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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

How Not to Misunderstand God’s Severe Love

by Sara Heitmann posted August 17, 2020

Some people have misunderstood God by believing that Jesus is more kind, and his teachings more compassionate, than the God of the Old Testament, whom they see as full of wrath and vengeance.

One does not need to look far, however, to find expressions of God’s compassion in the Old Testament or Jesus’s terrifying judgment in the Gospels. In Hosea 11:8, in the midst of warnings of judgment and exile, God pauses to say, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”On the other hand, Jesus’s words to the religious leaders of Israel were quite harsh: “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness”(Matt. 23:27).

Further, the church has always believed that Jesus was the very same God of the Old Testament, come in human flesh. As the Nicene creed puts it, he who is “one substance with the Father”also “for us and for our salvation . . . became man.”One finds in the Bible not a vindictive God and a gentle Jesus, but one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from whose character come both judgment and grace. This is the character God himself described when Moses asked to see his glory: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty”(Ex 34:6—7). The author Sheldon Vanauken grasped this paradox. In his autobiographical work, A Severe Mercy, he described the figure of Jesus that arose as he and his wife read the New Testament the first time: “that strange combination of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness.”

This is a paradox–an unexpected juxtaposition of opposites, in this case sternness and tenderness–but a paradox is not a contradiction. It is something more like a teaching tool. It is not irrational nonsense, but, as the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said concerning metaphor, “a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”[1] Paradoxes have the power to break down the way we define and understand things and give us the eyes to see new angles of them that we would not otherwise have seen.[2]

The Gospels are full of paradoxes, maybe because there is much that needs to be broken down and rebuilt in our understanding of God, his kingdom, and our world. If we find it difficult to understand how God’s terrifying sternness against sin can coexist with his heart-wrenching kindness, even toward sinners, this is a sign not only that God is beyond our full understanding, but also that there is something skewed in our understanding of both characteristics.

An example may shed some light on this. In Matthew 18, the disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom. His response was to put a child before them: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”The startling paradox here is that greatness and humility go hand in hand, which redefines greatness itself. As the world imagines it, greatness requires promoting oneself at the expense of others, an effort that childlike humility would undermine. Greatness in God’s kingdom, however, is patterned after God himself, the one who says, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit”(Is. 57:15). This is most clearly visible in Jesus himself, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”(Matt. 20:28). Humility does not emerge untouched from this juxtaposition either, for it is no longer the despicable weakness that some might think it is, but a state honored and esteemed by God.

The dynamic between sternness and tenderness, then, is similar. The remainder of Matthew 18 contains a severe warning against those who would bring temptation into the lives of these little ones, saying it would be better for them to be sunk in the depths of the sea. This is followed immediately by a description of God’s care as a shepherd that leaves everything to seek the sheep who has strayed and rejoices when it is found. Terrifying strictness and tender compassion here both revolve around God’s love for the lowly. How then are each affected by this encounter?

When God’s judgment and mercy are separated, the first restricted to the Old Testament and the second to the New, the tendency is to see judgment as vindictive, predisposed to vengeance and desiring our destruction, and mercy as an easy-going tendency to bend the rules. Instead, the Bible holds them together, but in such a way that each is transformed and heightened by the other. In Matthew 18 we see sternness born exactly of God’s care for the most vulnerable, especially in the context of sin. Far from watering it down, God’s compassion in this case heightens the severity of the warning. Thus God’s judgment, born of his holiness and love, does not delight in destruction, as we might imagine, but desires the good of his creatures. This is evident when he laments even in the midst of pronouncing disaster, as Jesus did over Jerusalem: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”(Matt 23:37) On the other hand, his tender mercy, born also of his holiness and love, does not shrink from the cost needed to pursue and save even one lost sheep from the ravages of sin.

It does us no good to separate all the gentleness into the New Testament and the wrath into the Old. It certainly is more difficult to understand how God can be both severe and gentle, but it is worth the effort, because only then can we begin to catch a glimpse of the profound goodness of his character.

[1] Aristotle Poetics 1459 a 7—8.

[2] Paul Ricoeur Rule of Metaphor, Study 1, 22—23.

Photo of Sara Heitmann

Sara Heitmann

Sara Heitmann graduated from Westminster Seminary California with a Master of Arts in Historical Theology. She enjoys studying modern intellectual history and growing vegetables. She is a member of Providence Presbyterian Church in Temecula, CA.

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