Truth That Sings 3: Father Loves Best

Now that I’ve spent two posts introducing the largeness of the gospel and the need to preserve the wild beauty of it, now I can get into its actual content. What is it? It is good news, or “glad tidings.” That’s what the word means, but the word “gospel” like all other words has certain connotations or baggage that it didn’t have when the New Testament was written. In context, it doesn’t mean any kind of good news but a specific kind of good news. In the Roman empire, whenever a war had been won by Rome or a new Caesar was born, heralds would announce the “gospel” of what had taken place and the citizens could breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate. It was the good news on which everything hinged. There was no better news to be given. It promised that there was a king in place (or Caesar) and that good times were on their way. Of course, the word was a political word in the Roman empire, as was “ecclesia” (church). Jesus took these politically-charged words and turned them upside down. God’s Kingdom, unlike Caesar’s was built from the bottom up. The gospel Jesus preached (Mark 1:15) was not a mere formulation of words or a way to make sure you went to Heaven when you die, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God “at hand.” If you follow His teaching through the gospels, His primary message had to do with “upside-down kingdom” life now, on this earth, in the midst of a world full of “top-down” empires. If you listen closely to Jesus (without trying to “boil Him down”) you see that He is opening up a new way of being in the world. He is teaching us how to live the eternal kind of life in time and space. In a world full of dead ends, false hopes and shattered dreams, He was revealing a tender-hearted God who cared fiercely for His creation. He was revealing a God who wasn’t like the Caesars (or Pharaohs or Persian kings). The God Jesus revealed was not a tyrant but our “Abba” (Father). Notice how often Jesus refers to God as father; not just His father, but “our” and “your” father. This is a crucial element of the good news; God’s father-heart for humanity.

The gospel is so big that certain foundational realities need to be apprehended and internalized before we can go deeper in. So the first two foundational realities of the gospel go together, and they are the first things Jesus starts introducing. (1.) The Kingdom of God as an “upside-down” alternative to the corrupt and failing kingdoms of this world, and (2.) the revelation that God does not rule like a tyrant, but loves like a father. If any presentation of the gospel does not at least make an effort to include these elements or direct the hearer to these elements, the gospel is not being proclaimed. If God is portrayed as a hateful tyrant in a gospel presentation, that gospel is not good news because it reveals an unloveable God. In his theological masterwork “The Divine Conspiracy”, USC Philosophy Professor Dallas Willard writes:

“The acid test for ANY theology is this: Is the God that is presented one that can be loved, heart, soul, mind and strength? If the thoughtful, honest answer is; ‘Not really,’ then we need to look elsewhere or deeper. It does not really matter how sophisticated intellectually or doctrinally our approach is. If it fails to set a loveable God – a radiant, happy, friendly, accessible, and totally competent being – before ordinary people, we have gone wrong. We should not keep going in the same direction, but turn around and take another road.”

So the basic nature of God is where the gospel begins. What is God like? We are given so many different portraits of God from so many different people. There are so many different sects and cults; all with their own “secret-knock” to get God’s attention, but in the end there are really only two possibilities; God is a distant, impersonal tyrant or God is a loving father. One thing is clear: none of the keepers of the “secret knock” have a loving-father God. Jesus wasn’t very patient with “secret-knock theology.” One of the most explicit places He shoots this understanding of God down is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-8). “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for you Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” When you pray, don’t babble. Don’t say anything that a child wouldn’t say to a father. Don’t try to use “a lot” of words or the “right” words for the purpose of being heard. Now, He isn’t saying that long prayers are inherently wrong, He’s saying long prayers “for the sake of being heard” are misguided. Prayers full of religious jargon are not meant for a fatherly God. As Dallas Willard said, “Prayer to the God of Israel and of Jesus, the living and personal God of the universe, is intelligent conversation about matters of mutual concern.” Know that God is not so far-off and distant that He needs to be reminded of who you are and what you need. Speak to a God who is as familiar with you as a father is, and know what you need before you ask. That is the God Jesus reveals, and the gospel makes absolutely no sense if this crucial foundation is obscured. Whether the secret-knock to get God’s attention is the “right” theology, or the “right” formula, or the “right” combination of words, or the “right” church, etc. doesn’t matter. What matters is that once we recognize a “secret-knock” of any kind in a gospel presentation, it is no longer the gospel of Jesus Christ, but a false gospel.

Wait a minute. What about the Old Testament? God wasn’t so fatherly back then, was He? In fact, didn’t He rule like a bloodthirsty tyrant? Wasn’t He mostly angry in the Old Testament? There are certainly places in the Old and New Testament where God gets angry. But anger has never been evidence that love is not present. Fathers get angry all the time, but they don’t stop loving their children; even while they’re disciplining them. Their love is the reason for the discipline! However, as far back as Exodus 34, God reveals His “name” to Moses. In Hebrew, the word for “name” could just as well be translated “nature.” Here’s what God says (verses 5-7 ) “The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” So here we get a good look at the nature of God, even in the Old Testament. Notice the order in which these descriptors are given. Merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. That all comes before what’s next: “But who will no means clear the guilty…” It’s amazing that when this passage is presented to people who want God to be primarily an angry God, how much they have to skip over in this verse to get to the descriptors they want to emphasize. But the last part of the sentence can only be interpreted in the light of the first part. If He will by no means clear the guilty, it is not because He isn’t merciful, compassionate and slow to anger. When you are disciplined by a father who is slow to anger, you are not simply at the mercy of his emotions. His anger, doesn’t define Him, His love does. In the words of Christian author David G. Benner,

“God’s love is never compromised by anger. The presence of anger does not mean the absence of love – particularly in God. Love is God’s character, not simply an emotion. What a small god we would have if divine character was dependent on our behavior. The Christian God is not like this. The Christian God is slow to anger and rich in mercy (..). He is quite unlike the god we would create if we were making Him in our image.”

That’s where this description of His nature begins and what it emphasizes. If you have multiple children that you love very much and one child hurts the other two, you will forgive that child’s iniquity, but by no means clear the guilty! In other words, because God loves us, He cares enough to get angry when we hurt each other and does something about it. But that anger never overrides His loving father-heart. When we meditate on the natural flow of this passage, and see the numbers: steadfast love for THOUSANDS, visiting the iniquity on 3 or 4 generations, we see that the main point here is that God’s steadfast love far exceeds any punishment He might dole out. Let’s never let the tail wag the dog when it comes to God’s name and nature. In the Old and New Testament, we see both God’s tenderness and fierceness; and they are both fatherly – if we believe the teachings of Jesus.

In the words of William Blake, “We are put on this earth a little space/ that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” In this post, I have begun to explore the depth and richness of the gospel’s content. I have briefly touched upon the teachings of Jesus on the kingdom of God at hand and have shown that God’s love is the deepest level of the gospel, and the most infinite. Anything else from here must be based on the reality of God’s father-heart for us. If that groundwork is not laid, the gospel’s content will be severely distorted and produce distortion in the human heart. We need to know our Father’s love for us. However, with that being said, it would be wise to offer a few words on the nature of His love. It has both a tenderness and a fierceness to it. God loves us so much, He wants what is best for us even when we simply want to feel good or comfortable. God’s love is not “hippie-love” or sentimental love like you would find in Hallmark greeting cards. No, it is important to distinguish the love of a Father from the syrupy sentimentality we usually mean when we say the word “love.” In the words of David G. Benner, God’s love is “not the soft, sentimental kind but the strong, spirit transforming kind.” That’s the kind of love we need.

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~ by shardsofeternity on May 18, 2011.

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