As I write this, I’m sitting outside of the DMV at 6:27 a.m., waiting to figure out the status of my vehicle registration. I was up late last night hoping to get this squared away, but the DMV website wasn’t working. All of this was set in motion when my car got towed at 4 p.m. yesterday due to what I believe was a mistake. I was frustrated yesterday, but this morning I’m reflecting on how my perspective about the Lord has changed, and how I can view my circumstances differently than I would have several years ago.
I used to really struggle to believe God was ever favorable toward me. It didn’t take faith to recognize I was a sinner (the evidence was all around and within me), but to believe that God was gracious to me, a sinner—that required a lot of faith. When bad things happened in life, I just assumed it was what I deserved. I was a sinner in the hands of an angry God, who was eager to discipline me when I failed and might at any moment take me out of this world for my sins. If perchance good things looked like they were on the horizon, I highly questioned whether they’d materialize. I wondered, “Is God lifting me up to throw me down?” (Ps. 102:10). When my wife and I were engaged, I was so excited about marrying the woman of my dreams, but part of me didn’t expect that God would let me make it to the wedding day. This was just too good, and I knew I didn’t deserve it.
I wasn’t hiding any secret sins from God, my family, or my church community. My greatest sin at the time was probably believing that God is cruel. I emphasized the holiness and justice of God, and lived as though those were true, while giving lip service to the love and grace of God. The result was a dull anxiety that had me expecting something bad around every corner. If something positive happened to me, it was always greeted with some level of suspicion. I struggled to give thanks to God for the good.
A Holy Judge and Loving Father
Over the years, experience and the word of God have helped to reshape my distorted understanding. The wedding day did come, and God has blessed me with many good things despite my sin. I’ve learned that God isn’t just a holy judge, but also a loving father. I don’t need to hide from him when I’ve failed. At one point in the Bible, King David disobeyed the Lord by numbering the people of Israel. He prayed, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly” (1 Chron. 21:8). God revealed to David through the prophet Gad that his sin would have consequences, and he let David choose between three years of famine, three months of the military devastation at the hands of his enemies, or three days of pestilence in the land, or “the sword of the LORD” (1 Chron. 21:12). David’s choice gives us insight into what he believed about God: “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (1 Chron. 21:13).
David shows us that for contrite sinners, there’s no better place to be than in the hands of a gracious God. He doesn’t run from God here, but says to the Lord, “hold me in your hands.” He understood that God was a merciful disciplinarian who corrects out of love, and with the intent of sanctifying his children (see Heb. 12:5-11). God doesn’t delight in the death of wicked people (Ezek. 18:23), and like a good father he doesn’t take pleasure in punishing us.
God revealed this truth to the prophet Jeremiah during one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history. In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah cried out because of a massacre in Jerusalem brought about by the people’s idolatry. It seems utterly hopeless at points, but at the heart of the book in chapter three Jeremiah said,
But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
Lam. 3:21-23, 31-33
Like David, Jeremiah knew that God was merciful even in his discipline. To say “he does not afflict from his heart” describes God’s motivation. God is not looking for ways to afflict his children, but to bless them. His “heart” is favorable toward his people, and while he disciplines us, it’s the love-filled discipline of a father who acts out of necessity and care, not out of cruelty.
Do you emphasize the justice and holiness of God at the expense of his love and mercy? Do you affirm his righteousness, but fail to bask in his love—viewing even his blessings as carrying some negative ulterior motive? Do you live in fear of his heavy hand, and in expectation of judgment even though you’ve confessed your sins and turned to Christ? Remember this: Even for believers who struggle with sin, there’s no better place to be than in the nail-pierced hands of the Savior. His palms are marked with the proof of his goodwill and commitment to you. When at last you recognize that the hands of the holy judge are wounded by love, you can rest in his grip rather than fear it.