If you are looking for my blog titled, The Contemplative Catholic Convert, you are at the right spot.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mistaken about His Mercy

I apologize for the length of this essay. It's much shorter than it was when I first wrote it down. This is a synthesis of things I've been thinking about for months. I hope it will help some who read it.
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 Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. (John 6:68)

The longer I know God, the more I know I don’t know Him.  That’s a different attitude than I had just a few years ago. Back then I thought I had nearly all the answers. And why shouldn’t I? I could quote hundreds of Scripture passages and easily recite the basic doctrines of evangelical Protestant and Catholic faith. I have baccalaureate and master’s degrees from Assemblies of God schools and have studied and taught Scripture for more than forty years.

Yet I am now at the point in my life where I realize the longer I know God, the more I know I don’t know Him.  Sometimes I feel like an amoeba trying to fathom the mind and purpose of an Einstein – and I am in good company. It was St. John Chrysostom who said, “God is the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable.” St. Augustine added, “If it can be understood, it is not God.” And St. Thomas Aquinas noted of God, “We cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not.  Whatever can be understood, or thought of, is less than God.” 

I don’t usually think about how much I don’t know about God, until someone asks me what I now concede are unanswerable questions, such as: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Or, “Why does God permit some people to do terribly bad things without punishment, and on others His judgment is swift and overwhelming?”

For example, there’s that gruesome story of rape, murder and mutilation in the book of Judges, and God doesn’t seem to bother Himself with event. I wrote about it several months ago, and you can read it here. Whereas, an example of God’s immediate judgment against sin occurs in the New Testament story of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira. You’ll find it in Acts, chapter 5. They sold some property and brought the proceeds of the sale to the apostles as a gift to the Lord. Well, actually, they brought some of the proceeds of the sale. They lied to the apostles, telling them they were giving all of the sale price.

And God slew them right there on the spot.

So, what’s going on? Why sudden punishment for some and seemingly nothing for another? It is precisely that question which brought me to the conclusion I don’t know as much about God as I once thought I did. Perhaps what Jesus said to some Sadducees is applicable to me.

The Sadducees were the religious humanists of Jesus’ day. They didn’t believe in angels, the supernatural, or the resurrection. So they challenged Jesus with a hypothetical case of a man who died without having any children with his wife. According to the Mosaic Law, the man’s brother was to marry the widow and raise children to the deceased. The Sadducees continue their “what-if” to say the deceased had six brothers, each of whom in turn married the widow and then died without producing offspring to the original brother. “So in the resurrection,” they asked Jesus, “whose wife will she be, since all seven had her as a wife?”

I imagine Jesus sadly shook His head as He answered, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, because you do not understand the Scripture, or the power of God?” (Mark 12:24)

Several months ago when I reread that story, the Lord’s words to the Sadducees captured my attention as if I’d never read that passage before.  Jesus could just as easily have said to me with regard to all my questions: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, because you do not understand the Scripture, or the mercy of God?” Or, the forgiveness of God? Or, His patience?

It is that concept – my incredibly limited understanding of God and of His patience, mercy, and forgiveness – that brings me back to the question about the stories in Judges and in Acts, and many others throughout Sacred Scripture, and even to 2013.

It amazes me, for example, how patient God was with Israel during their 40 years in the desert. Their shoes and clothing didn’t wear out. He fed them day by day with supernatural ‘manna’ from heaven. The people witnessed God’s supernatural pillar of fire which led them by day and His supernatural cloud which settled over them each night. For forty years God’s miraculous presence and intervention journeyed with them. Every day. For forty years. Yet, as the prophet Amos writes, they carried along with them the idolatrous gods of Egypt (Amos 5:25-26).  Nevertheless (and here is the amazing part) God demonstrated His great patience and mercy, and did not immediately strike them in His wrath.

In the New Testament the apostle Paul tells the Athenians how God also overlooked the sins of the Gentiles during the times of their ignorance. And once again, to his readers in Rome Paul wrote of God’s kindness and patience in having overlooked their sins (Romans 2:4). And I could also cite Nadab and Abihu, Korah, David, Samson, Lot, Jephthah, Mary Magdelene, Saul of Tarsus, and dozens of others whose stories demonstrate either the profound mercy of God – or His immediate judgment against sin.

Is this not the reason we are sometimes so mistaken about God and about what He will do – or should do – because we do not really understand the Scriptures, nor the power – nor the mercy -- of God?

For my part, I am very grateful for God’s patience and mercy. My past is so full of so many horrible things I’ve done to others that I deserve the same immediate punishment Ananias and Sapphira received. Or Nadab and Abihu. And so many others. It is only the Lord’s mercies that I did not suffer immediate judgment.

Why does God do as He does? As He tells us through Isaiah the prophet, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  And through Moses He says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

That answer will still not satisfy some who ask the questions, but now that I know I don’t know very much about God, that answer fully satisfies me.

8 comments:

Barb Schoeneberger said...

Thanks for this great essay. Too often we try to make God in our image, not accepting we are the ones made in His image. That's why we think we understand Him when we don't really. The one thing we need to have is faith that He is always acting for our greatest good and that of others, even if, on the surface, His permissive will makes things appear otherwise.

If God's ways were my ways, I'd be dead 20 times over, so it's a good thing He has His ways of mercy and forgiveness.

Joann / lioness said...

Yes, it's hard processing life with the human mind, but then we never created anything from nothing let alone a universe or humanity or one human heart.
I'm with you in awe of the mercy and thevpatience of God.

Richard Maffeo said...

Thanks for the comment, Barb. I think the Psalmist's words in Ps 145:17 are applicable: The Lord is righteous in ALL his ways and kind in ALL his deeds. (My emphasis).

Richard Maffeo said...

Thank you, Joanne. I have to think it the height of arrogance to presume we ought be able to understand all about God -- and then approve of what He does.

Erin Pascal said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful post Richard. It has truly blessed me. It is wonderful to be reminded that I need to grow my faith and trust in the Lord more and lessen my desire to understand His will all the time.

Richard Maffeo said...

Thank you, Erin. I am glad some of what I wrote spoke to your spirit. God bless you and all His children as we continue to walk with Him.

deodate said...

Definitely not too long a post, Rich! An unknown God who asks for our love...seems strange....and yet, because he created us, it seems right. Who can explain what, why and when he does what he does, but if we trust, we must believe that it is done with unconditional love. It's really all gift, isn't it?
Andie

Richard Maffeo said...

Yes, Andie, it is a gift. I think it is the height of arrogance to turn away from Him because either we do not understand Him, or He doesn't do things the way WE would rather Him do them. I've known lots of people like that.