What Makes God Good ?

Frequently in Scripture, the “otherness” of God is celebrated.  He is consecrated, set apart, holy…other.  He in turn sets aside people and places for Himself.  There are so many ways that God is not like us–in might, in power, in majesty.  And yet for a monotheistic people living in a polytheistic ancient world, it is interesting how different the claims of Yahweh are from pagan, tribal deities.  Religions then and now are full of locker room comparisons and trash talk to the competition across town: my god can beat up your god, my deity is more awesome than your deity.

There is no question that the God of the Hebrew Bible can be rightly called powerful, and yet so much of the entire narrative of Scripture critiques human notions of “power.”  Power–brute force, might, the ability to conquer one’s foes–is deconstructed by the subversive Holy One of Israel.  The religion of Pharaoh is the religion of power.  The religion of Caesar is the religion of power.  In biblical terms, power as defined as “the ability to whoop somebody else’s army or someone else’s god” is hardly a reason to worship.  If God were merely powerful, then His “greatness” would be contingent on the same measuring stick as the Pharoahs or Casesar’s of the world.

But this God, powerful as He is, doesn’t even exist on that chart.  For all we might say about the otherness of God, the thing that has always and will always set apart this deity apart from all the contenders and pretenders can be summed up in a single word: mercy.  It’s His mercy that makes Him so unlike anybody else’s god.  It’s His grace that confounds the elemental tendencies of mere tribal religions in all their varieties, including the superstitious folk religions we embrace in our own hearts.

Of course we know this first and foremost through the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Jesus told his disciples that if they had seen him, “they had seen the Father.”  If you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus.  We have an entirely Christ-like God.  Which is what makes the cross of Christ all the more scandalous.  In Jesus we go from “my god can beat up your god” to “my God let Himself get beat up on purpose.”  And the astonishing thing of course is that the Apostle Paul says it is His death that makes a mockery of the powers of sin and death.  It is a most odd way to “win” for a most odd God.

What I think often gets lost in all of this is that it is His mercy that has ALWAYS set Him apart, His mercy that has always made Him worthy of worship.  There are theological systems where people spend a great deal of time talking about the “glory” of God.  I of course have no problem with this–God is indeed infinitely glorious!  The problem is how people define glory.  It is either some hazy, abstract principle or all too often reduced to mere power.  But when God reveals Himself to Moses, He is very clear about the basis of His glory.  He is very clear about what sets Him apart from everyone and everything else in the universe: From Exodus 34.5-7: 5The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ 6The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
 a God merciful and gracious,
 slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…

Did you hear it?  Before the creator came into the world tabernacled in flesh and the creation knew Him not.  Before the miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Long before there was a cross for God to suffer to death on, He already introduced Himself as the merciful and gracious God.  What makes Him so different?  He is slow to anger.  What makes Him so special?  He is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  Who else but Him keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin?

How interesting that when people consider the ways in which God’s “ways are higher than our ways and thoughts higher than our thoughts,” it is so often construed in terms of judgment.  As in, “that might seem mean or harsh to you, but God is way above us.”  So God is above us in that He has more sophisticated reasons for vengeance than we do?  Or God is above us simply because He is stronger than we are and therefore could obliterate us anytime He wanted?

Don’t be confused.  The reason you can’t comprehend Him is because you can’t fathom a love so deep or mercy so wide.  It is God’s grace and not His might that is so confounding.  It is not His unlimited capacity for destruction that makes Him great, but His unlimited capacity to forgive, restore and heal.  It is His capacity to be cut and stabbed and cursed and never stop loving that is the basis of His greatness.

It is His mercy that makes God “GOD!!!”  It is not His power that brings us to our knees with mouths gaping open, but His tenderness.

Many people are still trying to make themselves worship a god who is powerful.  To the extent that they love him, it is as a concubine or a slave but not a bride.  It is an arranged marriage wherein they hope they can “learn to love Him over time.” If you have to force yourself to love God, you simply don’t know Him well enough yet.  That is not an indictment.  It’s just that to see Him for who and what He is, to see His tenderness IS to love Him.  To see that tenderness is to have your heartbroken with laughter and wonder.

And if your “god” doesn’t elicit that kind of reaction from you? I want to gently offer a radical diagnosis to you: you may not be worshiping the right God yet.

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