An Austere Man

In the parable of the talents, Christ suggests that God is austere, hard (Mt 25:24), severe, stern, harsh and rigid. The wicked servant makes this accusation (Lk 19:21), and his master evidently agrees with him. (22) The Greek is austeros, from which we get austere. What do we make of this?

If we happen to think of God as a doting old grandpa, a Santa figure who never gets stern or angry, who’s extremely lenient, primarily interested in our happiness, finding out that God is austere might be troublesome. The fact is, He’s not at all like a gentle old grandpa, and this turns many of us off.

It’s actually a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (He 10:31) He’s extremely strict (Ps 119:4); He won’t by any means acquit a guilty person. (Ex 34:7) We’re to serve Jehovah with fear, rejoice with trembling (Ps 2:11), and work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. (Php 2:12) He scourges all his children (He 12:6); it’s incredibly painful and grievous. (11)

Even when we’re trying our best, and doing quite well following Him, God may choose great affliction for us for a season, offering us no explanation, comfort or ease, and for no other reason than to teach us a little more about Himself and His ways, and to glorify Himself through our response. He even tells us to rejoice in this (Ja 1:2-3), and to count it a privilege to suffer for Him. (Php 1:29)

This is, in fact, exactly what God did to Job, and He didn’t apologize for it. When Job complained and challenged God, He answered Job quite roughly … out of a tornado! (Job 38:1-3) Even after Job apologized, stunned into silence (Job 40:4-5), God continued to challenge Job in the most stern, confrontational and intimidating manner. (7-8)

Christ Himself rebukes churches, even those working diligently for Him, threatening to remove them unless they repent of their coldness and return to the love they initially had for Him. (Re 2:4-5) He ordains sickness, and sometimes even death, for partaking unworthily of The Lord’s Supper (1Co 11:29-30), and commands the church to excommunicate us if we don’t peaceably and fully resolve our offences. (Mt 18:16-18)

And if one of His elect ever chooses to sin, deliberately and willfully, God becomes very angry, and sees to it that we deeply regret defying Him (He 10:26-27); He arranges punishments far worse than death. (28-29)

I’ve actually heard people say that if God’s like this, demanding obedience, rigid, stern, not primarily concerned with our happiness, austere, they don’t want anything to do with Him. This is wicked, arrogant presumption, and it’s also extremely unwise: there are no good options once we turn away from God.

We must learn to worship God both in His goodness and also in His severity (Ro 11:22), meditating on and rejoicing in all His ways. We’re either seeking God as He is, to worship Him in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24), or fashioning idols for ourselves. Either way, we’ll all eventually face Him exactly as He is: a consuming fire. (He 12:29)

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The Godhead

The Trinity is a mysterious concept: one God in three persons. Trying to explain the Trinity in detail, or to devise a model which perfectly illustrates it, inevitably fails. One isn’t three and three isn’t one; mathematics is solid on this point. Is this a problem?

Only if we presume an infinite God may be fully explained in finite terms. Yet the Being Who inhabits eternity, Who created the ten dimensions in which we exist, must be far above, beyond and outside of them. Is it any wonder that we’re unable to create a finite model which perfectly and completely represents Him?

Perhaps this gets at the heart of the 2nd Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Ex 20:4a) Trying to create a physical representation of God, or even a  theoretical image, is attempting to create a likeness of Him. Perhaps He’s telling us not to do this because it can’t be done; any attempt to fully define Him will ultimately fail.

Creating an accurate image of God is not only impossible, it’s evidently harmful, for in reducing the Godhead to any likeness of any thing in the universe is to perceive Him as less than He truly is, to diminish Him; this corrupts our worship and tarnishes our perception of Him.

Perhaps this is one reason God hates idolatry so much: it replaces God with something paltry, something small and finite. Our tendency to try to contain God in a physical – even a theological – box leads us into error. Perhaps it’s our way of trying to control Him.

We may content ourselves in accepting the fact that God reveals Himself as a unity (De 6:4) as well as a plurality.  (Ge 1:26a) There can be no true logic implying God can’t be this way. God has revealed Himself as a triune Being, each Person of the Godhead uniquely and purposefully, yet ascribes to each Person all the attributes of the entire Godhead. We must not separate these Persons: they are one; yet we must allow for distinctness within them, for that is how Jehovah has revealed Himself.

Our perception of God is foundational in our spiritual lives and impacts our way more than we can possibly imagine. No possible description of Him can be too glorious, too majestic; it is impossible to have too high a view of God. We must not place any artificial limits on our conception of God, but let our spirits soar continuously higher in seeking Him.

Staying faithful to the scriptures here, and living within it’s prescription for us, is freedom of a most profound kind.

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Be Content

The key to living in contentment, free of covetousness (Ep 5:3) and lust, lies in a promise: God has said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” (He 13:5)

This promise is found in multiple places, as a promise to His people as an holy nation (De 31:6) comprising all of God’s children (1Pe 2:9), and to individuals (Jos 1:5) called according to His purpose. (Ro 8:28) How does this great and precious promise enable us to partake of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4), curing us of covetousness?

Covetousness is an unholy wanting, seeking after that which is forbidden us in Torah (Ro 7:7), pursuing what is contrary to God’s purpose and will for us. (Ro 12:2) It’s ultimately a form of idolatry (Col 3:5), creating a god of our own liking, a fundamental denial of the infinitude of God, an attack upon His goodness and faithfulness, rooted in that primal lie that God’s Law is keeping something good from us. (Ge 3:5) Lust is the desperate heart cry of one who fails of the grace of God (He 12:15), who’s forgotten the power and wisdom of God. (1Co 1:24)

Knowing that God is with us, that He is sufficient to supply all our need (Php 4:19), frees us from all unholy desire: if God has forbidden it we don’t need it, and it would ultimately harm us and dishonor Him. Trusting God is knowing His pleasure is ultimately for our welfare and His glory, that He’s sovereign, and that He’s perfectly good.

Being content with such things as we have, in having our basic physical needs met (1Ti 6:8), is not merely a reference to the material things of life; it extends beyond to all that we need. By His Word through His Spirit, God is equipping us with everything we need to live for Him. (2Ti 3:16-17) We aren’t perfect, for sure, and while we should ever be striving to add more virtue and knowledge to our faith (2Pe 1:5), we can be content that God is our sufficiency (2Co 3:5), that He has designed us with the gifts, experiences and temperaments that are perfectly suited to His unique and glorious purpose in each of us. (1Co 12:18).

Grasping the infinite treasure that is ours in God leaves no room for unholy passion; the cure for our covetousness is found in His promises. Contentment is an enabling grace that’s learned (Php 4:11), a soul discipline, a pillar of spiritual health.

Let’s ask God to incline our hearts away from covetousness towards His testimonies (Ps 119:36), and then apply ourselves to root out every trace of lust with the very nature of God, by letting the truth of His Way penetrate every crevasse of our mind and soul. Every step toward godliness and contentment is great gain. (1Ti 6:6)

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Keep Yourselves From Idols

At the end of his first epistle John the Apostle appends a final thought that may appear disconnected from the rest: Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.” (1Jo 5:21) What are idols and how do we keep ourselves from them?

If an idol is merely a physical representation of deity that facilitates worship, then how can covetousness also be idolatry? (Col 3:5) Perhaps idolatry is something more than enhancing our worship with an object.

When Paul describes idolaters he provides a clue: “When they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations … and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image.” (Ro 1:21-23) When we don’t thank God for Who He is we inevitably imagine a different god to fit our own desires. Perhaps this is the heart of idolatry: that God, as He truly is, is insufficient – echoing the dark refrain of covetousness. (Heb 13:5) Whether we physically create a finite image of the infinite, or merely desire one, in some way we’re missing God Himself.

I think God is telling us to be careful to seek Him as He is, and not as we wish Him to be. What we seek we’re likely to find; to find God Himself we must cast off all precondition and prejudice as we pursue Him. Evidently, this is also the rare gift of God.

Perhaps then John’s ending is not so disconnected: “And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.” (1Jo 5:20) Those in Jesus Christ, as He is, find Him utterly satisfying, altogether sufficient … supremely precious. (1Pe 2:7) There is no better place to be. In all our finding then let’s find our place in Him … and stay.

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