In the years I have been I been shepherding people through this book, I probably have lost almost half of them by the time we get to this chapter. There has only been one exception, a group of young adults in my YADM (Young Adult Discipleship Ministry). While the subject of the book itself is daunting, most people begin really struggling at chapter nine, God Only Wise, recover a little with the chapters on love and grace, but then hit the pavement on the last four chapters of this section. I have lost a few more on next week’s lesson, The Jealous God, but this one is usually the last straw for those who struggled beaten and bruised through The Wrath of God. So, if you are still with us, praise be to God and may his love and grace continue to sustain you. Now a necessary reminder, if you are new to this study, you can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. There are also study materials for the book available at william.meisheid.com.
Nobody has a problem with the goodness of God. For most people their entire definition of God is encompassed by two words: love and goodness. The only problem is that it is wrong. Not that God is not loving and by his very nature good, he is. The problem is that those are only two aspects of God’s infinitely expansive nature and coupled with his loving goodness is his judgment, wrath, and severity.
Packer chooses for the opening words of this chapter the words of Paul from the first half of Romans 11:22, so elequently expressed in the original King James.
Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.
Later translations sometimes express it a little less starkly.
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God (NIV)
Now you see both how kind and how hard God can be. (CEV)
We see how kind God is. It shows how hard He is also. (NLV)
See how kind God is. And see how hard he is. (WE)
Sternness and hard are less intimidating words than severity. I really like the way Eugene Peterson expresses this verse in The Message.
Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God
He pulls no punches with “ruthless severity” and I really like that exist side by side in God.” Side by side, says it well. They are essential parts of God’s nature, full and complete.
This is another short chapter, only eight pages, but what Packer does is to completely weld together these two aspects of God’s nature. He argues that to have the goodness of God you have to accept his severity or to use Peterson, his ruthless severity. On balance, if you want to argue for God’s severity against sinners, you also have to accept his goodness toward the redeemed for the second half of the verse which says:
on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.
Dr. Packer decries what he calls the modern muddle-headedness of floundering fellows who cling to a hodgepodge of fancies about God. He feels these lost and confused souls are mired in pride, relativistic equivalence, and denial of sin. Hmmm, sounds a lot like a definition of my previous example, the Wrongly WReverend Bishop John Shelby Spong.
In the end, the question we need to ask is, What has God promised us? There is a Bulgarian proverb that says “God promises a safe landing but not a calm passage.” I think the unknown author of that adage had in mind Paul’s Mediterranean Sea journey to Rome which though filled with storms and shipwreck resulted in a safe passage for all hands.
Black tennis great Arthur Ashe was an interesting man, a sort of Tiger Woods of my young adulthood. He said,
If I were to say, “God, why me?” about the bad things, then I should have said, “God, why me?” about the good things that happened in my life.
Arthur said this in response to questions about the certainty of his faith during his AIDS struggle, gotten from a transfusion, which eventually took his life. Ashe mirrored the words of Job 2:10,
Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”
My chief concern for all who study with me has been that they maintain their sense of balance in how they both understand God and live out their Christian lives. Our goal should not be to deny but to minimize God’s severity while relishing his goodness. The Book of Job gives us a sobering premise, that we should accept everything from the hand of God. As creator, he has the right to do as he sees fit with us. That grates against our sense of pride and self-worth, of fairness and self-significance. But God told Moses that he made the blind or the seeing, the deaf or those who hear. (Exodus 4:11) We rail at God, asking, Why? God says, “Because I am God and you need know no more.” Whether or not we can accept that goes to the heart of our heart, and eventually to the success or failure of our efforts as Christians.
My hope is that as you ponder these truths about God you will be able to maintain your equilibrium when responding to the vicissitudes of life. Our strength is the same strength that Paul drew on in Philippians 4:11b-13
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
May God bless you and keep you, may his grace and goodness always shine upon you, and if you must taste of his severity may its time be short and his mercies arrive on swift feet.