Tag Archives: Mercy

Reconciling Matthew 5:44, Revelation 6:10, and my internal response to ISIS

Today a friend of mine posted the following status on Facebook:

21 beheaded, 45 burnt and now 90 Christians abducted by ISIS. I have a struggle within my own mind. The human side of me boils up in anger wanting God’s immediate wrath to be poured out on these people. However the Spirit reminds me I too was an enemy of Christ (Romans 5:10) and also reminds me of Jesus words “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44). SOOOOO conflicted but praying for His Spirit to be strong in my weakness. Praying that my brothers and sisters stand strong in the face of Satanic persecution and that even those who persecute, torture and kill my brothers and sisters will be convicted by the testimony of these Saints and repent and follow the one true God and King.

I think a lot of Christians are going through the same internal struggle right now. How do we pray in accordance with the will of God in this situation? How do we control the anger boiling beneath the surface? I have the same struggle.

I’m also wrestling with this theologically.

Specifically I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile Matthew 5:44 and Revelation 6:10.

On the one hand we have Matthew 5:44, a clear command of Jesus that we should love and pray for our persecutors. (Side note: All of this conversation seems a bit disingenuous because I am not being persecuted.) If this were our only command of how to pray or example of prayer in Scripture than it would seem that the only godly response would be for us to pray for the salvation of the persecutors.

On the other hand, we have Revelation 6:10. This records the prayer of actually martyred Christians. This could very well be the prayer of the 21 beheaded Christians. How do they pray? “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” I feel like a lot of Christians these days would chastise their prayer. “Don’t pray like that! Pray for God to bless, don’t look for his vengeance!” But God doesn’t chastise them. Instead he gives them white robes and tells them to wait a little longer.

In addition to Revelation 6:10 we have the “imprecatory” prayers in the psalms and God’s promise in Joel 3:21 – “Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged? No, I will not!”

I don’t want to be in a place where I disregard Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:44, but I also don’t want to find myself disagreeing with God in the event he does take vengeance on his enemies.

I don’t want to be like Jonah who hated when God showed mercy to the Ninevites. But I also don’t want to show contempt for the prayer of the martyred saints in Revelation 6:10.

So how can this tension be resolved? Perhaps we’re meant to live with this tension as we face evil. But I do think that both Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies, and the saints prayer for vengeance can be reconciled in the justice of God.

God is justified in showing mercy to his enemies. He is justified because Christ took the punishment for us. That is why I who was once his enemy can be saved by his great mercy. God is justified is saving ISIS. If he does, I should give him glory for his mercy and justice.

But God is also justified in taking vengeance. It is His right to take (not mine) and when he carries it out it will result in his glory. If and when he carries out his justice, whether it is swift through a human military force or deferred until the Final Day, I will give him glory, knowing that he is able to carry out justice perfectly.

So I pray for God’s justice.  “Lord if you have vengeance, you are justified. If mercy, you are justified. May your will be done.”

I also pray for the protection on future would-be persecuted Christians. “Lord protect them, either by saving the persecutors or by taking them out.”

Finally, I pray for the persecuted. “Lord, give them strength and grace in this hour of great need. Make them brave and Christlike. May they stand firm as they receive the crown of glory due.”

One final note: I feel much safer praying like Jesus command in Matthew 5:44 and that’s because I know my own heart. How can we pray Revelation 6:10 without hate creeping in and corrupting our soul? I’m sure it is possible otherwise we wouldn’t have this prayer in Scripture, but it is surely extremely hard to do.

Bottom line: When all else fails in our prayers it is best to go back to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “You’re kingdom come, you’re will be done.”

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What if he repents!? When God’s mercy is more offensive than his judgment

Most people I talk to that are skeptical of God’s character are skeptical of his judgment. They want God to be merciful to everybody, or at least the vast majority of people. They like God so long as he’s “loving” and “gentle” but turn away from descriptions of his wrath. When they say, “God’s not fair”, they mean “he’s not fair in his judgment.”

This past week, though, I spoke to someone who was more offended by his mercy than his judgment. This young woman told me boldly, “I hate a lot of people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hate.” I know this young woman, and I also know that she has been seriously wronged in her life. I could go into details but I won’t. Suffice it to say, from a human perspective, she has every reason to hate at least a couple of the people she hates. From the outside, it’s clear that her hatred is eating her alive, destroying her from the inside, but from her perspective she feels justified.

I attempted to encourage her from Romans 12:17-19. Here we are encouraged to forswear revenge and to seek peace because we can “leave room for God’s wrath.” In other words, wrath isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not ours to wield. We trust God to be the judge because he’s the only possible perfect Judge.

The young woman understood the passage but it didn’t make her feel better. She responded angrily – “but what if he repents?” She understood the mercy of God, but it offended her. She knows that if her enemy repents before God his sins will be forgiven and at the core of her soul she does not want that to happen.

I was immediately reminded of the story of Jonah. He was called by God to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh! Nineveh, at one point in its history, was the capital of the Assyrian empire, an empire that became the bitter enemies of the Israelites. Jonah was told by God to “preach against [the city], because its wickedness has come before me” (Jonah 1:1).

Jonah went in the exact opposite direction. He did not want to preach to Nineveh and it wasn’t just because he feared for his own personal safety. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew something about God. He knew God was merciful. What if they repent? Is God really going to let them off the hook?

God had other plans and brought Jonah to Nineveh against his will. Finally Jonah relented and preached to Nineveh the message God gave him – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And, almost shockingly, the very next words of Scripture say, “The Ninevites believed God.” They repented. They fasted. They cried out to God. And when God saw them repent he did exactly what a merciful God would do – he relented. He showed compassion on the city. He forgave.

Jonah was angry. This is exactly what he feared would happen.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

This is exactly what this young woman doesn’t want to happen. The possibility of her enemy’s repentance and God’s mercy offends her. I even understand why.

God’s response to Jonah was essentially this: I made this city grow and flourish and I love its inhabitants. I love its people, even in their sin. My wrath was ready to be unleashed but I gave them a chance to repent and they did. Why are you angry with my love?

Maybe God’s mercy offends you. Maybe you’ve been wronged deeply. Jesus gives a tough command – to love our enemies. Part of loving our enemies means being open, and even eager, for God’s merciful response to their repentance. And we can only be open to God’s mercy when we ourselves are captured by his love, his love for the whole world.

What is the meaning of the “presence of God?”

One of my most popular blog posts, in terms of generating search results, is the post “Should we treat church buildings as holy ground?” wherein I address the title question. My answer hangs on the meaning of the presence of God. But what does “the presence of God” really refer to anyway?

Yesterday morning I was reading 1 Kings 8 and I discovered that Solomon both asks and addresses that question in his prayer of dedication of the temple.

Right after the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the temple the Bible says “the cloud filled the LORD” causing Solomon to declare “the LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for your to dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:10-13).

Solomon built the temple to be the “dwelling place” of God.

But Solomon understood the apparent contradiction here. How could one building provide a suitable dwelling place for the Creator of the universe? He asks in his prayer: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less the temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:17) God’s presence is not something contained in space, even the whole of created space, but he definitely seen it as something real.

He answers how he understands the presence of God in the next verse. “Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day … so that you will hear the prayer of your servant.” (8:28, 29) For Solomon, God’s presence is made known when He answers the prayer of his people. But what is most instructive, or what was most surprising to me, was the specific answer to prayer Solomon was looking for. “Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” (8:30)

I would have expected Solomon’s prayer to read the more generic “and when you hear, answer.” But no, Solomon knew what he and the people needed most when it came to God’s presence – his mercy.

Note how this theme is expanded in the rest of the prayer:

  •          When your people have been defeated… hear and forgive and bring them back to the land. (33-34)
  •          When there is no rain because the people sinned… hear from heaven and forgive. Teach them the right way to live. (35-36)
  •          When a famine or plague comes to the land… Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does. (37-40)
  •          When the people sin and are taken captive… hear their prayer and forgive your people; forgive all offenses they have committed against you. (46-51)

There are a few three sections of this prayer where the pattern doesn’t hold.

  •          When a man wrongs his neighbor… Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and vindicating the innocent. (31-32)
  •          When a foreigner comes and prays… hear his prayer from heaven so that all people may know your name. (41-43)
  •          When your people go to war… uphold their cause. (44-45)

Still, forgiveness is a major theme of Solomon’s prayer. God’s presence, or at least the evidence of God’s presence, is seen in the mercy He shows his people.

This squares with Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mart and find grace to help us in our team of need” and Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Again, both the way into God’s presence, and the benefit of it, is marked by the mercy of God.

We often think of God’s presence in terms of mysticism or ecstatic religious experience. I think that an awareness of the real presence of God in our midst should lead us to what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections” but that, objectively, the primary means and benefit of the presence of God is none other than his mercy and grace.

QOTD: Is only one religion true?

QOTD (Question of the Day) Introduction: This blog series reviews questions asked to teenagers as part of the NSYR study as documented in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. These questions relate to “seeker attitudes” among American Teenagers. I am also using these discussion questions to engage the kids in our After School program at a deeper level.

Question: Is only one religion true?

“Fewer than one-third of teens (29 percent) report that they believe that only one religion is true. The majority of teens (60 percent) say they believe that many religions may be true. Only 9 percent say there is very little truth in any religion.”

My brief answer:

This question, like others on the list, is a little more ambiguous than it might originally seem so an easy yes/no doesn’t suffice. Instead, I might propose the following logical propositions:

1)      There is one truth which is knowable.

2)      Sometimes, different religions propose different and mutually exclusive visions of that truth. In these cases, one religion is necessarily right and the others necessarily wrong – or they could all be wrong.

3)      Sometimes, different religions propose overlapping or complimentary visions of that truth. In these cases, multiple religions may be correct.

By this logic, then, we might say that the religion that comes closest to the approximation of truth is the “true religion” and that, because there are so many divergent and mutually exclusive claims made about truth, that “only one religion is true.” This is seen most obviously in claims about salvation. Christianity proposes that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Other religions place an emphasis upon particular religious behavior or piety. In the case of salvation, Christianity is either true (as I would say) or false.

However, we can also say that many religions contain some correct vision of the truth. Several religions say there is only one God. In this case, they could all be true at the same time. Several promote charitable giving, honoring your parents, etc. Again, in all these cases, proponents of one religion can, and should observe the overlap of beliefs.

Many have observed the overlap of ethical agreement in the major religions (which is usually overestimated) and come to the conclusion that because of this overlap that all religions are essentially the same. This is a tragic error. Our relationship to God is not based on our own morality – if it was we would all be condemned – but on God’s mercy and forgiveness. That mercy is only in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is only Christianity that bears witness to this essential truth. It is to Christ we must turn.