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Category Archives: Character of God

A “Hunger” Satisfied by Grace

In the fictional world of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the only real authority is one without mercy.  The Capitol revels in the exercise of absolute power, perversely instituting an annual tragedy and calling it entertainment.  Katniss Everdeen, the indomitable heroine of Collins’s dystopian novel, describes the hopeless plight of the subjugated, whose necks strain under the heavy boots of heartless taskmasters:

Selecting the Tribute“Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.  How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion.  Whatever words they use, the real message is clear.  ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do.  If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you.  Just as we did in District Thirteen.’” (p. 18)

At the yearly “harvest” preceding this sacrifice, Katniss stands amid the throng of potential tributes and listens to an official commemorating the ritual as “both a time for repentance and a time for thanks.” (p. 19)

That the narrator recognizes these words as a sham seems realistic enough, given the godless world in which she dwells.  The Capitol rules.  There can be no genuine repentance or thankfulness when the only known authority is wholly incapable of grace or mercy.

Repentance in simple theological terms entails a “turning away” from sin, but it requires much more than a determined act of the will . . . much more and, in a certain sense, much less (from us).  In The Christian Life, Sinclair Ferguson explains how adopting an attitude of repentance depends entirely on the character of God—the One with ultimate authority, both now and for all eternity:

“Only when we turn away from looking at our own sin to look at the face of God, to find his pardoning grace, do we begin to repent.  Only by seeing that there is grace and forgiveness with himwould we ever dare to repent and thus return to the fellowship and presence of the Father. . . . The law may lead to conviction, exposing a sense of guilt and need, as it did also in [the Apostle] Paul’s experience.  But only when grace appears on the horizon offering forgiveness will the sunshine of the love of God melt our hearts and draw us back to him.” (p. 75)

In the darkened world where the Capitol is god, we should not expect to see the warming thaw of repentance.  The hardhearted do not feel their chest tighten with the knotting pang of guilt.  They do not crumple in moral exhaustion at the feet of cruel authority, seeking forgiveness from what they know to be hopelessly merciless through and through.

But in the real world, God the Creator and Redeemer enables true repentance by revealing Himself as merciful . . . reaching down and extending grace that not only enlightens but also calls us home.

“. . . in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”—2 Timothy 2:25

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Shepherd of Grace, Shepherd of Truth

The familiar image of our Savior as a shepherd appears throughout Scripture.  Perhaps the most cherished is King David’s reverent ode to the Lord as a shepherd of restoration and provision, a shepherd who makes our comfort complete (Psalm 23).  The Apostle Peter refers to Christ as “the chief Shepherd” of our souls (1 Peter 5:4), and the writer of Hebrews echoes this sentiment (in verse 13:20), calling Jesus “the greatest shepherd.”  He leads perfectly, and those who follow will never go astray.

Jesus Himself employs the same metaphor in the gospel accounts, memorably so in John 10:14-15.

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

This is Christ as the shepherd of grace.  He comes to rescue, providing protection, comfort, and direction to lost sheep undeserving of such invaluable gifts.  We can point to the manifestation of these gifts countless times in our daily life.  Most decisively though, Christ performed His shepherding work on the cross, where He bore our sin and suffered so that we might live, receiving His righteousness through faith and thus escaping the Father’s holy wrath.  Why this gift of unmerited grace?  He knows us and delights in us.  We were the apple of His eye even before our first blink.  So He laid down His life to save us.  Grateful for His grace, we seek to love this shepherd.  We long to rest upon His bosom, basking in shared intimacy just as the gospel writer did.

But elsewhere, Jesus describes Himself as a shepherd fulfilling a different function.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. . . . And these [on the left] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”–Matthew 25:31-33, 46

Coming in glory with the angels and sitting on His throne before the nations, Christ judges all people according to what they have done.  As in John’s gospel, He is a shepherd . . . only now He is a shepherd of truth separating the sheep from the goats.  In the first account, Christ is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost.  In the second, He comes to uphold the integrity of His flock.

This passage from the Book of Matthew emphasizes the inviolable connection between what we do and who we are.  The sheep–those who have followed Jesus in this temporal life–have borne out their faith in good works, serving others in love and for His sake.  The self-righteous goats protest that they would have served Christ if only they had seen Him.

But Jesus’s point here is that it’s not just about selectively doing good deeds.  It’s about doing them out of an unbridled love for Christ and gratitude for the work He has done in us.  It’s about doing them with a spirit that willingly places our work under the mantle of Christ’s supreme work and purpose . . . about doing work that is similar in kind to the self-sacrificing, humbling, redeeming work He did on the cross.  It’s about having eyes that see Christ in the world and then responding with a desire to serve Him by ministering to the people He loves.  That the goats consider their empty works sufficient for salvation is tragic.  They remain blind even under the bright light of judgment.

For good reason, our hearts warm easily to the shepherd of grace portrayed in John 10 while the tendency is to rationalize as we explain the actions of Matthew 25’s shepherd of truth.  But there is only one “Chief Shepherd,” and Scripture consistently presents Him as both Rescuer and Judge.  Indeed, these two elements of Christ’s character are foundational, not only with respect to who He is, but also to our faith.  Without grace, we’re lost.  Without truth, it wouldn’t seem to matter.  But it does.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Bible Reading, Character of God, Grace, Truth

 

Having “Ready” Hearts

“Then the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Now five of them were foolish and five were wise.  For when the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take olive oil with them. . . . But while they had gone away to buy [oil] the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding celebration, and the door was shut.  And later the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us!’  But he answered and said, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you!’  Therefore be on the alert, because you do not know the day or the hour!”–Matthew 25:1-3, 10-13

Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins to highlight the importance of adopting a mind-set that looks forward to the coming of Christ’s kingdom with diligent anticipation.  If we truly long for something, we ought to be ready when it finally transpires.  Our faith that it will occur is reflected in this posture of readiness.  And nothing provides evidence of that “ready posture” like a continual willingness and ability to serve Christ (the bridegroom) wherever we encounter Him.  The bridegroom’s rejection of the foolish virgins may strike us as graceless and unforgiving.  But we should not take the five women barred from the wedding feast and blame their misfortune on mere imprudence.  Rather, we should see in their “unreadiness” a lackadaisical attitude toward the promises of God.  The Bridegroom has announced His intent to return.  Our actions–indeed, everything about us–should gratefully resound with the hope we have in the One who will fulfill that promise.

Jesus reinforces this message in the parable of the talents.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them.  And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.  Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents.  And likewise he who had received two gained two more also.  But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money.”–Matthew 25:14-18

Here, two servants maintain an attitude of diligent readiness while they await the return of their master.  Given responsibility over a portion of the master’s wealth, they commit themselves to the master’s gain and go on to enjoy the master’s reward.  In contrast to his fellows, the third servant squanders the opportunity afforded to him and proves unready when the time for accounting comes.

“After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. . . . Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground.  Look, there you have what is yours.’  But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.  So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.  Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. . . . And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness.  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”–Matthew 25:19, 24-28, 30

On the surface, we can muster some sympathy for this hapless servant.  At worst, he may strike us as lazy.  If we’re charitable, we might label him as just a bit too risk-averse.  In any case, we can accept the fear he has of his master as a plausible excuse for the inaction that results in his harsh punishment.  Yet while we tend to think that this third servant is afflicted by fear, he seems–on closer inspection–to be driven more by selfishness.

Consider how the “one-talent” servant explains his poor performance and then tries to make amends.  The underlying logic reveals a thing or two about how he thinks about ownership.  His perspective on what rightfully belongs to his master and what he can justifiably claim for himself severely distorts the master-servant relationship.  He sees only the one talent at play here.  It’s all he’s been given, so it must be all he owes.  Once he returns it, they’re even-steven.

But there is much more to this transaction.  It is not enough to hand back the one talent with some subtle appeal to a pseudo-silver lining (“well, at least I didn’t lose any money”).  Why is this not enough?  Because the master’s claim over the servant extends far beyond a single talent.  It encompasses the servant’s entire life and livelihood . . . everything the servant possesses . . . everything about him.  Having entrusted this servant with a portion of his wealth, the master now expects a return on investment commensurate with the servant’s abilities, which (we might presume) had been acquired and refined under the master’s charge.  Instead, the master gains nothing . . . just a hole in the ground.

When the servant indirectly accuses the master of “reaping where he has not sown,” he is saying that the master habitually takes what does not belong to him.  We need not accept the servant’s statement as a fair and accurate judgment.  The problem lies not with an abusive master but with an envious, selfish servant whose hard heart has blinded him to the master’s true character.

It’s not a case of the master greedily overstepping his bounds.  In the servant’s world, there are no limits to the master’s authority.  Again, everything belongs to the master.  It is the servant, rather, who implicitly claims something that is not his to claim.  Forget about the talent . . . his very life is not his own.

Are we living in joyful expectation of the promise, tending to the Master’s business and thus ready to welcome the Master when He returns?  As servants, how do we view the life we have been given?  Do we compartmentalize . . . setting aside one talent as a peace offering to the Master while clinging to a string of passing days that we imagine to be our own?  Are we afraid to let go of that life, hiding behind a mask of fear but really stewing–as the wicked servant does–in a tepid pool of selfishness?  We don’t have to be.

Read what the Master longs to say to each of us:

“Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master.”–Matthew 25:21

By His grace, we can have a heart that is truly ready to hear those words.

 

Standing Yet Stooping . . . Our All in All

by Lodovico Carracci, 1594“And He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.  And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him.  And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here.  If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’  He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.’  When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’  And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”–Matthew 17:2-8

Atop the mountain, Peter, James, and John witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and then made the mistake of ascribing to the Savior-King and Son of God a status on par with the law-giver Moses and the prophet Elijah.

God the Father interrupted while the well-meant but offending words lingered on Peter’s lips.  The voice cut swiftly from the looming cloud, dazzling the disciples with its truth.  Their hearts numbed in holy terror, Peter, James, and John crumpled to the ground and buried their faces in the folds of the mountain.  Like mice nosed up to a dark corner, they tried to avoid the lightning and thunder of God by seeking shelter in the quaking crooks of their elbows.  Thankfully, there was no escape.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”–Psalm 139:11-12

The moment of trembling passed as the Savior came into their darkness and restored them.  He reached down and conveyed assurance.  He spoke and bid them “rise, and have no fear.”  Upon lifting their eyes, Peter, James, and John “saw no one but Jesus only.”  The King stood alone in His glory yet stooped to comfort the afflicted . . . by sight, sound, and touch.

Even alongside Moses and Elijah, Christ alone is worthy and deserving of our worship: the Grace come to fulfill the Law . . . the One to whom the prophets pointed.

 

Surrendering to a Father

As spring gives way to summer, the Saturday afternoon appeals come more frequently:  “Daddy, can you play in the yard with us?”  Since I’ve done a poor job of teaching my girls the basics of catching and throwing, the preferred activity for outdoor fun-having usually entails a combination of running, jumping, and tickling.  At ages ten and eight, D. and K. currently serve as the creative, energetic core of our family’s recreation department. They often beckon me to the trampoline for a rollicking session of “tickle monster” with three of their younger sisters.

Lately though, we’ve been playing a free-flowing game of hide-and-seek in which I am always “it” and they constantly try to elude my grasp.  Those who fail must endure a quick bout of sportive armpit prodding, belly kneading, and behind-the-knee squeezing.  It’s fun.  I spring out of the bushes and scamper after an unsuspecting pair of girls who freeze and shriek.  The high-pitched emission continues as they quickly thaw and turn to run.  In another round, I bide my time before bursting out from under the barbecue grill cover and then give chase.  Later, I cut through the house and emerge from the garage just as all five of them seek respite between the vans in our driveway.  Every once in awhile, I simply sprint around the house, rocket past whatever sentry they’ve posted, and overtake several in the midst of easing into their hiding spots.  With the quarry fully surprised, I bear down on whoever is next on the running balance sheet I maintain in my head, mindful of spreading the proverbial wealth of “tickle shots” … cringing under the ear-splitting sound of the victim’s delighted squeals.

All of this may conjure up imagery resembling what one might have seen decades ago on the television show Wild Kingdom … something involving a cheetah and a hapless wildebeest on the African savanna.  I’d like to take it in another direction, though.

In our game, my kids run and run and run from me until they sense individually that the jig is up.  One of them becomes separated from the pack.  She recognizes that I’ve zeroed in on her, and the distance between us is closing rapidly.  She musters one last surge of energy and converts it into a few more panicky strides.  But it’s never enough, delaying the inevitable by only a few seconds.  So she slows down, pivots toward me, and then surrenders to “the tickle” while collapsing on the grass in a heap of giggles.  This chase sequence repeats itself several times in the course of a game.

It’s the moment of surrender that captures my attention.  Having done their best to hide from me … having run hard and fast the instant they felt pursued … the girls ultimately turn to me–the goofy man with the wiggly fingers and the warm grin–and give themselves up.  As much as they seem to fear falling into my clutches, they are relieved when the chase is over.  Something they’ve known only in the back of their minds now shines in their awakened eyes.  The pursuer’s hands wrapping around them tingle with mercy.  The hunter is actually a shepherd, and surrendering means entering into a father’s joy.  They abide in the sweetness of a solitary moment with their father … the others are still running and hiding while they are resting.  True, they’ve been caught.  But the deeper truth is that they’ve been found.  And before they catch their breath and take to their feet once more, they remember the purpose of the game and what they really love about it.

“For thus says the Lord God:  Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.  As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places …” –Ezekiel 34:11-12

 

The Rapture of Rescue

“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.  He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.  They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support.  He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” –2 Samuel 22:17-20

“He said, ‘Come.’  So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’  And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.” –Matthew 14:29-32

Consider these two pictures of a God who rescues his beloved.

David recalls a time of helpless flailing amid a surging sea of powerful, relentless enemies.  Although we can trust that his troubles and subsequent rescue were quite real, David describes the work of God’s saving grace in the figurative sense … reaching down, taking hold of him, strengthening him for the fight of his life, and then setting him on solid ground—where he can breathe easily and deeply—far from the swirling tides that had engulfed him.  David recounts joyfully the reason for this rescue:  the Lord is moved by a sense of sheer delight, not mere duty.  The earthly king of Israel delights in knowing that the one and only King of kings delights in him.

Just as David pursued God’s heart, so too does Peter. Jesus bids him come, and he does.  In faith, the disciple walks a few steps across the waves.  Then he takes his eyes off Jesus and plunges into the dark, choppy waves.  Here, God in the flesh literally reaches down, takes hold of Peter, and bears him across the swelling surface of the sea to the boat full of open-mouthed disciples.  In the course of this rescue, Peter is admonished for his faltering faith.

This rebuke notwithstanding, Peter gains unique perspective:  he seems to be the only disciple whom Jesus directly and physically saves before the ascension.  How might this have felt?  The strong, outstretched arm reaching down into the roiling waters … the touch of the tightening grip around a shivering limb … the sense of weightlessness as the Rescuer gracefully lifts the heavy deadness of a body given over to gravity … the exhilaration of feeling your heels skimming through the wave-tops as the Savior whisks you to the boat (the lifeboat), where you are awakened to the wonderful fact of stillness, rest, and restoration.

“And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'” –Matthew 14:33

Truly, indeed.  May we not only acknowledge Christ’s majesty but also, like Peter, experience the thrill of that majesty wrapping around our pummeled souls in the merciful embrace of His rescue.

 
 

The Deliverer’s Delight

“He also brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me because He delighted in me.”—Psalm 18:19

Just think about the reason for our redemption!  The Lord saves us not out of a sense of duty or to satisfy some onerous obligation.  Deliverance comes instead as a result of His delight in us.  Grace flows happily from the heart of God and fills the forgiven sinner’s empty cup.  Had this deliverance sprung from any other source, our chastened consciences would prod us toward whispered sighs of relief and quiet throbbing shame.  But He delights in us!  And this delight of the Deliverer fuels our own delight.  Once we grasp this truth about the character of God and His amazing love for us, we can only respond with exuberance and celebration.

“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent . . .”—Psalm 30:11

God loves us with a love unfailing.  He delights in us with a faithful delight so overwhelming that we cannot help but change.  Oh, the joy He gives us!  Our gladness explodes like so much fizz from a shaken bottle of pop, pushed open with the upward pressure of praise.  Our glory is to glorify Him.  That’s why He turns our mourning into dancing.  God, give me no glory save the glory that glorifies You.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Bible Reading, Character of God, Praise