Learning to Recognize God
I have read from a couple of different sources that the most frequently used description of God in the Bible is that God is merciful.
Deuteronomy 4:31 declares, “For the Lord your God is a merciful God.” Nehemiah 9:31 announces, “For you are a gracious and merciful God.”
I have been a serious student of God’s Word for around 45 years now. You would think, after so many years of following God and studying His Word, that I would be able to recognize His character, but I had an experience recently in which I mistook God’s character for something entirely different.
Here’s what happened. I recognized in me a spiritual longing for deeper intimacy with God and for a deeper awareness of my need for God. With that spiritual longing stirring my soul, I prayed, asking God to increase my intimacy with Him and asking God to deepen my awareness throughout the day and throughout the week of my great need for Him. Then I added to that prayer a quick P.S.: “But God,” I said, “as you answer that prayer, please hit me on the wrist with a ruler rather than hitting me over the head with a 2×4.”
After praying that P.S., it struck me that the only way I expected God to answer my longing for deeper intimacy with Him would be by hitting me—either hard, with a 2×4, or soft, with a ruler. I mistook the character of God. I anticipated that the only way God could get through to me would be by hitting me. I failed to recognize that the character of God is mercy.
So I changed my prayer. I asked God to woo me to Him in love. As soon as I uttered those words, though, I felt that I was being inappropriate in my prayer. What right did I have to ask the Almighty God to woo me to Him in love? I didn’t have any qualms about asking God to hit me soft instead of hard, but I thought it was inappropriate for me to ask God to woo me to Him in love! Again, I had mistaken the character of God. I had not taken to heart that God’s character is mercy and that He wants to love me.
Fortunately, God brought to my mind an example from Scripture that helps me to recall His actual character. After Peter denied knowing Jesus, he returned to fishing. I believe that Peter now considered himself no longer to be qualified to be an evangelist for Jesus so had gone back to fishing. Jesus met Peter on the shore while Peter was fishing from his boat (John 21). Here was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to hit Peter with a 2×4 (zapping a hole in Peter’s boat) or to smack Peter with a ruler (zapping a hole in his fishing nets). Jesus could have chosen the hard hit or the soft hit in that situation to stop Peter from fishing and bring him in desperation to Jesus. But Jesus does neither. Jesus doesn’t hit Peter with a 2×4 or with a ruler. He deals with Peter in mercy. He woos Peter to Him in love. He gives to Peter a huge catch of fish, and He prepares a breakfast for Peter and the others. After breakfast, He pulls Peter aside, asking him three times, “Do you love Me,” while three times affirming His call to Peter to feed His sheep.
There is something wrong with my eye-sight (or my soul-sight). I have trouble recognizing the true character of God. But, fortunately, in His mercy God is working in me to help me to see more accurately who He really is.
Why is the Christian faith so insistent on us confessing our sins to God?
To answer that question satisfactorily, we need to understand the essence of confession. The Greek word for “I confess” is homologeo, which literally means, “I say the same thing.” To confess is to agree with what God says about what we have done, and about who we are, and about what God has done on our behalf.
Since confession, by its very nature, is to agree with what God says, then the absence of confession is to stand in opposition to God.
Whenever we confess we take a stand with God in facing the truth about our sins (they hurt and/or diminish ourselves and others, and they hurt our relationship with God), and about His promise to forgive us through Jesus’ death on the cross.
The Bible stresses that confession is a good thing and a healing thing for us, but from the very beginning confession has not been our first inclination.
When Adam & Eve committed the very first sin, they could have confessed. They could have said, “Wow, God was right! Eating that forbidden fruit was a bad idea. Suddenly we are afraid and ashamed and resentful. What we did was wrong.”
Instead of confessing, though, they sewed fig leaves together, and they tried to hide in the garden, and they tried to pass the blame around to others. When we try to avoid the truth about our sin by sewing fig leaves, or hiding, or blaming, or coming up with excuses or rationalizations, we stand in opposition to God, and we never get anywhere worthwhile.
To confess is to give up relying on any cover-up, or excuse, or rationalization, or attempt to smooth things over by trying harder. To confess is to trust, instead, in God’s grace.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write, “To ‘confess’ is to agree with the truth. When God or others are disciplining us, we need to agree on the issue or problem. When we confess, we are aligning ourselves with the process of growth and repair (James 5:16). When we do not confess, we can negate discipline’s good effects.” (How People Grow, p. 254)
No wonder the Christian faith is insistent on us confessing our sins to God.
Why is God so concerned about our joy?
Something happens in Nehemiah 8 that catches me by surprise. God commands the people to stop weeping and to go enjoy life instead.
We seem to grow up with the idea that God wants us to be miserable. Indeed, we seem to think that the more miserable a person is, the closer to God they are, and that the happier a person is, the farther from God they must be. But in Nehemiah 8, when the people weep while listening to “the words of the Law” (verse 9), they are instructed to stop weeping, not to mourn, and to “go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared” (verse 10). Indeed, they are commanded, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (verse 10).
Why is God so concerned about His people being filled with joy?
Three reasons come to my mind:
1: Joy is the nature of God. To turn to God is to turn to His joy. God wants us to come into joy because God wants us to come to Him.
Joy did not come into this world by accident, nor is it an invention of the devil. Joy comes from the character of God. That’s why joy is listed among the fruit of the Spirit. And it’s why Jesus could say to His disciples, “I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Yes, there will be times in the Christian life when we will be filled with sorrow or grief, but at its very core, God’s call to us to come into deeper intimacy with Himself, is a call to us deeper joy.
2: Joy motivates us. God invites us into the joy that will keep motivating us in the right direction He wants us to go.
Some disciplinarians think that guilt or threats or punishment will knock a person into moving in the right direction. But those tactics never work for long. Larry Crabb points out, “Whatever brings me the most joy will prove irresistible. That’s just the way we’re built. We were designed to enjoy joy. When nothing brings me joy, I experience despair. When something bring me joy, I go after it. That makes it important to know what is the source of real joy, joy that’s deep and lasting, without bad side effects that show up years later.” (The PAPA Prayer, p. 142)
3: Joy and compassion are deeply connected.
When we talk about God moving us in “the right direction,” one of the key things this involves is compassion toward others. God’s direction always seems to correspond with compassion toward others.
Rich Mullins observes, “I think there is great joy in compassion. I don’t think that you can know joy apart from caring deeply about people—caring enough to actually do something.” No wonder Nehemiah 8:10 links together joy and kindness to others: “Go and enjoy choice foods and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.”
God’s call to love one another is an invitation to us to live within His joy, and God’s invitation to joy is a call to us to love one another.
Courage = Perseverance + Integrity
What is courage?
One dictionary defines it as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.”
I would agree with that definition if the last two words were removed: “Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc.”
Nelson Mandela affirms this perspective of courage. He writes, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Piers Anthony adds, “The one who feels no fear is a fool, and the one who lets fear rule him is a coward.”
I would suggest that a working definition of courage could be: “Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to persevere and maintain integrity amidst difficulty, danger, pain, etc.”
This is what I find in a man named Nehemiah, whose story is told in a book in the Bible that bears his name. Chapter 6 of this book tells of the plots and threats raised against him in the attempts of his enemies to kill him or to intimidate him. Four times his enemies try to lure him to an isolated location so they can take his life. A fifth time they try to shame him into meeting them in that isolated place by publishing a false report about him and offering to clear it up when he meets with them. When that tactic fails, they send word to him that others are coming to kill him and that he should hide in a portion of the temple where he is not permitted to go. Despite their plots, their threats, and their intimidation, Nehemiah perseveres in the work that God has called him to do, and he maintains his integrity, refusing to let fear drive him to do what would be wrong for him to do.
Nehemiah inspires me.
Too often I find myself giving up when I am afraid. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to be the kind of person who perseveres through fear.
Too often, when I am afraid, I find myself making excuses for compromising my morals. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to be the kind of person who maintains integrity in the midst of fear.
Ambrose Redmoon remarks, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
That’s what I want. Even in the midst of fear, I want to value perseverance and integrity more highly than my fear.
An anonymous writer suggests, “Real courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
That, too, is what I want. In the midst of my fears I want to say my prayers so that God strengthens me to persevere amidst my fears and so that I maintain integrity.
A final anonymous quote: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
I have spent too much of my life shrinking in fear. I want my life to expand through the courage to persevere and to maintain integrity in the face of difficulty, danger, pain, etc.