What we believe about the existence of God has great impact on our mental and emotional and moral approach to life.
To believe that no god exists implies that you believe that this world developed out of nothing for no purpose. It came into being out of random accidents of nature and the brutal survival of the fittest (and/or the brutal elimination of the weaker). With no god, there is no one above us to give value to our lives or to impose a moral compass to life. With no god, there is no one to help us when we are in need, and no one to hear or care about the cries of our hearts. With no god, there is no one to hold us accountable for anything evil we may do. With no god, there is nothing to look forward to when your heart stops beating except the decomposition of your carcass.
The famous atheist Richard Dawkins affirms this assessment. He claims, “Life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of DNA…life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good—nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
Now deceased atheist Bertrand Russell spoke of the emptiness and futility of life: “We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night, and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is a voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns.”
Bertrand Russell’s daughter said of her father, “Somewhere at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that once had been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.”
But those who believe in the God of the Bible approach life—and even death—with a sense of hope and peace and conviction and courage.
We believe in a God who describes Himself as a caring Shepherd to us. We believe that our lives have value because this Shepherd values us. We withstand difficulties in life with peace and hope because this Shepherd hears our cries, searches for us, and lovingly tends to us. We are convicted to turn away from wrong because this Shepherd leads us on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. We are convicted to care for even the least among us because this Shepherd cares for every weak or lost lamb. We face even death with courage because this Shepherd will walk with us even through the valley of the shadow of death, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I confess that I am a consumer…not a shepherd. I like wool sweaters, and I like lamb chops, so I tend to think that sheep are here for the purpose of being sheared and eaten.
But wait a minute! Doesn’t God call us the sheep of His pasture? What does that mean for us? Does it mean that God looks at us the way I look at sheep?
Fortunately, God does not view us with the attitude of a consumer, but with the heart of a Shepherd.
In the book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller describes someone he knew who cared little for the sheep under his supervision:
“The tenant sheepman on the farm next to my first ranch was the most indifferent manager I had ever met. He was not concerned about the condition of his sheep. His land was neglected. He gave little or no time to his flock, letting them pretty well forage for themselves as best they could, both summer and winter. They fell prey to dogs, cougars, and rustlers.
“Every year these poor creatures were forced to gnaw away at bare brown fields and impoverished pastures. Every winter there was a shortage of nourishing hay and wholesome grain to feed the hungry ewes. Shelter to safeguard and protect the suffering sheep from storms and blizzards was scanty and inadequate.
“They had only polluted, muddy water to drink. There had been a lack of salt and other trace minerals needed to offset their sickly pastures. In their thin weak and diseased condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight….
“To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent. He simply did not care. What if his sheep did want green grass; fresh water; shade; safety or shelter from the storms? What if they did want relief from wounds, bruises, disease and parasites?
“He ignored their needs – he couldn’t care less. Why should he – they were just sheep – fit only for the slaughterhouse.” (pp. 8 & 15-16)
Fortunately God looks upon His sheep (us) with the heart of a Shepherd who lovingly cares for His sheep rather than with the attitude of a consumer. In Ezekiel 34:10, God says sharp words against “shepherds” who poorly treat His “sheep”: “I will hold them accountable for My flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue My flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.” In verse 16, God goes on to stress, “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
What does this mean to us?
1: We are not the objects of God’s consumerism; rather we are ones whom He lovingly cares for. We can know that our lives have tremendous value to God. Knowing that we are lovingly cared for by such a good Shepherd should give us hope in all circumstances.
2: Since God cares so lovingly for each of us, we should care for one another.
Why have Christian sages throughout the ages stressed that confession of our sins is a vital practice for those who wish to grow in spiritual strength and peace?
The reason is: Confession of our sins is the first step we can take in standing with God instead of standing against God.
The word confess means, literally, “to acknowledge with” someone. When we confess our sins, we acknowledge with God that what we have done is wrong and is harmful to us and to others.
The problem is that ever since Adam & Eve ate the forbidden fruit, confession has not come naturally to us. When Adam & Eve committed that first sin, God gave them a great opportunity to confess what they had done. He asked Adam straightforwardly, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
What a wonderful opening for Adam “to acknowledge with” God, ‘Yes, I sinned, and this sin has filled me with such embarrassment that it warped the way Eve and I look at each other, and we even hid from You because we suddenly felt fear which we had never known before.’
But that’s not what Adam said. Rather than taking the first step to stand with God, he took a step in the opposite direction. He threw the blame on Eve.
Frederick Buechner expresses the dynamic of confession well: “To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.”
As confession is the first step we can take in standing with God instead of against Him, repentance is the next step we can take in walking with God instead of continuing away from God, for repentance has to do with turning around so as to begin walking with God rather than in a way that is contrary to God.
The prophet Ezekiel speaks to a people who find themselves suffering the calamity and pain of sin but who have not yet taken the steps of confession and repentance.
In Ezekiel 33:10, God calls the people to confession. He says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you are saying: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?”’”
The people realize that they are experiencing in their lives the pain and calamity that sin causes, but they have not yet acknowledged that the reason for their pain is sin. Thomas Merton sums it up well: “Sin proves itself to be a supreme injustice not only against God but, above all, against ourselves.”
The people know that their lives are a mess, but they have not yet acknowledged why. Ezekiel 33:10 invites them to take the first step of standing with God by acknowledging with God that it is their sins that are bringing such pain and despair to their lives.
If you find yourself living in a world of pain and despair, perhaps the first step you could take would be to acknowledge with God the calamity sin is bringing to your life.
In Ezekiel 33:11 God invites them to take the next step of beginning to walk with Him rather than continuing to walk away from Him. He says to Ezekiel, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Will you die, O house of Israel?’”
I love that verse! God doesn’t want anyone to die. That’s why Jesus gave His life for us! And that’s why God invites us to stop walking in a way that is contrary to Him and harmful to us. That’s why He invites us to turn around and to begin walking with Him in the way that leads to strength and peace.
We, as human beings, are not merely a mixture of bones and tendons and organs and flesh. We were brought into being with a soul—a spiritual dimension of our being. That soul within us longs for meaningful connection with God.
Blaise Pascal, the great 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, remarked, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man [person] which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God.”
F.F. Bruce put it this way: “The soul’s deepest thirst is for God Himself, who has made us so that we can never be satisfied without Him.”
Prince Charles confessed the same longing: “There remains in the soul (if I dare use that word) a persistent and unconscious anxiety that something is missing…some ingredient that makes life worth living.”
Because the human composition includes a soul that longs for connection with God, there is a natural pull within us to pray—there is a natural pull within our soul to cry out to God. Even Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheists organization, wrote into her personal diary at least half a dozen times, “Somebody, somewhere, love me.” Though denying the existence of God, her soul kept crying out for Him.
Prayer is the means by which a soul cries out to God.
Though there are a variety of types of prayer (including petition, confession, gratitude, and praise), the primary prayer of the human soul is a gut cry for real connection with God.
Jeffrey D. Imbach stresses, “Prayer is essentially the expression of our heart longing for love. It is not so much the listing of our requests but the breathing of our own deepest request, to be united with God as fully as possible.”
E. Stanley Jones offers a wonderful picture of what prayer is about. He says, “Prayer’s like the fastening of the cup to the wounded side of a pine tree to allow the resin to pour into it. You are now nestling up into the side of God—the wounded side, if you will—and you allow His grace to fill you up. You are taking in the very life of God.”
So when your soul nudges you to pray, go ahead and do it. It’s what we were designed to do. It’s what is natural to who we are as human beings.
And it’s what God longs for as well. Bill Hybels offers a suggestion of God’s attitude toward our prayers: “‘Come into My presence,’ says God. ‘Talk to Me. Share all your concerns. I’m keenly interested in you, because I’m your Father. I’m able to help, because all power in heaven and on earth is Mine. And I’m listening very closely, hoping I will hear your voice.’”
When you consider the multitude of planets scattered across this vast universe, it is rather mind-boggling to take to heart the Biblical teaching that God actually cares about individual human beings like you and me. It’s mind-boggling, but it is the consistent message of the Bible!
In fact, in Exodus 6:7 God goes so far as to say that He will “take you as My own people.” The word translated here as “take” is the Hebrew word laqakh which is used repeatedly in the opening books of the Bible for the taking of a wife (e.g. Genesis 4:19, 11:29, 21:21, 24:4, 25:1 & 25:20).
The Bible chooses a word to describe God’s desire for us and His commitment to us that is the same word used to describe how a man and woman who are deeply in love with each other take each other as husband and wife. The Bible portrays wedding-love as the kind of love God desires to enjoy with us!
God is faithful to this love. He promises that He will never leave us or forsake us.
But Ezekiel 23 portrays us as an adulterous partner. Rather than living in faithful love to the One who would take us as His own, we have lived a life of infidelity, turning to other lovers, giving ourselves to false gods.
Ezekiel 23:35 presents God as a ‘jilted lover’!
I feel awkward writing these words about God: ‘jilted lover’! I feel like I am being horribly disrespectful to describe God in such a crass way. But it is not the image I came up with. It’s the image the Bible uses to portray God, and it communicates a vital truth to us: As a husband or wife is deeply hurt by the affair(s) of his or her partner, God is deeply hurt by our unfaithfulness! The difference is that our hurt in such circumstances is often a blow to our ego, stirring up all of our insecurities. God does not share our insecurities. God’s sorrow and anger are out of a deeper and truer love than we will ever understand on earth. His sorrow and anger are for the pain we bring upon ourselves by the poor choice we make in being unfaithful to Him.
Even amidst our unfaithfulness, God—in the enormity of His love—reaches out to us to bring us back to His love.
John 3:16 sums it up well: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Romans 5:8 puts it this way: “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Perhaps as we come to grasp more fully the depth of God’s intimate love for us we will be motivated to live in greater faithfulness and love to Him.
It is impossible to read even a little bit of the Bible and not encounter the compassion and the justice of God.
Sometimes people make the mistake of dividing those two characteristics of God: His compassion and His holiness—as though God is either compassionate or He is good. The truth is that God is deeply compassionate and thoroughly good.
David Seamands addresses this dynamic well in his book, Freedom from the Performance Trap: “‘But,’ someone continues to protest, ‘I don’t understand this anger of God business—it scares me.’ Maybe it will help if we ask, What is the alternative to the anger of God? The alternative is not a God of love, because…love and anger are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other. The alternative to anger is apathy, which would mean an apathetic God who is morally neutral and indifferent to the outcome of the battle between good and evil. That would make him a God who sits on the moral fence of the world and says, ‘I don’t care what happens to them. Let them sin if they want to, that’s their business. I’m not going to interfere in their lives.’ So whenever the biblical picture of a holy God who get angry about sin seems old-fashioned and frightening, try to imagine something a whole lot scarier—an apathetic God who doesn’t care. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world like ours if God were personally indifferent and morally neutral. That would be a terrifying nightmare.” (p. 76)
Over and over again, Scripture makes it clear that whoever would seek to be a follower of God cannot be “personally indifferent and morally neutral” to what is going on in this world but is to follow God in His blend of compassion and justice.
Listen to how Ezekiel 22:29-31 expresses this challenge to us:
“The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. I looked for a person among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out My wrath on them and consume them with My fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
God is neither personally indifferent nor morally neutral. Thus He is looking for people who will stand before Him in the gap, praying for His compassion and justice to prevail; He is looking for people who will stand before Him in the gap doing what we can to bring His compassion and justice to the world around us.
Will we follow Him in this…or not?