In love, He both seeks and receives penitent sinners.

 

As I listened to “How He Loves Us” yesterday, I was transported from my hotel room in Michigan to Shepherd’s Door, a rescue mission in Portland, Oregon that I worked at from 2007-2008.  One of the other staff members had come into the main living room and said, “Oh, my gosh, you have to hear this song…” I heard that song over a dozen times during the rest of my shift because she made sure that every person who walked into that room–resident or staff–heard about the power and intensity of God’s love for them expressed in the words of that song.

The women at Shepherd’s Door were, in some ways, ready soil for the seed of the Gospel.  Many had hit rock bottom and were looking desperately for a way up and a way out; the Gospel provides both.  But the bottom can also be a very difficult place for the Gospel to penetrate because of the intense shame and self-hatred that exists there.  This shame and self-hatred can make women fearful and distrusting of the love and forgiveness offered to them.   Among his many tools to draw us to himself God tends to lean on patience, kindness, and grace; he may use conviction but he does not cause shame and self-hatred. Romans 2:4 talks about God’s patience and kindness that draws us to himself.

“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (NIV)

In the New Testament there are many stories and parables on this theme of love and redemption: the prodigal son, the lost coin, the lost sheep. These stories show us a God who passionately seeks and saves those who are lost. God is pretty explicit about his desire to restore lost humanity to himself in the New Testament so it’s easy for people to see the God as a God of love and forgiveness.  This love and forgiveness is not limited to the New Testament.  As soon as the relationship between God and people is broken in Genesis 3 we see that God has a plan, which had been set in motion before the creation of the world, to restore us to himself.  The rest of the Bible is the outworking of this plan.

When we read Genesis 3 we tend to focus on the act of sin and the choices that Adam and Eve made. What we often miss is how God’s grace is shown in so many little ways (I’ll point some of them out in a minute).  If you’ve read previous posts you know that my tendency is to view God as a dispassionate observer rather than a good father who deeply loves and longs for his children. Some of that shifted when I read the story of the Fall in the Jesus Storybook Bible.  As I read it, I wept. I wept because I could feel God’s broken heart and his deep, deep love for us.  He wasn’t mad that they broke the rules, his heart was broken because his children had rejected him. He didn’t punish them to show them who was boss, he showed them kindness by allowing them to experience the consequences of their choices.  He did not abandon them, he cared for them as they learned to walk this new, broken road.  He did not respond in furry; he responded in grace.  Here are snapshots of the grace in his response after the Fall:

  • He sought them out.  He knew they sinned yet he still invited them into relationship with him.  How often do we, like Adam and Eve, hide in our shame?  God is calling us out of hiding, not to judge us but to lift us up.
  • He gave them opportunity to own their sin rather than simply confronting them with it.  Why are you hiding?  He asked.  He knew the answer but he wanted to give them the opportunity to tell him.
  • He allowed them to experience the consequences of their sin–death (spiritually and, ultimately, physically). Consequences, when done well, teach us what we should and shouldn’t do.
  • He sacrificed an animal to provide clothing for them.  I don’t know what he thought of their feeble attempt to cover their own nakedness and shame by sewing fig leaves together, but I do know that he stepped in to provide for them what they weren’t able to do for themselves: decent clothes.
  • He removed their access to the the tree of life.  They would not live forever.  But this, too, is grace.  He would not allow them to live forever broken by sin in a world broken by sin.  Instead he allowed them to die with the intention to  eventually resurrect them in a restored world free from sin.  Not that they knew this at the time. They probably just felt the loss.  But the loss was not the end of the plan.
  • He promises ultimate victory over sin (Genesis 3:16)

He slowly and painfully walked through this process with them without once hearing them apologize or seeing them repent.  And he continues, through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New Testament to reach out, to draw his children back to him, to redeem, to restore.  He does not leave us as our sin deserves but steps into our reality to experience it with us and to take it from us.  THIS is our God.  No other God bears the burdens of their people in the way our God bears ours–both the burdens we wind up with through no fault of our own and the burdens we create ourselves.

He seeks and restores penitent sinners.  Penitent simply means those who feel sorrow for their sin.  This penitence is a godly sorrow leads to repentance.   We don’t just feel bad; we feel bad and do something about it. We respond to God reaching out to us.  We respond to his kindness.  We respond to his grace.  And then we share that grace with others.  Romans 2:4, the passage that states that God’s grace leads us to repentance, is not so much about God’s patience and kindness toward the believer but a reminder regarding the people who are frustrating the believer, the people the believer is judging.  Paul is telling Christians to stop judging and start showing kindness because, in his patience, God is using kindness (not anger and judgement) to draw people to repentance.  Of course anger at injustice has its place but God’ primary tool for redeeming and restoring people?  Kindness.  We are drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes, not the anger in his voice. We are brought in by his love, not his threats.  THIS is how we are to respond to the world. This applies to the co-workers who annoy the crap out of you, the family members who push your buttons, and to the people of goodwill and not-so-goodwill that are on the opposite side of the political spectrum as you.  Kindness. *

Kindness doesn’t mean that you tolerate horrible behavior (although, sometimes it does).  And it doesn’t mean you don’t fight for justice (although, sometimes you don’t).  It does mean that you look to Jesus as an example and to the Holy Spirit, your guide, to help you decide when to turn the other cheek, when to walk away, and when to turn over the tables with whips because sometimes we want to rage when he wants us to be docile and sometimes we don’t want to rock the boat when he wants us to raise our voices.  But you do all of these things with your eyes on Jesus, remembering that God is patiently and kindly drawing the very people who stir up the anger and frustration in you to himself…just like he once did for you…with kindness expressed through patience.

Be reminded, today, of his patience.  Be reminded of his kindness. Let it lead you, and pray that it leads others, to repentance because we serve a God of love who both seeks and receives penitent sinners.

(I included the Jesus Culture version of How He Loves us because this is the one my coworker walked in and played for the women at Shepherd’s Door.  May you experience the overwhelming magnitude of his love, of his patience and kindness toward you and may that experience free to to share it with others who do not deserve it any more than you did)

Side note:  If you do not own the Jesus Storybook Bible, you should, even if you are an adult and have no children to read it to.  It phenomenally ties the story of Scripture together with grace and truth that reveals God’s heart for us.  It is amazing.

*I writing this from a safe hotel room in Grand Rapids, MI.  I know nothing of real enemies who seek my harm and downfall. So it’s relatively easy for me to talk about enemies…I don’t really have them.   Today I heard about the Christians killed on a bus in Egypt…they have been persecuted and mistreated.  I cannot speak from experience about how to respond to this kind of evil…but I don’t think the appropriate response is all that different from what I’ve just said toward low-level enemies and annoying people, though perhaps it is more nuanced and carefully stated.  Miroslaf Volf has an excellent book on his experiences of persecution and response to those experiences in light of the Gospel.  Many have also been touched by the stories of pain and forgiveness by those like Corrie ten Boom.

in love he both seeks

 

By intention He relates to people as Father

 

 

By intention He relates to people as Father,
thereby forever declaring His goodwill toward them.

When I was 23 two words changed my relationship with God. They were, simply, “Describe God,” spoken in the middle of a conversation between me and the Chair of the Bible and Theology Department at Western Seminary.  I was planning to begin seminary in the fall and I was in process of getting some classes waived.  The process involved the Chair, Gerry Breshears, asking me whatever he wanted about any of the topics I was hoping to have waived.  It was terrifying.

Describe God.  That seemed easy enough.  I talked about God’s omnipotence (how he is all-powerful), his omniscience (how he is all-knowing), his omnipresence (how he is present everywhere). I talked about his goodness and his holiness. I talked for a while; it was a pretty good answer.

Gerry simply replied, “Look up Exodus 34:6-8.”

So I did.  It reads, And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, 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. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (NIV)

Gerry pointed out that this is the first time God describes himself in the Bible.  Earlier in the Bible we learn about who he is by how the author describes him and what he does, but when he has the opportunity to describe himself he doesn’t talk about his power, presence, knowledge, or holiness.  He talks about himself in relational terms. God is gracious and compassionate, patient, full of love and faithfulness.

That was very different than how I described God.  I wasn’t wrong but my answer still somehow missed the mark.  I had described God in distant academic terms; God described himself in relational terms.

We went on to talk about other biblical and theological themes but this particular conversation stuck with me and I mulled it over for weeks.

My mulling led me to realize was that I had a very deistic view of God.  Deism is the understanding that God exists and is the source of all that exists but that once he got things up and running he kind of stepped back and let the world run itself.  It’s the understanding that, while he may step in every now and then to perform a miracle of give direction, he’s not actively involved in the day to day running of the universe.

I also came to realize that this was similar to how I would describe my relationship with my dad.  He was an active part in creating our family but then he kind of stepped back and let us run ourselves.  He was physically present but emotionally distant and largely uninvolved.  And it hit me, in this and a million other ways, my view of God had been dramatically shaped by my experiences with my dad.

I’d bet the same is true for you.  Your view of God, the things you most deeply believe about who he is and how he interacts with you, are (is?) probably strikingly similar to your believes about who your dad is and how he interacted with you.

If your dad adored you, encouraged you, guided you, and prepared you well for life you probably have a pretty benevolent view of God.  If your dad was angry, sulky, or abusive, you probably live in the shadow of God’s anger and disappointment.

The more I explored the more I realized that even though I could say that God is love, I acted like God was indifference. I acted like He was emotionally distant, occasionally stepping in to fix something that was broken (or mess something up) but that he was generally uninterested and a bit agitated.  I believed that God’s love was practical, not passionate.  That he might never delight in me but I could at least strive to achieve so he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. I tried to make him proud of me but mostly I just tried to stay out of his way when he was angry.  And I believed this and lived like this because I had an unexamined view of who God was based on my experiences with my dad.

That conversation with Gerry began the process of intense evaluation of what I believed about God at a deep, practical level in light of what he revealed about himself though his word and through his interaction with me.

The Wesleyan Church states that God intentionally relates to us as Father, thereby declaring his goodwill toward us.   Jesus is working from the same underlying thesis when talking about prayer in Matthew 7: 9-11,  “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Through his rhetorical questions he’s pointing what should be obvious, in the same way that dad’s take care of their kids’ needs, God, our heavenly father, will provided for us because a dad loves his child.  Of course, it’s not obvious for all of us.  Because some of us have fathers who would give us bread but others had fathers who would give us stone or ignore us completely.  Some had fathers who responded to our needs others had fathers who neglected, rejected, or abused us.  Not all of us had dads who laid the groundwork for a healthy understanding of who God is.  Some of them, in fact, wrecked that for us.

But, here’s the thing, our dads don’t determine who God is.  They may affect how we see him but they don’t affect who he actually is.  So we have the opportunity to examine our understanding of who God is in light of how our dad’s shaped that understanding and then to evaluate and change it with truth.   Our dads may have let us down but our heavenly father is good.  Our dads may have rejected or ignored us but our heavenly father loves us and passionately pursues us.  And, of course, our dads might have shown us who God is and set us up to see him for who he really is.

God chooses to relate to us as father because, at their best, fathers love their children, care for them, provide for them, guide them, and protect them.  At their best, father’s delight in their children and work for their good.

There are a few dicey theological points I feel like I should address here:

  • God is not male.  God is spirit, he does not have a body, and is not gendered (Jesus has a body and he is gendered).  Men and women are equally made in his image.  God displays both traditionally masculine or feminine characteristics (the fruit of the spirit, for example, tend to be exalted as feminine characteristics but are deeply rooted in God’s nature).
  • God is not a man nor is he a woman yet the Bible primarily, though not exclusively, uses masculine imagery to relate to the world.  If we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, we accept that this is God’s intention, not just a hold-over from oppressive patriarchal society.
  • God chooses to relate to us, primarily, as father.  There are times when he uses feminine imagery and metaphors (God is the original mama bear and is also described as human mother, a mother hen, and a woman looking for a lost coin) but he primarily uses the masculine imagery.  I don’t have a firm grasp on why he chose to relate to us primarily as father rather than mother so I’m not going to offer any reasons here.  Have fun googling though…you’ll find a lot of interesting ideas.

How Does God Relate to You as Your Father?

What kind of father do you think God is?  How much is he like your earthly dad? I’d encourage you, if you haven’t thought about this already, to take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your dad and how he made you feel growing up.  Then take some time (either with a journal, or friend, or therapist) to describe your relationship with God.  As you do this, ask God to reveal to you what you most deeply believe (not just what you know the right thing to say is) and what the implications of your beliefs are on your relationship with him and in your life.  See how the two line up, see where they’re different.  Ask God to show you more of who he is, to cement the things that are true and to reshape the things that are untrue.

Spend some time meditating (thinking about) Scripture that talks about (or shows) God as father.  You might go to http://www.biblegateway.com or http://www.biblehub.com and search for words like “father.” Or maybe read through the book of John and take notes about Jesus’s relationship with his Father. He is, after all, our best model of what it means to live a full human life, who better to learn from regarding how we can interact with our Father?  Listen to some of your favorite songs that talk about God as Father.

If you’re a parent, get down on your knees and pray.  Because this particularly responsibility, the one where we shape our children’s initial understanding of God, is based on how we act toward them NOT based on what we say or try to teach them.  This is a HUGE responsibility.  HUGE.  And terrifying.  And it highlights the importance of experiencing God as Father before we can display his character as parents.  We probably won’t get it 100% right but, with his help and by his grace, we can parent them as God is parenting us with love, grace, compassion, truth, faithfulness, gentleness, etc.

Here are some songs…(you knew the first one was coming, didn’t you?)


Disclaimer: To some extent, I don’t really know what my dad was like (none of us really know what our dad’s are like…or any other person for that matter). All I “know” is how I’ve interpreted my experiences with him. I believe he was dealt a rotten hand in life and did the best he could with what he had.  I believe he was full of contradictions: tenderhearted but often angry, living in poverty but incredibly generous, brilliant with little formal education.  I believe he’s now in heaven, dancing with Jesus.  I’m happy he’s now experiencing life to the fullest.