God: Forgiving & Just

  • Read Exodus 19 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

I have a book on my shelf titled Paradoxes for Living.  It’s not an easy read and I gave up after a few chapters, but I love the concept.  Here are the chapter titles:

  • To Be Strong, We Have to Be Weak
  • To Save Our Lives, We Have to Lose Them
  • Pain as the Pathway to Joy
  • To Know God we Have to Know Ourselves
  • In Trivial Things Lies Greatness
  • To Become Mature, We Have to Become Children
  • To Live, We Have to Die
  • To Receive, We Have to Give

These statements appear perplexing and nonsensical on first reading.  Perhaps they even seem zen-like.  They’re concepts drawn straight from Scripture.  God challenges reality as we know it.  He wants us to think deeply about his character and then reflect it in our lives.

The list above mostly refers to our actions and attitudes.  In my sermon this week I essentially proposed the thesis that “God is by nature paradox”.  In Exodus 34:7 God says

I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.[a]
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
even children in the third and fourth generations.  (NLT)

God forgives the guilty: God does not excuse the guilty.  I hope we can quickly fill in the blanks that an individual’s attitude toward their sin determines God’s response.  But paradox certainly exists here.

Another way of summarising this verse says, “God is Forgiving/Gracious: God is Just“.  I’m not sure how one person can be completely both, but God is.  God is big enough to embrace both ends of a spectrum at the same time.  We usually struggle to exercise wisdom in deciding when to practice Forgiveness and when to practice Justice.  Because these decisions are subjective Christians will often disagree with each other about which action is best.

Some Christians look at Leviticus 10 and the punishment (just) of Nadab and Abihu for offering “unathorised fire” to God as meaning our worship must not contain anything not specified by God.  Others look at the example of David eating the “bread of the Presence” in 1 Samuel 21 as indicating that God is pragmatic (gracious) about our worship practices.  Then we argue about who’s right, while God is both!

I have said many times, “God must be bigger than humans can understand, or else we become God.”  These paradoxes demonstrate this idea.  They prompt us to contemplate God.  To commit ourselves to understanding Him.  God is not an easy read, he’s a lifelong study.

  • Can you think of some other paradoxes about Christian life or God himself?
  • Is it encouraging or disconcerting for you to think of God as a paradox?
  • How important is it to your faith to “understand” God?
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2 comments

  1. prestoncottrell

    I have found people born within the past 30-40 years often have an easier time dealing with the complex notion of a paradoxical God. The modern paradigm that dominated the 20th century pronounced statements about God. In a rational framework, any pronouncement that seems contrary to another pronouncement means only one can have validity. So for instance, a person might believe that God is both loving and objectively just and holy, but might feel the need to elevate one nature over the other to preserve uniformity of thought. But many Christians are not just accepting but embracing the idea that God has many facets to Him without removing the power of deity. It tends to spur the biblical narrative along and also make God’s compassion more moving when the reader expects to see one action and gets another. For me the minor prophets are one of my favorite areas of what you are describing (particularly Hosea 10-11 and the Jonah narrative).

    • ozziepete

      Preston, I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment. 🙂

      The Bible contains tension. We live in a world of tension as we experience the kingdom, while hoping for the kingdom, (already and not yet). We often view tension as a negative in life, so it can be difficult to embrace this tension within God. I appreciate your perspective.

      I actually used Jonah for the Scripture reading prior to the sermon and demonstrated how Jonah quoted Exodus 34:6. Jonah was hoping for the punishment of 34:7, but expected the forgiveness to win. God did just as he expected.

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