God Is Kind

bleeding-woman-healed
Paolo Veronese (Caliari), Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, 1565-70 AD

The freedom God gives us to receive Him in our lives raises another classic problem, the apparent conflict between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. This problem of freedom has confounded theologians and skeptics alike throughout human history. However, the problem ultimately stems from flawed human logic and ignorance of God’s Word.

The problem of freedom asks the question, doesn’t God’s sovereignty violate human choice? In a word, no. One of the great wonders of our is how He sovereignly carries out His plan of salvation for the whole world and still allows us to choose our reject His presence in our lives. And yet, the Bible is clear that God does allow us that freedom.

Concerning human will, the Bible is clear that every person is a slave to sin. Spiritually, everyone serves someone. On the surface, we have five options: God, Satan, another person, a world system, or self. But behind the scenes, there are really only two options: God or not-God. And everything not of God is sin. Further, our natural condition is to serve our own selfish interests. As Romans 3:10-12 explains,

There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.

The inherent selfishness of humanity is easily observed in babies. Babies cry to have their needs met—eating, changing, sleeping, and so forth—without regard for the needs of interests of their parents or caretakers. Of course, as infants, this is entirely acceptable. But as babies grow into toddlers, walking and talking, do they naturally begin sharing their toys and obeying their parents? Of course not! These things have to be taught. Humans are naturally selfish, imposing our will on others in pursuit of our own self interests. Kindness and selfless generosity go against human nature.

But if we sin because God made us this way, doesn’t that mean it’s His fault, not ours? Of course not! God made us with the inherent need for His presence so that we would seek Him. But, as previously noted, Adam and Eve, representing all humanity, chose to rebel against God and pursue a life apart from Him. But make note, their rebellion wasn’t an isolated incident. History has shown time and time again that, instead of seeking God, we deny our need for Him. As Romans 1:20-21 explains,

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

But God does not give up on us. He never stops inviting us to be reconciled with Him by believing in Jesus. As Jesus explains in John 6:44,

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.

This verse says that everyone who comes to Jesus comes because God draws them.[1] How? As Jesus explains later to the disciples, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. As John 16:8-11 says,

When He [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

The Holy Spirit convicts the world of fallen humanity about sin. This conviction illuminates our hearts to our sinful condition and our need for a savior. This is the kindness of God drawing us to Himself, leading us to repentance. As Romans 2:4 says,

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (NLT)

As the Holy Spirit illuminates our hearts, God empowers us to freely choose to believe in, or reject, Jesus Christ. And it is when we choose to believe in Jesus that we become children of God (John 1:12), who frees us from the power of sin (John 8:34-36) and gives us new life in His Son (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).


[1] Some Christians misinterpret John 6:44, teaching that God only invites some people to believe in Jesus and receive salvation. But that’s reading a meaning into the verse that it doesn’t say. John 6:44 doesn’t say that everyone whom the Father draws will come to Jesus. The verse only says that that everyone who comes to Jesus is first drawn by the Father.

God Is Giving

Byzantine School, Sermon on the Mount (mosaic), c. 6th century AD

The second phase in John 3:16 says, that He gave His only begotten Son. The first three words, that He gave, highlight another dimension of God’s love—He gives gifts to those He loves.

When my daughter was a young child one of her favorite days was birthdays. On her own birthday she was overjoyed at the prospect of receiving gifts. For her, it didn’t really matter what kind of gift, she was thrilled to receive everything from toys and clothes to special family activities and visits from her grandparents. When it was someone else’s birthday, she was just as excited to make or pick out a present and give it to them.

For many of us, there is something special about giving and receiving gifts, an associated closeness of relationship that warms our hearts regardless of the gift given or received. But as we get older, we tend to take gifts for granted, coming to view them as something earned for good behavior or deserved as a byproduct of a shared relationship. But this misunderstands what a gift really is.

One dictionary defines a gift as follows:

A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.[1]

First, note that a gift is given willingly by the giver. A gift is not given begrudgingly or under compulsion, as if it were something owed to the receiver. Then it would not be a gift given, but rather, a payment tendered by the giver.

Second, a gift does not require payment from the recipient. A gift does not come with expectation of return or place obligation upon the recipient. Then it would not be a gift given, but a service or product purchased by the recipient.

Third, the qualities of the gift may vary, but they do not impact its status as a gift. A gift may be useful or frivolous, serious or humorous, expensive or thrifty, ornate or plain; the characteristics of the gift don’t really matter. If the gift is given freely, without compulsion or obligation from the giver of toward the recipient, it is still a gift.

Some pets are known to be enthusiastic gift givers. I remember a story a friend told me about the gifts her cat would leave her. From hairballs on her pillows to rodent carcasses on her front stoop, these gifts certainly aren’t the kind she liked to receive. But the way she explained how her cat sat there, waiting for her approval, nonetheless warmed my heart. Her cat was saying, “I love you” in a language both the cat and the owner understood.

In a similar way, God gives all of us many gifts every day. Thankfully, God’s gifts tend to be much more useful and lasting, even if they often come instructions and some assembly required.

God is very generous toward us. When life is going good, we tend to take for granted ask the convenient niceties in our lives. But all these things are gifts from God. James 1:17 stresses this important truth:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

Everything in our lives is a gift from God. Everything in life—career, car, clothing, family, food, income, leisure, shelter, technology–everything ultimately comes from God. A lot of us like to think we work hard, earn our due, and whatever we get we’ve earned. Others tend to think so highly of themselves that their mere presence is a gift to everyone else and everyone else owes them for the opportunity to dwell in their glorious presence. But both extremes fall short of the truth.

Jesus explains the humbling truth about how God designed us to live in John 15:5, which says,

“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”

God made us to live in relationship with Him. He knows we need basic necessities like clothing, for and shelter. He even promises to provide these for us. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:31-33,

“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

Notice, the greatest gift is not material. The greatest gift is the abiding presence of God in our lives. God freely and joyfully offers all of Himself all the time to whoever will come to Him.

But that’s the caveat. God will not force Himself on us. His presence in our lives is a gift freely given and freely received. This means He permits us the freedom to receive, or reject, His abiding presence in our lives.


[1] Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “Gift.” Logos Bible Software.

God Is Love

prodigal-son-flinck
Govert Flinck, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1640-1642

The first phase of John 3:16 ends with the words, so loved the world. When we turn our attention toward God, He helps us look beyond ourselves and start looking at the world through His eyes of love.

Throughout history, love has been idealized as one of the greatest virtues of humanity. The power of love to stir the hearts of humankind to action has been witnessed time and time again, from the bystander who exhibits superhuman strength to lift a car off a fallen victim, to the unity of those willing to stand against the unjust exploitation and murder of other human beings. Truly, love is one of the greatest motivators and unifiers known to the world.

According to John 3:16, God’s love is what moved Him to send Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. However, there is a lot about the idea of love that the world gets wrong. Some of the confusion about love comes from the way we use the word for a wide range of situations. For example, a person who is very passionate about Italian cuisine might say, “I love lasagna.” This is kind of love is very different from that of a mother who pulls her baby close and whispers, “I love you.” Then there is the love between husband and wife, which differs greatly from the love between other relatives or friends. This one English word can have many different meanings depending on the context. But these kinds of love all have in common that they are all human in origin and reciprocal to varying degrees.

In contrast, though God’s love can certainly be felt, it is not conditional on human emotion or experience. It is based solely on the lover—God Himself. Thankfully, God has explained His love toward us with various examples and explanations throughout the Bible.

The first time the Bible mentions God’s love is Deuteronomy 4:37, which says,

And because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them; and He brought you out of Egypt with His Presence, with His mighty power.

This verse introduces us to at least five particular dimensions of God’s love.

First, God’s love is intentional. God loves us on purpose, no by accident. Notice how God, speaking to Israel, chose them based on His love for their forefathers. God’s choosing traces back to Genesis 17:6-8, where God makes an everlasting covenant with Abraham:

I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

Here, we see how God intentionally made a covenant with Abraham that included a promise toward Abraham’s descendants, who weren’t even born yet. This shows how God’s love is not accidental, but intentional.

Second, God’s love is unconditional. God loves regardless of whether we love Him back. In Genesis 17:6-8, when God made the covenant with Abraham, that covenant very one-sided. Notice how God promised to do all the work. In fact, God had only one requirement for Abraham, as God explains later, in Genesis 17:10-12:

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.

The mark of circumcision was the only requirement God placed on Abraham’s descendants. And this requirement was not a payment or recurring activity, but rather, a physical mark in the flesh—a sign reminding Israel about God’s covenant with their forefather Abraham and how He chose Israel collectively to be His chosen nation long before any of the Israelites were able to reciprocate God’s love by choosing to love God back.

Third, God’s love is active. God’s love isn’t mere lip-service; God always follows His words with actions.  As we read in Deuteronomy 4:37, God showed His love for Israel by bringing them out of Egypt. Israel’s slavery in Egypt and deliverance by way of the Red Sea is detailed in Exodus 1-14. Those chapters tell how God heard Israel’s prayers, brought the judgment of the 10 plagues on Egypt, and parted the Red Sea so Israel could escape the Egyptian army by crossing into the wilderness. These miracles show God’s unwavering devotion to take action on behalf of everyone He loves.

Fourth, God’s love is present. According to Deuteronomy 4:37, God did not bring Israel out of Egypt only to abandon them in the wilderness; rather, God delivered Israel with His presence. God desires a deeply personal relationship with all of us. This is true going back to Adam and Eve in the garden. Immediately after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, Genesis 3:8-9 says,

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”

The Bible doesn’t say for sure whether God walking in the garden was Him taking a physical form or if it’s a word picture about God’s presence with Adam Eve. However, it’s quite clear that God regularly spent time with Adam and Eve and that they enjoyed a very close relationship with God. Sadly, the closeness of that relationship was lost for all of us when Adam and Eve rebelled by sinning against God. Now, sin is a wall between us and God that we can’t tear down ourselves. Thankfully, God is greater than sin and He took action so we could receive His presence again in our lives.

Fifth, God’s love manifests in power. We mentioned the many miracles God used to rescue Israel from bondage in Egypt. The abiding presence of God in our lives shows up in power to flee temptation, walk in victory over sin, and share the love of Christ in a world that couldn’t care less what God wants. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says,

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

When we believe in Jesus Christ, God performs surgery on our hearts, spiritually transplanting His Spirit as a kind of spiritual pacemaker alongside our own. The Holy Spirit comes alongside our hearts, monitoring our intentions, detecting spiritual anomalies, and sending spiritual pulses to convict and challenge us so we can change and become more like Jesus. Why? So that we can live fearlessly as witnesses of the love of Christ and not fall prey to the empty philosophies of the world.

These five dimensions of God’s love: intentional, unconditional, active, present, and powerful, are not exhaustive, but they begin to help us understand God’s great love for us. A love so great it moved the Father to do whatever was necessary to reconcile us to Himself.

 

God Is Good

jesus-good-shepherd
Unknown, Ancient Christian Mosaic, c. 425 AD

One of God’s attributes is His goodness. The Bible teaches that God is good and gives us many examples. For instance, when God created the world and filled it with living creatures, He looked back on all that He created, and, as Genesis 1:31 says,

God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.

But God didn’t just create a good world and leave it to govern and order itself. God has good intentions for the world. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 says that God intends good for Israel:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (NLT)

God’s goodness is not limited to Israel. God invites everyone to receive His goodness in their lives. The question isn’t if God is good, but how can I receive God’s goodness in my life? Psalm 34:8 gives us the answer,

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good;
Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!

In order to see God’s goodness in my life, I have to taste and see—I have to trust in Him. It is only by trusting in God that I can begin to understand how His goodness shows up in my life.

Trusting God means recognizing God’s sovereign rule over all creation and our humble position within God’s created order. Many people think that God is required to give the same blessings to everyone everywhere all the time. But this kind of thinking comes from a prideful entitlement mentality so common in the world today. Our very existence—the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the thoughts in our minds and the intents of our hearts are all blessings from God. Every aspect of our lives is an undeserved gift from God. And as the ultimate gift-giver who owes us nothing, the ways and degrees by which He shares His goodness varies from person to person, according to His purposes.

It is also important to understand that, especially concerning spiritual matters, God does not force His blessings on those who truly do not desire them. The invitation to believe requires exercising the free gift of informed choice about the sin in our hearts and our eternal destiny with or apart from His loving presence.

God has made it very clear that He has created two different spiritual destinies. One, created for people, is residing with Him for eternity. The other, created for the devil and his spiritual cohorts, is a place of eternal torment called hell. God never desires for anyone to go to hell. But when we truly don’t desire eternity with God and willfully reject His invitation to receive eternal life, God grants us our desire for an eternity apart from His loving presence by giving us the only other alternative, hell.

But this is also one of the reasons why receiving God’s invitation requires trusting in Jesus. In the trusting we acknowledge His existence with our minds and voluntarily submit our hearts to the truth that God is wholly good and has good intentions for His creation and our lives.

God Is Real

brueghel-jan-ii-god-creating
Jan Brueghel the Younger, God Creating Heaven and Earth, 1650

The first phrase in John 3:16 says, for God so loved the world. The words for God direct our attention heavenward to God Almighty. This is the beginning point for the Christian faith—believing in God.

The Bible doesn’t give any explanation for God’s existence. It simply says that, from the very beginning, God has always been. Looking at the very first verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:1 says:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Notice, before the beginning of the universe, God is already there. God has no beginning, middle or end. God is. The Psalmist set this truth to song in Psalm 90:2,

Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever You had formed the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.

Look at the last phrase of Psalm 90:2, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. There is no time we can consider before which God existed. There is no time we can consider that continues after God, as though He might stop existing while the world continues on without Him. The physical world had a beginning and that beginning came by the will of God. But God has neither beginning nor end.

Beginnings and endings are easy to understand. Life is filled with examples of beginnings and endings—schooling, job opportunities, home improvement projects, even life itself. Beginnings and endings are common human experiences. When we think about the universe, even the most popular scientific theory for its origin, the Big Bang Theory, agrees with the Bible that the universe had a beginning. The challenge is for us to admit that God has always been there, even before the universe began.

Thinking about God’s existence requires us to consider eternity. People ask the question, “if everything has a beginning, then what about God?” This question confuses many of the most educated people in the world. But the answer isn’t complicated. It’s a matter of perspective. God doesn’t have a beginning because His existence doesn’t depend on matter, space or time. God’s existence depends only on Himself.

By definition, God is spirit (John 4:24). He lives in the spiritual world, beyond the physical universe. The Bible teaches that this spiritual world is real, inhabited by spiritual creatures and governed by God. So, the question isn’t why God doesn’t have a beginning, but whether we are willing to accept what the Bible says—that God isn’t limited by matter, space, or time, but lives eternally in the spiritual world.

The spiritual world can’t be seen, but evidence for its existence is all around us. The struggles of daily life are very real, but what we see with our eyes is just at the surface. Like the tip of an iceberg giving an indication to an approaching ship of the danger beneath the surface of the water, so our daily life struggles in the physical world give us a glimpse into the activities taking place behind the scenes in the spiritual world.

The Bible calls the spiritual world the heavenly places. In the heavenly places, there are two opposing factions warring against each other for our souls. Paul describes this spiritual battle in Ephesians 6:12:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

One faction, led by Satan, seeks to steal, kill and destroy everything that God made, including human souls, while the other faction, led by God, seeks to save us and bring us into eternity with Him (John 10:10).

We are not passive spectators in this spiritual battle. Ultimately, we align with or against God, based on our response to God’s invitation to believe in Jesus. In our natural state as sinners, we are aligned with Satan against God. But when we respond to God’s invitation by believing in Jesus, we become aligned with God and He welcomes us into His heavenly household.

And when we receive God’s invitation to become partakers in His heavenly household, we begin to taste and see the goodness of God.

Fear and the Goodness of God

wrath-of-god-martin

Fear (terror) compels people to do all kinds of things. History has proven this to be true at all levels of human experience, from personal interactions to community concerns to international conflicts.

Concerning salvation, many Christians confess that the fear (terror) of God’s wrath resting on unrepentant sinners (John 3:18-21, 36) is what initiated their faith in Jesus.[1]

There is another sense of fear that also plays a role in the Christian’s faith. The Bible teaches, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7, NKJV). This kind of fear (awe, reverence) comes from some measure of recognition of how truly great, mighty, and awesome God is and how small, puny, and powerless we are in contrast to Him.

But when it comes to salvation, God isn’t just interested in handing out “fire insurance” or “keep out of hell” cards. God doesn’t save us to set us on a pedestal. God desires changed hearts producing changed lives, lives that increasingly become transformed to reflect the the righteousness of the Son.

This kind of change is not produced by fear, but by the goodness of God. As Romans 2:4 says, “the goodness of God leads you to repentance.” Thus, the Lord invites us, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!”

Consider an example from Jesus. It was not the fear (terror) of death that drove the prodigal home. His fear caused him to reflect on his life choices and remember his father’s house. It was the goodness of his father that convinced him that he might find some small portion of sustenance after squandering his resources and exhausting his options (Luke 15:11-32).

Thus, in facing the fear (terror) of death apart from God, we learn the fear (awe, reverence) of the Lord, which draws us to the Son. And when we come to the Son by grace through faith (Eph 2:8), we find we need no longer fear death and the grave because God’s wrath no longer abides on us. What we find is good Father who welcomes us with open arms.

[1] R.C. Sproul relaying the testimony of some of his congregants for their reasons for believing in Jesus https://youtu.be/fcOzTZUOBn0?t=293.

When You Have Returned to Me

peters-denial

And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” But he said to Him, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.” Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.” (Luke 22:31-34, NKJV)

Jesus and the disciples were in the upper room celebrating the Passover. The conversation among the disciples turned to a lively dispute about who among them was the greatest of Jesus’ disciples. Amusingly, this was not the first time they argued about this topic. They argued about the same thing shortly after returning from their preaching  and miracle ministry to Israel (see Luke 9, esp. 1-11, 46-50). We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, comparing our works to others’ is a common way to measure success in the eyes of the world. However, God measures success much differently. God isn’t interested in how we “measure up” to others—He’s interested in the condition of our hearts, whether we’re willing to humbly yield to the loving others and serving Him (see Luke 9, esp. 23-26, 46-50).

Regardless, during the Passover dispute, Jesus interrupts and tells Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” The implications are clear. Peter will fail the Lord in word and works. And when Peter protests, Jesus very specifically tells Peter when and how He will fail—by denying Christ three times that very night, before the morning rooster finishes crowing. Interestingly, even with such a specific word of prophecy, Peter lives out his failure exactly as Christ prophesied.

But Peter’s failure isn’t the only prophecy Jesus spoke. Notice, Jesus also said, “and when you have returned to Me.” Here we are reminded that Jesus, knowing our thoughts even before we think them, loves us unconditionally. And this great love impels Christ to keep us as members of His flock, in spite of all our failures and weaknesses. He loves us so much that He even invests Himself personally in prayer for us.

Thus, Luke 22:31-34 exemplifies that wonderfully comforting passage in Romans 8:35-39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So, when you find yourself failing the Lord over and over again, take heart. Jesus already knows every mistake you’ll ever make, yet He loves you still. And no matter how many times you sin—no matter how far you wander or how hard you try to mess things up—when you truly belong to His flock, having received His grace by believing in Him, then, He will always hold you tight, never let you go, and invite you with open arms to return once more to Him.