Rev Dr Edgar Mayer;
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Scarier And Better
This week’s lesson in our prayer manual is about growing in the knowledge of God. When you pray, what is God saying to you? What is he like? I myself am always interested in this question and frequently I am not quite sure what the answer is. When I pray and draw near to God, do I encounter someone that is pleased with me or is he unhappy with me? Right now – this morning – do you know what God thinks about you? Is God about to bless you or judge you? Who do you encounter in prayer?
Before anyone misunderstands: I am not questioning whether God loves me or not. I know that he died for me. He loves all of us – beyond measure – but he is not always pleased with us. A pastor writes:
“My wife, Lisa, and I have four sons who at the time of this writing range from fourteen to twenty-two years of age. A few years ago, while we were enjoying a meal together, I made this statement: ‘Guys, you can’t do anything to make your mother or me love you any more than we already love you. And conversely, you can’t do a thing to make your mother and me love you any less than we love you.’
I could see how my words made them glad and solidified their feelings of security. Who doesn’t want to feel loved by their mom and dad? What I said next, though, caught them off guard. ‘However, boys, you are in charge of how pleased your mom and I are with you.’ Their smiles were replaced by more sober expressions. They realized that our pleasure in them was not unconditional, like our love, but was based on their behaviour.
I know that this may come as something of a shock, but the same is true of our relationship with God. We can’t do one thing to make God love us any more than He already does, and conversely, we can’t do anything to make Him love us any less. But how much pleasure will He feel from us? That’s another story.
In recent years we have heard a lot about
the unconditional love of God – a very helpful and necessary discussion.
However, many people have subconsciously concluded that since God loves them,
He’s also pleased with them. This simply is not true … ” (John Bevere:
Every single one of us is loved by God – without question. The Bible teaches on many occasions – I now only quote one reference – John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loved the whole world – which includes every man, woman and child – and – then – whoever commits himself to believe in God’s one and only Son – Jesus Christ – this person [whoever!] – for sure – will not perish but have eternal life. You can be sure that God loves you.
Yet, this is not the same as experiencing that he is pleased with you. My suspicion – no stronger: my conviction – is that many praying people get this wrong. On the one hand – God is better than you think but – on the other hand – he is also scarier than you think. Both statements are true and the more you pray – the more you grow in the knowledge of God – the more you will experience the reality of both these statements. I repeat them again: God is better than you think and God is scarier than you think.
We will demonstrate this from the Bible by looking at Moses and his two most important prayer encounters with God. In the first one God introduced himself to him and called him into leadership over his people. In the second encounter God showed him as much of his holy glory that any sinful person can live through. What was God like for Moses and what can we learn from his experience?
Moses was born in
His deed was discovered and neither his people nor the Egyptians gave him any credit for being a murderer. [How lacking he was in leadership skills! He assumed that without earning the people’s trust and working on some sort of rapport, they would just flock to him when he killed one of the Egyptians. Cf. Acts 7:23-29: “When Moses … saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian . he … avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not … ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptians yesterday?’ … ”] He had to flee and run for his life. For forty years he was living in Midian and the desert region as a foreigner which caused him such distress that he named his first son – Exodus 2:22: “ … Gershom [which means] … ‘I have become an alien in a foreign land.’”
Yet, then God appeared to him. I read from the Bible – Exodus 3:1-4:17:
“Now Moses was tending the flock … and he
led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the
The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery
of my people in
Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, What is his name? Then what shall I tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I Am has sent me to you … This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation … ’
Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, The Lord did not appear to you?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is this in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ he replied. The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.’ So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. ‘This,’ said the Lord, ‘is so that they may believe that the Lord the God of their fathers … has appeared to you.’
Then the Lord said, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was leprous like snow. ‘Now put it back into your cloak,’ he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his flesh.
Then the Lord said, ‘If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first miraculous sign, they may believe the second … ’ Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’
But Moses said, ‘O Lord, please send someone else to do it.’ Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well … He will speak to the people for you … But take this staff in your hand so you can perform miraculous signs with it.’”
God is better than you think.
God took the initiative, attracted Moses to a burning bush that was not
consumed by the fire and there he revealed himself to him. He introduced
himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the fathers of the slave people – and he called the murderer Moses to lead
his people out of
And God is the same toward us. If you are a Christian, then this is only so because God has also taken the initiative with you and somehow revealed himself to you. You may not have seen a burning bush that wasn’t consumed by the fire but you may have seen other Christians that are burning with something of God. There is the freedom of forgiveness, a clear hope and joy. Then, there are God’s provisions. If you are a Christian, then this is only so because God began to speak to you as he spoke to Moses. He introduced himself to you. He convinced and convicted you of sin and the forgiveness which is granted to us on account of Jesus’ holy blood – shed on a cross. We may not have murdered another man but we are sinners and it was our sin that caused the death of Jesus. He died for us.
Yet, God is better than we
think. He does not hold a grudge against us. On the contrary – he bestows favour on us. Jesus said – Acts 1:8: “ … you will
receive power … and you will be my witnesses … ” This is good news. Take it in slowly. Whatever you may done, is
forgiven. Can you believe this for your own life? Sometimes the memory of old
sins still make us squirm and shame holds us back – the lies, the
deception, the abuse, the hidden lust – but
God not only forgives. He forgets. A clean slate is a clean slate because the
blood of Jesus Christ is powerful. God – forgiveness – is so much better than we think and then there is a new life. Moses
returned back to
Some people – maybe all of us at times – struggle with comprehending that God’s loving forgiveness makes us completely clean. We think that God should not love us because we fail him so many times and even a church father like Martin Luther suffered extreme mental and emotional stress – terror attacks – on account of his sin. He kept wondering: How could his sin not attract the wrath of God? How could he not be doomed? In these times – according to Luther’s own words – “the terrors were so great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them … In such a situation, God appears terribly angry, along with all creation. At such a time, there is no flight, no comfort – inside or out – only accusation of everything … All that remains is the stark-naked desire for help and a terrible groaning, but [the soul] does not know where to turn for help. . . . Nor is every corner in the soul not filled with the greatest bitterness, with dread, trembling, and sorrow.” [Martin Luther also wrote: “In your tribulations you will become aware that the Gospel is a rare guest in people’s consciences, while the Law is their daily and familiar companion. For people have by nature the knowledge of the Law” (St. L. Ed. IX, 161).]
This is how Luther felt on many occasion and if you are feeling like him, then hear the truth again: God is better than you think. God is better in being patient (with you) than you think. God is better in loving you than you think. When you are feeling crushed, take heart and believe the Bible – 1 Peter 5:5: “ … God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God gives grace to the humble – (to you when you are agonizing over your sin) – (he does give you grace) – and the word “grace” – the word for “undeserved love” – simply means – again: “God is better than you think.” Therefore, can you think something new – expect something new from God? Moses – the murderer – experienced that God appeared to him and appointed him as the leader of his people.
[Robert Morris: The Blessed Life,
I wore it directly out onto the golf course and proceeded to play some of the worst golf of my life. Of course, the spirit of poverty was quick to place the blame for my horrible score on the new jacket. God didn’t want you to have the nice jacket. You’ve missed God, and now your golf game is cursed!
Believe it or not, as soon as the round was over, I returned the jacket and got my money back. But that wasn’t the end of it. In the days that followed, I began to grieve over ‘having’ to return the jacket. I stewed about it, and I actually found myself resenting God. I can’t believe I can’t even have a nice jacket. Other people get to have nice things, and I can’t even buy a coat without my golf game being cursed. It’s not fair, God!
After putting up with this nonsense for about three days, God eventually got my attention and spoke very clearly, ‘Quit blaming me for your not having that jacket! I didn’t tell you to take that jacket back.’
Then he said something I’ve never forgotten. The Lord said, ‘Son, I never speak to you through guilt or condemnation.’ He also added, ‘And, by the way, don’t blame me for your lousy golf game. You’ve never needed any help from me to play badly.’ … ”]
Martin Luther was always grateful when he broke through to a renewed faith in the goodness of God. He would not stop celebrating the undeserved kindness of our God. We are forgiven – not on account of anything that we do – not on account of our performance – but on account of Jesus’ sacrifice – for us – on the cross. This kind of love is not earned but is a free gift. It is always available for us. Every day we can be cleansed by the blood of Jesus as we put our faith in him. God is so good.
Yet – precisely at this juncture – many Christians – who learn about the experiences of Luther and others – make the wrong assumptions. Instead of encountering God for themselves – they attach themselves to ideas about God –especially the notion: God is better than you think – with the result that they miscalculate and even remain in their sin (under the wrath of God) – because anyone that really encounters God for himself also learns: God is scarier than you think. You cannot take God for granted. When you meet him, you bow down before him in holy fear.
[Cf. Luke 18:9-14: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get. But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 1 Corinthians 10:12: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” 2 Corinthians 13:5: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves … ”]
Let me expand on this. Back in 1937 – another Lutheran – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – wrote some stinging words which apply to us even more today:
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church … Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares … Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing …
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins … no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin …
Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate …
We Lutherans [he could have added other Christians] have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ ... Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church ... Instead of opening up the way to Christ it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience ... The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works ... ” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost Of Discipleship, London: SCM Press 1948, p35-47).
According to Bonhoeffer the church suffers from “cheap grace” which is making the assumption that God is always better than you think and, therefore, he is never making any demands on you. “Cheap grace” is teaching that God is always available to you with no cost – no contrition, no discipline, no obedience, no following of Christ – required. This is wrong but this kind of thinking (nevertheless) marks our current church culture (to some extent).
[Even last week one pastor was saying that John the Baptist with his message on repentance was on a totally different page from Jesus. He was into legalism and demanding too much. What unnerved me the most was that another ten pastors listened to his opinion in the setting of a small group discussion but no one contradicted him. Yet – according to the Bible – a radical call for repentance and following Jesus Christ does not contradict grace and the notion that God is better than you think. Jesus affirmed the ministry of John the Baptist.
Then, a few weeks ago another pastor argued that there is no such thing as “cheap grace” and he did so in response to the challenge that many pastors make too much of baptism when they give assurances of God’s eternal grace at the funeral of baptized unbelievers.]
Another writer gets to the problem from a different angle. I quote:
“We live in what Dr O.S. Hawkins calls ‘the No Fear culture’. O.S. suggests it is because ‘our generation knows little of the nature of God’. People in and out of the Church have no fear of God. He defines the fear of God as being ‘a reverential awe, a sense of being afraid of offending a holy God in any way’. I am glad he is not afraid to use the word ‘afraid’. So many water down the fear of God by quickly saying, ‘Now it doesn’t mean to be afraid of God.’ Really? It certainly does mean that; otherwise nobody will begin to feel real respect and awe for the God of the Bible. I have no doubt that at times when the Bible refers to people walking in the fear of the Lord in fact they were scared to death …
What does walking in the fear of the Lord mean? It certainly does mean to worship with reverence and awe. But it means to live in fear of displeasing the Lord. I realize that there are always those (and every pastor faces this) who are overly conscientious – almost to the point of being neurotic – when this kind of teaching is carried out. And I certainly would not want to add to anyone’s anxiety unnecessarily in these lines.
But let me explain what I mean. A deep and true fear of God will keep you from committing adultery – because of what it does to God, to the Church, to the one you would be involved with, to your spouse and family, to you … It is a healthy Christian who fears God’s chastening, or his disciplining us … ” (R.T. Kendall: Out Of The Comfort Zone, London: Hodder & Stoughton 2005, p73-76).
God is not only better than you think. He is also scarier than you think. We come back to Moses, who was a murderer. God showed favour to him but – let’s not forget – that his encounter with God came after living forty years in the desert as a refugee among strangers. When Moses was young in Egypt, he was used to a life in the palace and had enjoyed the best education. Full of confidence – he had aspirations and was prepared to make something happen in his own strength. [Acts 7:23-29: “When Moses … saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian . he … avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not … ”] It took forty barren years to break his youthful enthusiasm and make him humble and it was God that broke him.
In the end God did grant Moses his dream and made him the leader of his people – God was better than Moses could have imagined – but the call came at a time when Moses was so humbled that he was no longer confident in accepting the assignment. Even though God revealed his name to him, granted him the power of miracles and provided another support person – Aaron, his brother – Moses still pleaded with God: “ … please send someone else … ”
This is scary. Would God ever do that to you – make you endure forty hard years in the wilderness – break you – humble you – before he gives you the desire of your heart? God took his time in preparing Moses and he will take his time in preparing and forming you. Moses was not happy in the wilderness. (Otherwise he would have given his son a different name.) But God was (all the same) better and scarier than he thought.
Then, we must also not forget what God said to Moses first – I read the verses again: “ … God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ [There is a sense of urgency.] And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ … ” When we encounter God, we encounter a holy God whom we cannot approach with a casual and laid-back attitude. God is not our buddy. We are not on the same level. He’s saying: “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” It’s not always safe waltzing into God’s presence.
He is scarier than you think. You may also consider this feature in Moses’ life. When God encountered him first, he showed mercy to a murderer. So much was forgiven and leadership was granted. However, as Moses grew in leadership and maturity, the same temper that made him kill a man, made him strike a rock in anger and this time God did not simply forgive but judged him. Moses would not enter the promised land. After all that he had done – the conflict with Pharaoh, the rejection from his people, the hardships of the journey – Moses would not taste the fruit of his labours.
You may ask: “How can God do this to him?” I read from the Bible – Exodus 20:6-13: “ … The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the staff … Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out water … ’ So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence … and Moses said to the people, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out … But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring the community into the land I give them.’ … ” Moses modified the command of God but it was not by much. Why would God care whether you speak to a rock or strike it with a staff? Yet, the holiness of God was offended. God said: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring the community into the land I give them.” God is scarier than you think.
I come back to the beginning. We want to grow in the knowledge of God and – at this point – we know that both statements about him are true: God is better than you think and God is also scarier than you think. Therefore, when we pray, what is God saying to us? What is he like? In this message we have learned enough to appreciate that the answer to this question is not always easy. Is God pleased with us or not? Is God about to bless you or judge you?
We need to hear from him. Here at Living Grace we do get a sense that God is blessing us with so much – salvations, miracles, a new worship home – but over the last year – on more than one occasion – God gave us an unexpected rebuke. For instance, we learned that God is not always pleased when we are pressing in for more and more and more. On the one hand – God wants us to move mountains and disciple nations but – early on – last year he spoke clearly to us from the Bible – Zechariah 4:10: “Who despises the day of small things? … ” Who despises the day of small beginnings? We were to be more thankful – humble.
Only the other week I was preaching on travailing in prayer – accepting a prayer burden from God and then co-labouring with God (birthing something in prayer). In our prayer meeting before the service no one knew the sermon theme but – in line with the upcoming message – one of us heard a clear rebuke from God. He was not pleased with our self-centered prayers on Living Grace. God said: “Get out of yourselves.” The person did not pass on the message (at the time) because it sounded too rude but she then led in praying for the peace of Jerusalem and we began praying “outside of ourselves”. God is better than you think and he is also scarier than you think. It’s not so easy to discern whether our assumptions about him are correct. Is he is pleased with us or not?
Moses was forgiven for striking a man dead but – later – when he struck a rock, God added judgement to forgiveness and he was not allowed to enter the promised land. God became scarier as Moses matured – and it is the same for us – but – at the same time – God also “became better” as the relationship grew. In the beginning God told Moses: “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” However – later – as Moses had learned radical obedience – he was allowed to come closer. I read from the Bible – Exodus 33:18-23: “Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will … but … you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live … When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove me hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” As we grow in our faith, the standards of both: holiness and privilege (again) begin to exceed our expectations. God is scarier and better than you think.
However – to be clear – for us – the weight is on the God who is better than you think. He is not always pleased with us but his love – for us – remains constant. It is unconditional. We are his children. And as God explained to Moses, his pleasure in obedience results in countless blessings – I quote: “ … showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments … ” (Exodus 20:6) – while his displeasure is far more constrained – I quote: “ … punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation … ” (Exodus 20:5). God himself explained it to Moses when he was permitted to see his glory, saying – Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
God can be scary but his overwhelming desire – his nature – is to be better than we think. [By the way: All of us are bound to have at least one ancestor in the last thousand generations that loved God and kept his commandments. And then there is no curse that cannot be overcome by the cross of Jesus Christ.]
I come to a close. When you pray, what is God saying to you? What is he like? Does he forgive you and not even bring up that you’ve struck a man dead or does he judge you for striking a rock – (seemingly a more minor offense)? Is he saying “do not come any closer” or is he allowing you to see his glory (because now you are ready)? I repeat what I have said before: As we grow in our faith, the standards of both: holiness (the scary aspect of God) and privilege (the goodness aspect of God) keep exceeding our expectations. [2 Corinthians 3:8: “ … will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?”] Therefore, do not presume that you know what God is going to say. Listen to him.
Yet, we are not to be worried and upset. Underlying everything is the fact that God loves us. This will never change. Good practical advice is to remain humble because – according to the Bible – we have heard the verse before – 1 Peter 5:5: “ … God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” As long as you remember that God can be scarier than you think – and you respect that – you will experience that he is also better than you think. Moses became the leader of God’s people and saw the glory of God. Just imagine that God will do the same for us. Amen.
 David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 1, describes the content of Luther’s terror as “an unnerving and enervating fear that God had turned his back on him once and for all, had repudiated his repentance and prayers, and had abandoned him to suffer the pains of hell. Luther felt alone in the universe. . . . He doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God. . . . No prayer he uttered could penetrate the wall of indifferent silence with which God had surrounded himself. Condemned by his own conscience, Luther despised himself and murmured against God.”
 Timothy J. Wengert, “ ‘Peace, Peace . . . Cross, Cross’: Reflections on How Martin Luther Relates the Theology of the Cross to Suffering” Theology Today 59 (Summer, 2002), 195, quoting Luther, LW 31:129-130.