We have a problem. The Bible hasn’t changed in nearly two millennia, but how we view God changes regularly and certain aspects of His character rise and fall in trendy popularity. In short, regardless of how His Word describes Him, we still “create” God in our image.
During pretty much my whole lifetime, our culture focuses on the aspects of God that deal with love—‘Our Father in heaven,’ ‘God is love,’ and so on, with just enough of His justice so that we can get back to mercy, grace, love, peace, blessings, and so on with some sort of ‘context.’
There is also a kick of flavor added in by Lewis (in Narnia), Young (in The Shack) and others, including me who talk about God’s unpredictability, that He is wild and doesn’t conform to our image of him, but we still tend to think of things more on the softer side of wild, as a whole.
It was not like that 200+ years ago.
Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ was the complete opposite of today’s dominant paradigm. He had just enough mercy to give his hearers a break to catch their breath from God’s wrath, His incensed patience that is the only thing preserving us from hellfire and brimstone, and His mockery and lack of pity when punishing the wicked who reject Christ.
To many, these pictures seem to be of different Gods completely. No wonder people are confused. To me, it is merely the swinging of a pendulum of understanding. When I talk with couples who have been married for decades, they often comment on how they are still learning things about their mate. Is it any different with God? How could it be otherwise that we create a picture of Him we can grasp, because otherwise He’s too big for us. I really understand that.
However, none of our mental images of Him comes close. He is love, otherwise He would have never come down to take our sin. He is just, otherwise there would have been no point for the Cross. Yet He is more still. This two dimensional picture of Him makes it easy for our analytical culture to see salvation in terms of a relatively cold business or legal transaction.
But God is emotionally involved also. If He is infinite Life, infinite Love, infinite Justice, then it is logical that He would also be infinite emotion and passion, and that suddenly is a very scary thing. He is not merely some dispassionate judge who compares our actions to a code of law. He is deeply and personally aggrieved by our rebellion. It is fashionable in contemporary lawsuits to include in the damages awarded the plaintiff moneys for ‘pain and suffering,’ and as a whole, we as a society agree that this is a just thing to account for.
Now, if it is just for us to include pain and suffering as factors in judgment, all of a sudden, it adds a whole new and, well, terrifying dimension to the accounting of our wrongdoing before God. If we stand condemned (apart from Christ) for violating God’s standards, how much deeper is our punishment when we take God’s pain and suffering into account? All of a sudden, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" seems a lot more reasonable, and our lovey-dovey kum-bah-yah BFF Jesus seems milquetoast. It is not a case of different deities, nor is it the case of divine schizophrenia. It is a case of a real Person who is having to deal with a real problem—one that isn’t just a problem for us and He’s trying to fix it for us like some speeding ticket. It is a problem in which He is intimately and infinitely involved with His whole Being.
We are too limited to really grasp the enormity and complexity of His involvement with us, and we therefore discount and simplify it in our minds, and all too often turn to our picture of God rather than to God Himself. Aside from the idolatry of it, we miss out on knowing the real God, sharing Him accurately with others, and living with the realization that it all does matter, greatly.
Go, read Edwards’ famous sermon. (or even better, listen to it) It should be required annual reading for all who call themselves Christian, and it should also be read by those who don’t know God. It will be offensive to modern ‘sensibilities.’ That is the point. Many if not most of our ‘sensibilities’ are in good need of some offense .If God is offended by even the best of our deeds, then the least we can do is open our sensibilities up to His response. That is often how peace negotiations begin—learning who is offended and why.