Is the Old Testament God Different? God’s Grace to Murderous Cain

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One factor essential for us to be strong and resilient in any circumstance, especially in times like the COVID-19 crisis, is our view of God. Irrelevant, you say? Not practical? Too abstract and theoretical? Not in my experience of counseling and spiritual direction.

An anemic view of God leads to an anemic faith. A distorted view of God leads to a confused faith– or no faith. A robust understanding of God leads to a tenacious faith anchored on firm foundations.

My conviction is best expressed by A. W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holy, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing  about us…..We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”

When we create our own image of God…

That second sentence intrigues me most: “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” What does that look like? Permit me a few broad-stroke examples that don’t exist in pure form. Each of us is a mixture of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and assumptions, but in general terms:

Perfectionists tend to view God as a taskmaster who drives them relentlessly. They rarely taste grace.

Wounded people view God as uncaring, blaming God for causing or allowing their pain. Bitterness and resentment drown out the whisper of grace.

Ambitious people view God as a competitor who would try to thwart their plans. God is an obstacle.

Pleasure-seekers view God as a “Kill Joy,” like a cantankerous old man who doesn’t want anyone to have fun. They ignore God.

Sentimental people view God as a Santa Claus who hopefully fulfills their list of wants. They come to God only when they have needs.

I could list more, but you get the idea. People have constructed images of God as sentimental, demanding, irrelevant, malevolent, or worse. And, most significantly, their belief about God truly shapes their behavior and priorities.

One of the most troubling characterizations of God comes from people (even some who are earnest followers of Jesus) because they are offended by some accounts of battles and judgement in the Old Testament. They draw the conclusion that “that God” is an angry, vengeful tyrant to be avoided.

One of my passions is to show the grace and love of God in the Old Testament. “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). A careful reading of Scripture reveals that God is consistent. God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

A powerful illustration of God’s grace can be seen in the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 4:1-16.

God searches our hearts for connection.

“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:3-5).

When God informed Cain that Cain’s offering wasn’t acceptable, it need not be viewed as wrath on God’s part. It was likely a gentle word on the Lord’s desire for sincerity, not empty ritual (see Isaiah 1:11-17). God was paying attention to the heart of the offer-er, not the nature of the offering. But Cain reacted with anger. He strongly resented God’s correction.

God assures us falling short is an invitation to draw near.

God responded patiently to Cain’s unfounded anger. God assured Cain he could correct the situation and be acceptable. Hear God’s grace in these words, “’Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’” (Genesis 4:6-7).

God warns us destruction threatens.

Then God warned Cain there would be dreadful consequences if Cain didn’t pay attention to his anger and resist his dark desires. “’But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’” (Genesis 4:7).

Like a tiger ready to spring, temptation and sin were ready to devour Cain.

But Cain ignored God’s warning and proceeded to murder Abel.

God invites us to turn back for reconciliation and restoration.

Following the murder of Abel, God asked Cain where Abel was. This was not because God didn’t know. God was providing yet another gracious opportunity for Cain to “come clean.” To confess and repent.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain replied with calloused insolence.  

Cain showed no remorse, no regret, no humility whatsoever. He was rude and antagonistic toward God.

God releases us to the consequences we have chosen.

And so, finally, God spoke the judgement Cain had brought willfully upon himself.

Then the Lord said, “’What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

Was God justified in speaking words of judgment against Cain? Any rational person would agree.

Review the process of grace and mercy:

God’s counsel,

God’s reassurance,

God’s correction,

God’s warning,

and then God’s “care-frontation” (David Augsburger’s term for “confrontation”) even after the murder.

All these preceded any expression of what we would call wrath. And even God’s judgment on Cain was not the stereotypical response we would expect.

“The Lord said, ‘Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth’” (Genesis 4:11-12).

God’s judgement was allowing Cain to have what Cain wanted, but without God’s continuing hospitality. God did not actively avenge Abel’s death. Instead, God gave Cain up to Cain’s selfish desires (see Romans 1:24, 26).

Ironically, those who most question God’s just judgment are quickest to judge God.

When we think wrongly about God, we limit God’s love, lessen God’s grace, cheapen God’s demands, and diminish God’s direction for our lives.

Cut-Flower Syndrome

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Many in our day have what I call a cut-flower mentality. They focus on the immediate experience of the “flower,” neglecting the need for roots that sustain the plant. It is normal and appropriate to enjoy flowers, but that enjoyment will be short-lived without the long-term nurture of the plant.

This is especially problematic in matters of faith. Many followers of Jesus suffer from “cut-flower syndrome” in the primary areas of biblical knowledge, theology and worship. Without roots, they are subject to being tossed about by fads and pressures instead of standing firm in confidence and understanding.

Immediate experience and crowd-sourced values are real liabilities when it comes to living as a disciple. This leads to situations where our judgments and practices are based on personal preferences and subjective evaluations, rather than drawing on God’s Word. We think we have to figure everything out for ourselves instead of drawing on the witness and careful thinking of God’s people across the ages.

In his book, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Michael Horton quoted an article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker Magazine about the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture.

“The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable,’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular.’ A ‘hierarchy of hotness’ replaced the older hierarchy of value and there was no such things as poor taste anymore, just different tastes… These judgments do not depend on knowledge of the canon, tradition, history, or some shared set of standards as to what constitutes ‘good taste’ to give them weight; this kind of taste is more appetite than disinterested judgement” (Horton, 191).

Deep waters, I know. So why is this such a big deal? How does this affect our hearts and minds? Here’s the point: If nothing is intrinsically true, good, and beautiful–and therefore superior to other things that are not quite as true, good or beautiful– everything is a matter of taste, or personal preference. And all we have are today’s cut flowers, which wither quickly.

I confronted my own cut-flower mentality during seminary.

I really struggled with impatience during the three years it took to complete my seminary education. I wanted to get out on the front lines of ministry. When I finally did get “out there,” however, I quickly realized that my education was an invaluable resource to sustain ministry in depth and breadth. In other words, I had some roots. I, in no way, had all the answers, but I knew where to look for more understanding. I, in no way, was prepared for the demands I faced, but I had reference points in Scripture, theology, church history, practical theology and counseling (to name just a few areas) that helped me better frame the questions and issues.

You don’t have to go to seminary, however, to develop roots. To change metaphors, when we develop depth through the renewing of our minds, we move from the burden of having a glass we rely on ourselves to fill to the joy of tapping the well of Living Water (John 7:37-38).

Deep roots drawing on Living Water– that’s key to spiritual vitality. It reminds me of this wonderful verse in Genesis:

Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them (Genesis 26:18 NIV).

I love the image of reopening the wells. First, it speaks to the reality that the wells of truth and grace have been blocked by forces that stand against us. But we are also reminded of the promise that we can find fresh water from old sources. Isaac didn’t just dig new wells. He went back to the old wells that still had so much to give.

There are too many applications for me to develop now, so I’ll close with a few simple questions. Are you putting down roots, deep roots in your faith? Roots that draw on the life-giving waters of Scripture? Roots that draw from the wells of the thoughts and experiences of dear saints who have hard-won insight to share?

Enjoy the flowers– but, more importantly, put down roots.

Playfulness: A Theological Quest

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Your’s Truly performing with “The Fabulous Edsels,” with John, one of the group. (Photo courtesy of Pam Atkins Photography)

Playfulness does not come naturally to me. To give you some background, I was voted “Most Responsible” in my senior class at Colerain High School in Cincinnati. Did you ever hear of such a category?? (One of our sons was voted “Best Legs for a Guy,” so it seems like the categories are wide-open!). Anyway, when I tell people I was voted “Most Responsible,” I then ask them if they know how to spell ‘responsible.’ I reply, “It’s spelled b-o-r-i-n-g!”

Part of my playfulness-deficit is my personality. I want to “get things right.” I like order, efficiency and effectiveness. I start a meeting on time, follow the agenda, and end on time. (Now you get it, right? Boring…). Of course, these characteristics are valuable and greatly appreciated—most of the time. But it’s just wrong to live every moment by an agenda!

In addition to my personal inclination, however, much of my seriousness has roots in my theology. I take very seriously (of course!) the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). I want to use the gifts and opportunities God has given me faithfully. I truly yearn to hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). But I have failed to take into account Jesus’ humor in presenting the image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine. And Jesus welcoming the children in spite of serious adult objections.

What I’m learning is that I need a theology of play. It’s right up there with the necessity of having a theology of rest. A better way to say this is that a truly biblical theology includes play and rest along with faithful stewardship (and many other topics).

Many of us lead driven lives. We are driven to do all we can; driven to make the most of every opportunity; driven to succeed. But following Jesus is about a “called life,” not a driven one. We are called to “maximize life” (to quote my personal two-word life mission). We are not called, however, to do so at the expense of our souls, our self-care and our relationships. Playfulness, enjoyment, and fun are part of life.

“There is a time for everything,

    and a season for every activity under the heavens…

   a time to weep and a time to laugh,

          a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 NIV)

Or, as I would paraphrase it now, “a time to be serious and a time to have some fun!”

The photo above was taken this past weekend when I played in a “cover band” (a band that plays other artists’ songs) at our church’s “Fall Festival.” Our band’s name is “The Fabulous Edsels” (in contrast to a well-known band, “The Fabulous Thunderbirds”). The brothers in this band (my band of brothers!) are among those the Lord has brought into my life to help me learn to have fun.

As I look back, I can see that many people have taken me on as a sort of project to help me lighten up. My wife, Sarah, most of all! She is so playful. Her sense of wonder for life brings me joy daily. But the challenge has been my “bad” (inadequate) theology. My theology has not made enough room for fun, for relaxation, for “wasting time.” And I need to correct that.

I am breaking free from the “utilitarian spell” that everything I do has be useful, spiritual, significant. It’s not that usefulness and responsibility are inappropriate. It’s more about the proper proportion and perspective.

I don’t have time to develop my theology of playfulness in the post—but I’ve taken the first step: realizing playfulness is part of the grace-full life God provided in creation and promises in Christ.

(P.S. The ponytail is part of the hat!)

Fired Up by an Amazing Deal

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I get excited by a “good deal.” I like big sales on things I “really need” (“need” can be open to interpretation, I know!) I like getting the best exchange rate when making overseas purchases, using credit cards with no annual or transaction fees, and planning for economy and efficiency in travel arrangements.

It may seem crass, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the most astounding “deal” in life. John Calvin expressed this best in a powerful quote. But before I share that, I’d like to have a “sidebar” (that’s fancy talk for chasing a rabbit trail) on Calvin.

Calvin usually gets a bad rap for harsh theology and for the dreaded “Puritan work ethic” that squeezed all the fun from life because of the strenuous demands of a stern God.

These unfortunate stereotypes keep most people from giving Calvin a chance to speak to them. A fair and thoughtful reading of Calvin, however, reveals a deep devotion for God that moved beyond, but did not exclude, the best thinking possible.

Calvin’s motto and seal (like a family crest) was a flaming heart on an outstretched hand offered to God (see the stained-glass photo above). Calvin’s personal motto, developed during his time as a fugitive, expressed his commitment: Prompte et Sincere in Opere Domini (translated, “Prompt and sincere in the work of God”).

Calvin’s test for true theology was that it inspired piety, by which he meant genuine reverence joined with love for God. Nothing inspired that passionate piety more than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

He communicated the “amazing deal” we have in Christ in his comments on 2 Corinthians 8:9, where Paul wrote,

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (English Standard Version ESV).

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made it possible for God to transact a wonderful exchange in our lives. By God’s grace we trade all our “bad stuff” in exchange for the “good stuff” God gives us in Jesus Christ.

John Calvin described the wonderful exchange this way:

“This is the wonderful exchange which out of his measureless benevolence he has made with us; that becoming the Son of Man with us, He has made us children of God with him; that by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that by accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that receiving our poverty unto himself he has transferred his wealth to us; that taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter xvii, 2].

I read this passage often to remind myself about the depth and breadth of God’s mercy in Christ.

It helps me to pause and reflect on each phrase. I won’t take time to expand on that now. Let me simply observe that the first three “exchanges” establish our identity and our destiny. Through faith in Christ, we know who we are and where we are going. These are the foundations for the last three exchanges that speak to sustaining us in daily life.

Hope these thoughts light a fire of joy and devotion today—and tomorrow.