Sunday, March 14, 2010

What's Not to Like about God?

Notes for my sermon to the residents of Meadowood Nursing Home today.

Lansdale Presbyterian Church is what is called a “creedal” church. That is, to join our church you have to believe certain things. There are some churches that say in as many words, “No creed but Christ, no law but love,” and while there are advantages to doing things that way, we have chosen to limit our membership to those who agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

As you know, the Bible is a thick book. The Confession was written in 1764 as an attempt to summarize the Bible’s teachings in a few dozen pages. The writers weren’t pretending to produce a document to equal the Bible, but they took seriously the words of James 3:1, “[those] who teach will be judged more strictly”; so they were careful about every word.

I took a class on the Confession recently, and as I was reading the section that tells who God is and what he’s like, I felt like I was being given a tray of food so big I couldn’t lift it, let alone eat it. Listen to this, the first paragraph of chapter 2:

There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

As I was reading, I was thinking of the pagans and atheists in my office and wondering what they would think if they read that. What’s not to like about this God? How can anyone read that and not think, “If there is a God, this is what I would want him to be like”? Let me take this paragraph apart and let you savor each bite.

There is but one only

Why would anyone want there to be more than one god? If there were more than one god, one would have to be “king of the hill.” Why worship any of the others? If you need some form of supernatural community, think of the doctrine of the Trinity: still one God but three persons who are always in perfect agreement and love. Or the angels, powerful beings who obey God perfectly. Who needs gods who strive with each other?

living

Who needs gods who can die? If you want a God who understands what it’s like to face death, we have Jesus, who not only died, but lived in our flesh, with fleas, mosquitos, and outhouses.

and true God,

Who needs gods who either don’t know the truth or who lie? What good is a god who does not really exist?

who is infinite in being and perfection,

What’s wrong with a God who is infinite and perfect? What advantage is there to a god who is finite or imperfect?

a most pure spirit,

Physical beings have limitations, as you know if you’ve ever tried to flap your arms and fly. But spiritual beings don’t have limitations. But again, if you need a physical being to worship, you have Jesus, the Son of God, who became man.

invisible, without body, parts, or passions;

God’s being invisible is a disadvantage for us, but it follows, doesn’t it, that if he is a spirit without body or parts, he is invisible? And as you probably know, the main reason he is invisible is that he is repulsed by our sin, but he promises that at the right time we will at last see him as he is.

immutable,

Who needs a god who changes? If God is perfect to begin with, how can he improve? We don’t want our friends or spouses to change, certainly not to become worse.

immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty,

We are limited beings, so our minds can’t grasp the idea of infinity, and we’re bound by time, so we can’t really comprehend eternity. Think of numbers: we know that we can always add one to any number, or even square it, but eventually we speak of numbers we can’t get our minds around. So of course, if God is immense or infinite, almost by definition he’s incomprehensible. And if he’s incomprehensible, it would follow that much of what he does would be incomprehensible; that is, we would not understand it. We might not even think it was good. This may be the first part of the answer to my question about what there is not to like about God. Things happen in the world that we don’t approve of, and we think, “How could a good God allow [name the atrocity]?” He does things we don’t like, and we don’t want to believe that the best an infinite, perfect God can do is something we don’t like.

Yet he takes responsibility for these horrors. Listen to what God said to the Israelites through the prophet Amos: "I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, … I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up…People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink…Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees…I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps” (4:6-10). And he states that he does all those horrible things so his people will “return” to him. This is not how we try to win friends and influence people, and it certainly doesn’t please us to think that this is how an infinite, almighty, eternal God woos his beloved!

But let’s move on.

most wise,

Most of us would like to stand up and tell God a thing or two—Wasn’t that what Job wanted to do?—but really, what good is a god who lacks wisdom and needs people to teach him?

most holy,

Holy things are those things set apart for God alone to use. Do we want a god who can be distracted from what is best to something trivial?

most free,

Who wants a god who can’t do whatever he wants?

most absolute,

What advantage is there to a God who can be overruled?

working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory;

This idea of glory is unfamiliar to us, but it makes sense once you understand it. We all want to be told that there is something good about us. Those things about us that are praiseworthy are our glory. We give glory to God when we acknowledge his goodness 24/7. If nothing exists that is better than God, why should God want us to value anything more than we value him? Why should he tolerate any rivals? If all life comes from him, why would he approve of us looking for life anywhere but in him? Why would he want us to be deceived, let alone to prefer to be deceived rather than to acknowledge the truth and benefit from it?

most loving,

No being can love more than God can, so not only do we incur his wrath when we look for love anywhere else, we really settle for second best.

gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin,

I don’t know about you, but my words so far describe a God I haven’t loved anything close to the way he deserves to be loved. But these words say that no matter how bad we are or how worthless we think we are, he is willing to forgive us. If we’ve offended a friend, do we say, “Think of all the money I’ve given you. Think of all the things I’ve done for you. You should forgive me.” Is that how we seek forgiveness? Or do we want our friends to forgive us, not because we deserve it, but just because they love us? Have you ever loved someone who has hurt you and been willing to forget everything they’ve done if they will just respond to your love? That’s what God’s about.

the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;

No one who makes a sincere effort to find God comes up empty handed. If you want his forgiveness from the bottom of your heart, you will find it.

and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

Why would we want God not to hate all sin? We hate sin: murder, rape, oppression, pollution, gossip, slander. But I think this is where the rest of the answer to my question of what’s not to like about God lies. We want God to hate other people’s sins, especially the sins of those who say they worship God, but we don’t like it when he hates our sins, or at least the ones we feel OK about committing. Then we start backpedaling and doubting if God is who the Bible says he is. In these cases, we’re not weighing up the evidence and deciding what the Bible says about God isn’t true. We’re not looking at the fossil record and saying, “This is incontrovertible truth that there is no god.” Rather, at these times we don’t want it to be true, and we’re looking for reasons to avoid facing the Bible’s claims. We prefer to believe that the Bible is not true than to diligently seek God. And when we couple our feelings with the Bible’s claim that God often woos his beloved by making us miserable, we often don’t care if it’s true or not, we don’t want it to be true, and so we don’t believe it.

But if you want to love a God who is good, who loves what is good, and who hates evil and will bring the wicked to justice, then you probably also know you haven’t lived up to his requirements. But there is hope for you. Again, from the Confession:

Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by [the covenant God made with Adam], the Lord was pleased to make a second [covenant], commonly called the Covenant of Grace, whereby He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. (7.3)

If you are a Christian today, it is because God has moved you by his Spirit to have faith in Christ and so to receive eternal life. You have tasted God’s goodness in this life and look forward to enjoying it forever. For those who are not Christians today, I’m here in the hope that God’s Spirit will take my words and use them to make you willing and able to believe. Amen.

6 comments:

  1. What religion would you consider to be pagan?

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  2. "Pagan" was not meant as an insult any more than "atheist" was. In common parlance, it refers to people who believe in the supernatural or extrasensory but not in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. I also think nominal Christians who cross their fingers or knock on wood for luck are at least flirting with paganism.

    In the context of the group I was speaking to, my aim was for them to picture a group of people who make no secret of their disdain for the gospel.

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  3. A friendly neighborhood atheistMarch 21, 2010 at 10:30 PM

    While you may have read the Westminster Confession of Faith in its entirety, you certainly haven't read the Bible cover-to-cover. I know it is a thick book and everything, but if you are going to base your life on it, you should probably at least read it. As it turns out, I have and the God that the Westminster Confession of Faith describe is not in there. In fact, if you read the Bible, you will see that there isn't but one god, he does send "powerful delusions" so he isn't about the truth, he is not infinite, not perfect, not even all knowing. The god of the Bible is also not invisible, definitely not immutable (Bible states that God changes his mind and even "relents" in an argument or two), not very wise, certainly not free (needs blood sacrifices, can't be in contact with sin, etc.), and the whole loving thing is a joke right? The God of the Bible tortures people for all eternity (which I hear is a very long time).

    I could go on about all these things in some detail, but suffice to say that the god you describe has no Biblical backing.

    Also, there is a more obvious flaw in your article. It seems to simply be wishful thinking. Sure who wouldn't want a million dollars in their backyard, but that doesn't mean that it is actually there.

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  4. Thanks for writing, friendlly neighborhood atheist, and welcome!

    Please be careful with your assumptions. As you imply, I may have gotten the message of the bible wrong, but I have indeed read the Bible cover to cover many times. Your assertion is, quite simply, objectively wrong.

    While the writers of the Confession may have come to false conclusions, they did provide biblical backing for their assertions. Here is the passage with the citations they gave:

    WCF 2.1 There is but one only(1) living and true God,(2) who is infinite in being and perfection,(3) a most pure spirit,(4) invisible,(5) without body, parts,(6) or passions;(7) immutable,(8) immense,(9) eternal,(10) incomprehensible,(11) almighty,(12) most wise,(13) most holy,(14) most free,(15) most absolute,(16) working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will,(17) for His own glory;(18) most loving,(19) gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin,(20) the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;(21) and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments;(22) hating all sin,(23) and who will by no means clear the guilty.(24) (1)Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4,6. (2)1 Thess. 1:9; Jer. 10:10. (3)Job 11:7,8,9; Job 26:14. (4)John 4:24. (5)1 Tim. 1:17. (6)Deut. 4:15,16; John 4:24; Luke 24:39. (7)Acts 14:11,15. (8)James 1:17; Mal. 3:6. (9)1 Kings 8:27; Jer. 23:23,24. (10)Ps. 90:2;1 Tim. 1:17. (11)Ps. 145:3. (12)Gen. 17:1; Rev. 4:8. (13)Rom. 16:27. (14)Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8. (15)Ps. 15:3. (16)Exod. 3:14. (17)Eph. 1:11. (18)Prov. 16:4; Rom. 11:36. (19)1 John 4:8,16. (20)Exod. 34:6,7. (21)Heb. 11:6. (22)Neh. 9:32,33. (23)Ps. 5:5,6. (24)Nah. 1:2,3; Exod. 34:7.

    Again, whether these citations prevail against other parts of the Bible or can be trusted in real life are other matters, but if this isn't "biblical backing," what would be? .

    My point in this post is that objectivity is overrated. My own worst mistakes (of which being a Christian could be one) were made because I wanted certain things to be true and so believed them despite credible evidence to the contrary. If you've ever fallen in love with (or voted for) someone who turned out to be totally unsuitable for reasons you initially chose to overlook, you've been there, too.

    You're right that wanting God to exist does not make him exist. But I suspect that I could prove to you that an immutable God can indeed relent or that a God who is truth personified can send strong delusions or otherwise answer the objections you pose here, and you would still not believe because you would not want to believe. Am I right? Or is there an X for which you can say, "If you can prove X, I'll want to believe"?

    I made this post because I want to hear from people like you. If you were to concede my point (for the sake of discussion) that you don't believe because you don't want to believe, what is it that most makes you want not to believe? Or if you don't concede my point, what is it that you find most gratifying about not believing? I wouldn't expect it to be that the moment after the last human being dies literally no one will care that any of us ever lived. What is it?

    Thank you again for writing. Believe me, it has made my day.

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  5. I guess what it boils down to is why is your answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything, more correct than the pagans and atheists?

    The second question is why is the Westminster Confession of Faith to be more trusted than any other group's standard.

    The final question is, why use Westminster at all if everything is just an explanation of what the Bible says?

    You don't seem to be someone who needs a filter between you and the raw truth.

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  6. Hi, Andy,

    It's always good to have someone stir the possum, and repeat customers are always welcome.

    If indeed my answers to the ultimate questions are better than those of the atheists and pagans, it's because they're true. If they're not true, they're useless, no matter how good they sound. If I'm right, I'll find out someday. If the atheists are right, I'll never know (and neither will they). If the pagans are right, the last judgment will be on the basis of works, and if I do what I think God requires me to do, I shouldn't be in too much trouble—unless the gods requires prayer to the proper gods by name, in which case I'm in real hot water, as I will be if Allah is god.

    My use of the Westminster Confession was simply a matter of using what was at hand and what had impressed me mightily. In general, and especially on the matter of the Sabbath, I prefer the Canons of Dort, so I'm not an all-or-nothing Westministerian, but I have to give the guys who wrote it credit for giving it their best shot. As regards in particular the description of God offered in the WCF, I can't imagine Baptists or Wesleyans or Charismatics or any other Bible-believing group finding much there to object to—they might object that there are better conclusions to be drawn from the verses presented than those drawn by the WCF, but I wouldn't expect them to accuse the Westministerians of deliberately twisting Scripture. To take an example raised by my friendly neighborhood atheist, if the verse says, "I am the Lord; I do not change," either the Bible isn't to be trusted or in some sense the Lord doesn't change, and what to do with passages that specifically say the Lord relents becomes, oh, a problem that people who want to take the Bible seriously can fight over for three thousand years or so.

    The WCF is not a filter; it's more like a digest. We are supposed to "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have" (1 Pt 3:15). Often before we can explain *why* we believe we have to clear the air about *what* we believe. The Christian message is pretty hard to put in a sentence ("Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again" covers the data, but I don't find it particularly helpful), but it can be put into a short paragraph. The WCF was designed to be one of the stops along way between that paragraph (or sentence) and throwing the Bible at the inquirer.

    As your question implies, the Bible is the final authority, and every Christian is responsible to get to know it as well as possible. One has to start somewhere, and the WCF gives Bible readers pegs on which to hang Bible concepts as they come to them: "Ah, yes, this fits in with ...." Things get interesting where things don't fit. My particular denomination allows prospective members to disagree with this or that section of the WCF precisely because it acknowledges that the WCF isn't airtight, but the exception has to be defensible from an orthodox reading of Scripture.

    Hope this helps!

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