book.

One story in the book caught my attention. I want to share the story with you. While the schoolkids were on their way home from school, Felix has some exciting news. "Jerry Cowan told me at recess this afternoon that he had seen a picture of God–that he has it at home in an old, red-covered history of the world, and has looked at it often."

This bit of news caused a lot of discussion from the little group. They all wanted to know what God looked like. The next day they asked Jerry to bring the book to school so they could see the picture. He told them that he couldn't bring the book to school, but if they wanted to buy the picture, he would tear it out of the book and sell it to them for fifty cents.

They wanted the picture so much that they pooled their resources and came up with the fifty cents. Jerry met up with the group after school and brought the page from the book wrapped in newspaper. They paid him the money but did not open the packet until he had gone.

L. M. Montgomery described the scene this way. "Cecily," said Felicity in a hushed tone. "You are the best of us all. You open the parcel." "Oh, I'm no gooder than the rest of you," breathed Cecily, "but I'll open it if you like."

With trembling fingers, Cecily opened the parcel. We stood around, hardly breathing. She unfolded it and held it up. We saw it. Suddenly Sara began to cry. "Oh, oh, oh, does God look like that?” she wailed.

Felix and I spoke not. Disappointment and something worse sealed our speech. Did God look like that–like that stern, angrily frowning old man with the tossing hair and beard of the wood-cut Cecily held? "I suppose He must since that is His picture," said Dan miserably. "He looks awful cross," said Peter simply. "Oh, I wish we'd never, never seen it," cried Cecily.

We all wished that–too late. Our curiosity had led us into some Holy of Holies, not to be profaned by human eyes, and this was our punishment.

When they showed the picture to the Story Girl, she said, "Surely you don't believe God looks like that. He doesn't–He couldn't. He is wonderful and beautiful. I'm surprised at you. That is nothing but the picture of a cross old man." Hope sprang up in our hearts, although we were not wholly convinced.

"I don't know," said Dan dubiously. "It says under the picture 'God in the Garden of Eden.' It's printed." "Well, I suppose that's what the man who drew it thought God was like," answered the Story Girl carelessly. "But he couldn't have known any more than you do. He had never seen Him."
"It's all very well for you to say so," said Felicity, "but you don't know either. I wish I could believe that isn't like God–but I don't know what to believe."

Just like these children, far too many of us don’t know what to believe. There are so many pictures of God that we see every day. God’s professed followers often paint horrific pictures of God; Pictures of hatred toward other races and religions, pictures of intolerance. Pictures of an unjust God who burns and tortures people for eternity, pictures of a God who must be feared.

The children decided to ask their minister about this disturbing picture. Felix was sent to ask him while the rest of them remained in the background but within hearing. "Well, Felix, what is it?" asked Mr. Marwood kindly.

"Please, sir, does God really look like this?" asked Felix, holding out the picture. "We hope He doesn't–but we want to know the truth, and that is why I'm bothering you. Please excuse us and tell me."

The minister looked at the picture. A stern expression came into his gentle blue eyes, and he got as near to frowning as it was possible for him to get. "Where did you get that thing?" he asked. Thing! We began to breathe easier.

"We bought it from Jerry Cowan. He found it in a red-covered history of the world. It says it's God's picture," said Felix. "It is nothing of the sort," said Mr. Marwood indignantly. "There is no such thing as a picture of God, Felix. No human being knows what he looks like–no human being can know. We should not even try to think what He looks like. But, Felix, you may be sure that God is infinitely more beautiful and loving and tender and kind than anything we can imagine of Him. Never believe anything else, my boy.

I believe that Mr. Marwood got it right. God is infinitely more beautiful and loving and tender and kind than anything we can imagine of Him.

We need to be very careful of the picture of God that we paint. For some people, the only picture of God that they can see is the one that we paint. Psalms 86:15 says, “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.” Is that the God in your picture?

God has been a victim of character assassination. Unfortunately, it is not just his enemies who do this work; it is also people who claim to serve and follow him.

Character assassination is an attempt to tarnish a person's reputation. It may involve exaggeration or manipulation of facts to present a misleading picture of the person. Such acts are often difficult to reverse or rectify, and the process is compared to a literal assassination. The damage can last a lifetime or, for historical figures, for many centuries after their death.

In practice, character assassination may involve double speak, spreading of rumors, innuendo or deliberate misinformation on topics relating to the subject's morals, integrity, and reputation. It may include spinning information that is technically correct, but that is presented misleadingly or without the necessary context.

It seems like character assassination has become commonplace. I know that I have been a victim. We live in a culture that revolves around putting people down in any manner possible. Politics seems like nothing but character assassination. Each politician or pundit tries to smear the opposing side. In Leviticus 19:16 God tells his people “Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.” Although gossip and character assassination are commonplace, a Christian should be involved with them.

Character assassination is a serious issue, but there is a type of character assassination that is even more serious; the assassination of God’s character.

The first time we find character assassination in the Bible is in Genesis Chapter 3. There Satan, disguised as a beautiful serpent, tells Eve half-truths and lies and gets her to believe them instead of what God has told her.

Satan invented character assassination. We know that he used it in heaven. He was so good at it that he convinced one-third of the angels to believe him instead of God. It is the method that he uses to separate people from God. Ellen White wrote, “It is Satan's constant effort to misrepresent the character of God.  At the same time, he causes men to cherish false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear.” We want to make sure that we aren’t working for him by giving people the wrong idea about God’s character. It can happen to even the best Christians.

If we claim to speak for God, we must not misrepresent the kind of God he is. There is nothing more serious than to picture God as he does not wish to be seen. We must be careful with how we picture God to others.

Do you portray a harsh, demanding God or a loving God? Are you presenting a picture of God that will please Him? We want to make sure that we aren’t a part of the character assassination of God.

We know that the Bible says God is love. 1 John 4:7,9 (NLT) "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love."

God = Love. In algebra, we have the rule of symmetry: If a=b,  then b=a. So if God=Love, then Love=God. With that in mind, turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 13 and read verses 4-7. "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance."

Now since Love=God, replace love in the passage with God. God is patient and kind. God is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. He does not demand His own way. He is not irritable, and He keeps no record of being wronged. God does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. God never gives up, He never loses faith, He is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

What a beautiful picture of God. Is that the picture of God you are presenting to your friends and neighbors?

The most common smear on God’s character that I hear is that he will torture people for eternity. Most Christians believe that God is in the business of torturing people and is doing so as we speak.
Jonathan Edwards, who is called America’s greatest theologian, once gave a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edward’s sermons and writings helped fuel the Great Awakening of the 1730’s and 1740’s. His “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon is probably the most famous sermon in American history.

That sermon was a call for repentance, and he argued that those who refuse to repent will suffer unimaginable eternal torment. Here is an excerpt from that sermon. "'Tis everlasting Wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this Fierceness and Wrath of Almighty God one Moment; but you must suffer it to all Eternity: there will be no End to this exquisite horrible Misery: When you look forward, you shall see a long Forever, a boundless Duration before you, which will swallow up your Thoughts, and amaze your Soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any Deliverance, any End, any Mitigation, any Rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long Ages, Millions of Millions of Ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless Vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many Ages have actually been spent by you in this Manner, you will know that all is but a Point to what remains. So that our Punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the State of a Soul in such Circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it gives but a very feeble faint Representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: for who knows the Power of God’s Anger?"

He goes on to say, "The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked;  his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire;

O, Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: 'Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder."

Is Jonathan Edward’s depiction of God one that attracts you? In John 12:22 Jesus says, “if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” And in John 14:9 he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The depiction of God as a tyrant who is so angry that he is compelled to torture his victims for eternity just doesn’t fit with the merciful, longsuffering loving God that I find depicted in the Bible

I can understand why God might ultimately decide to destroy those who refuse to repent and accept his plan of salvation. What else could he do? Those people would bring ruin to his paradise of believers if allowed into heaven, and they would only spiral downward into greater and greater misery if allowed to live forever in their own pride. To some extent, it is merciful to destroy them, and we know that God is a God of mercy.

Also, God is a God of justice, and his nature would require that those who sin and also rejected his plan of salvation must in some way pay retribution for those sins.

But there is an immense difference between destruction and the eternal torment described by Jonathan Edwards. I can’t understand why God would decide to torment a person without end. With no hope of rehabilitation, what purpose would it serve? The assertion that God will assign some people to eternal torment seems to contradict the claim that He is purely and infinitely loving. It is not the action of a gentle God.

Unfortunately, most of Christianity still buys into Jonathan Edwards view of God’s character. Although we as a church do not teach that you will burn forever in hell, I have met Adventists who want to focus on the wrath of God. They teach that I should be afraid of God. I recently read an article by one of these Adventist authors that stated, “For the sake of our own souls we need to get rid of gentle Jesus meek and mild and look for the one who turned over the tables and cleared the temple.”

Today I want to lift up a gentle God. In Matthew 11:29 Jesus describes himself this way. “Accept my teachings and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest for your lives.” And in John 14:9  he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Why would Jesus describe himself as gentle? I think we find the key in 1 John 4:18 ESV, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

Jesus doesn’t want us to fear Him. God doesn’t want us to fear Him. Jesus wants to be our friend.
John 15:15 “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.”  A servant is afraid of his master, but a real friendship should not involve fear. Jesus wants to be our friend and to dispel our fears. He wants to cast out fear.

I’m not saying that there are no consequences. There is a judgment. Galatians 6:7-8 tells us; “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

There will be those who are afraid of God.  Revelation 6:14-16 “Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’”

Even though there will be people who are afraid of God, it is not what he wants. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Does God use fear as a tactic to lead us to repent? Many Christian preachers and writers use fear. Even Adventist preachers and writers have been known to use fear as a motivator. 

There’s no room whatever for appealing to fear. But I’ve heard Adventist preachers doing their level best to instill fear. Scaring their listeners with the Time of Trouble, a coming apostasy, spiritual formation, etc. They know that the fearful are afraid of the devil, so they focus more on the devil’s power than on God’s power and neglect to note that the devil has already been beaten.

Fear also spills over into our outreach efforts: “We have to warn the world of the Second Coming.” Shouldn’t it rather be our privilege to announce to the world the Good News that Jesus is almost here? To tell people that we can all be ready because of what He’s already done before we were even born? That if we daily choose Him, we have nothing to fear?

There is no doubt that the world, and we in the church need to come to repentance, But does God use fear as a way to motivate us?

The Bible says in Romans 2:4, "Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?"

What leads us to repentance? What brings us to confess? Is it fear? Is it to avoid hell? Is it to gain the rewards of heaven? No. We are led to repentance by the kindness of God. When we experience God’s kindness and feel his love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, it makes us want to love him.  When we love God, we want to please him; we want Him to live in us and work through us.

Seeing his kindness towards us makes us sorry for the things we have done to hurt him. It leads us to repentance.  Seeing God’s kindness towards us makes us want to be like him and show compassion to our fellow human beings.

Many times in the New Testament God is referred to as the God of peace. Dozens of times New Testament writers use the greeting, peace to you or grace and peace to you.

Jesus came into the world bringing peace. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” Luke 2:13-14

One of the last things that he said to his followers is found in John 14:27. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

Because Jesus came to this earth, we can have peace with God. Romans 5:1 tells us that since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, God is the God of peace; God is the God of love. God is not the God of fear. Fear and love are at war with one another. We cannot, on the one hand, proclaim the all-encompassing love of God, and on the other hand—whether consciously or subconsciously—drown ourselves with worry that we are beyond the reach of His compassion and doomed to eternal punishment.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:16,17

Ellen White wrote, “God does not bid you fear that He will fail to fulfill His promises, that His patience will weary, or His compassion be found wanting. Fear to trust your own strength, fear to withdraw your hand from the hand of Christ and attempt to walk life’s pathway without His abiding presence.”

God doesn’t want you to fear Him; he wants to save you. But there is something that you should fear. Fear to trust in your own strength.

Let’s each one of us do some soul searching today. Do you portray a harsh, demanding God or a loving, gentle God? Are you presenting a picture of God that will please Him? Do you serve a God who is a friend, or do you view Him as a taskmaster just waiting for you to fail?

We need to be very careful of the picture of God that we paint. For some people, the only picture of God that they can see is the one that we paint. Psalms 86:15 says, “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.”  Is that the God in the picture you are painting?

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