Many people claiming to be Christians view God as a teddy bear-like grandfather who exudes nothing but love and ‘positive vibes’ toward all people at all times. Anger and hatred are “bad” emotions that this 21st century god of unconditional affirmation is incapable of experiencing. He is only kind, only compassionate, only merciful, always accepting, always forgiving, and always proud of you. He understands we are imperfect, so he doesn’t hold our “mistakes” against us—he just wants us to do the best we can.
This god of cuddles and warm fuzzies is comfortable and popular, but he exists as nothing more than a phantom in the minds of those who want some form of spirituality weaved into their autonomous lifestyle. They don’t want a god who exerts authority over them, sets boundaries, or defines what it means to live and worship rightly. They want a servant-god who doesn’t require them to orchestrate their entire life around his revealed will—a quiet god who will sit in the background of their lives on perpetual standby, always ready to come running when they need him.
Becoming acquainted with the Bible is all that’s needed to shatter this wildly inaccurate view of God. The nature of God is altogether good, but dynamic and untamable. He is gracious and compassionate and vengeful and wrathful. Though he is merciful and has provided means for forgiveness through Jesus, he does not view sins as “mistakes,” but as bold-faced acts of treason. Our fallen hearts and minds may be dulled to the heinousness of sin because we swim in it like fish swim in water, but God is not dulled. He sees sin as it should be seen and reacts to sin as it should be reacted to. He burns in anger against sinners (Isaiah 5:25) to the degree that he wants to destroy them (Exodus 32:10) and sometimes does (the Great Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah). The true God is no teddy bear; he is the perfect mixture of a Lion and Lamb—gentle and ferocious and approachable and terrifying.
But you know, just like many people err in maximizing God’s tenderness and neglecting his anger toward human sin, I think many people (myself included) also err by maximizing God’s justice and minimizing his gentleness toward those in Christ. I think sometimes we, biblically literate Christians, overreact to the popular but false portrayal of a fluffy god by majoring on God’s anger toward sin and subsequently minoring on his gracious gentleness toward those hidden in Christ. Personally, I am so fearful of slipping into a low, man-centered view of God that thinking and speaking of the tender mercy of God makes me uncomfortable. When I hear others speak rightly and biblically about the gentleness of Jesus, oftentimes my knee-jerk reaction is, “But he also hates sin! When he returns again he will stain his garments in the blood of his enemies as he tramples them in his wrath (Isaiah 63:2-6)!” Yeah, sure . . . it’s true Jesus will come again with a holy vengeance to eradicate unrepentant sinners from the face of the earth. But my problem is that my overemphasis of this reality (mostly in my own mind) has adversely affected my perception of how Jesus deals with me, a forgiven and redeemed believer in the gospel.
God deals differently with those who are in Christ than he does with those who stubbornly refuse his means of salvation. God overflows with steadfast lovingkindness toward all who desperately cling to the person of Jesus and hope in him alone for redemption. As an earthly father deals seriously but tenderly with his sometimes-wayward children, so God deals tenderly with those who are in Christ.
Brothers and sisters, he deals with us so differently than he does with those who refuse his mercy.
I’m never more blown away by the gentleness of Jesus toward those who receive him than when I observe his many interactions with people of faith in the gospels. In chapter seven of Luke’s gospel, we’re told of a sinful, weeping woman who drew near to Jesus and “wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and anointed them with ointment.” The Pharisees witnessing this moving (and probably a little awkward!) interaction immediately challenged the integrity of Jesus, saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” How did Jesus respond? Did he agree with the Pharisees and retreat back in disgust from that filthy sinner? Did he tell her to get up and sternly charge her to never get in such close proximity to him ever again? Anything BUT!
Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace. – Luke 7:44-50.
Luke makes a point earlier in the chapter to describe this woman as a “sinner.” There is no doubt this woman had done horrible things over the course of her life that provoked the righteous anger of God—as we all have. There is no doubt this woman deserved to be cast away from the man in whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19)—as we all do. But as she crawls in humble and desperate faith to his feet and soaks them with her tears, we see Jesus tenderly receive her and forgive her and cleanse her of her guilt. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus deal identically with various sinners who have hearts open to him and his words. The adulterous woman in John 8, the tax collector in Luke 19, and the centurion in Matthew 8 were all treated gently and kindly when they approached Jesus with a willingness to believe him and trust him.
And it’s not like Jesus is initially tender but then morphs into an unapproachable Master who is intolerant of his followers’ weaknesses and imperfections. I mean, just look how he dealt with his less-than-perfect disciples! Peter, for example, was a hot mess. After spending every day of three years with him, Peter, in some sense, joined the betrayal of Judas by denying Jesus three times right before the crucifixion. As our triumphant Redeemer bursts forth from death in glorious resurrection, how does he choose to deal with the faithless, cowardly Peter? Does he say, “That’s it! You of all people should have been faithful to me. You’ve seen my miracles! You’ve seen me transfigured before you! You have heard the Father speak audibly to me! Yet still you denied me. My mercy toward you ends here!” No—he doesn’t. Via the angel at the empty tomb, Jesus makes sure Peter knows that he is still welcomed and loved (Mark 16:7). And before he ascends, Jesus takes Peter aside and assures him of his role and usefulness for the Kingdom (John 21:15-19).
God is not only kind to us when we initially come to him; he continues to be kind to us as we continue to follow him imperfectly.
If you struggle, like me, to rest comfortably in the tender love of God, remind yourself today that if you are in Christ, God has already justly dealt with your sin. He didn’t ignore it or gloss over it. He didn’t minimize its heinousness. Every drop of his anger toward you for the sins you have committed and sins you will commit he poured out on his Son. His wrath toward you has been extinguished, once and for all, at the Cross of Christ. God now forever deals with you as his adopted and beloved child. Even when life doesn’t feel “gentle” or God’s love feels “tough,” know that every pain or sorrow he allows into your life is permitted only in a spirit of mercy and grace. He’s not punishing you; he’s conforming you to the image of his Son—a conformity that, though painful on the surface, actually deepens your peace and joy. You are loved fiercely and tenderly by a holy and righteous God who has your best interest at heart. Believe that today.