Rendering Unto Caesar

I shouldn’t be having to write this blog post. Who wants to write an apologia for the tax man? But there’s a particular brand of conservative thought here in America that maintains that taxation is theft, or at least extortion. The thinking, as far as I can follow it, goes something like this:

I have a job and get paid. I put in my time and effort and I am remunerated financially for doing so. I earned that money; it’s mine. And because it’s mine, the government has no right to take it away from me. It does not belong to them. The term we give to someone taking something that doesn’t belong to them is theft. Even if they are demanding it (extortion), it’s theft. Therefore taxation is theft.

It’s a nice logical chain. One thing follows from another. But when one or more of your starting premises is flawed, you can be as logical as you like and still end up in the wrong place.

It’s rather like the joke that’s told sometimes about a man asking a local for directions to Scarborough. In the joke, the local thinks for some time, then says, “Well, if I were going to Scarborough, I wouldn’t start out from here!”

The starting premise that I think is flawed is the idea that it is somehow illegitimate or immoral for the government to take money from its citizens in order to meet its legitimate responsibilities.

Now, liberals and conservatives (in the classical political sense of both terms) will argue back and forth over what constitutes a legitimate function and responsibility of government. Liberals place a lot more on the government’s plate, conservatives a lot less. But unless you are an outright anarchist, you will probably agree that there are at least a few legitimate areas of responsibility that a government has, for example:

  • Drafting of legislation. How much legislation we need may be a matter of debate, but I don’t think even the most ardent conservative would agree to the outsourcing of legislative function to, for example, a private company. Can you imagine what might result from, say, Lockheed-Martin making defence policy, or Halliburton running the Environmental Protection Agency?

  • Defence. There have been private military contractors in history. On land, they were called mercenaries. At sea, they were known as privateers, or more commonly as pirates. The big problem with them is that at the end of the day they are answerable to their own pockets and not to the citizens. And when you most need them, you can least afford them.

  • Law enforcement. If a privatised military is a bad idea, a privatised police force has to be orders of magnitude worse. Imagine calling the police and being told “I’m sorry, ma’am. We can’t prosecute your rapist because you aren’t paid up”. This ia called a protection racket. And those who most need police protection – the poor – would be least able to afford it. You’d end up with a situation where equality before the law was completely bent towards monetary gain.

We might add other areas, depending on our political persuasion and personal taste: healthcare, international relations, regulation of commerce and so on. How much you consider to be within the legitimate purview of government is one of the big differences between Left and Right. But I think we can all agree that there are certain functions that only a government can legitimately exercise.

All of these cost money. Soldiers need to be paid, unless you want them to subsist by the 17th-Century method of plundering the enemy in time of active deployment and extorting money from citizens in time of peace. Law enforcement officers need to be paid for the same reasons. Even legislators need to be paid, because otherwise the only way you can afford to become a legislator is if you are already wealthy, and that way lies plutocracy. The already-wealthy running the nation to suit themselves.

If we agree that there are legitimate functions of government, we are agreeing that the costs of these functions are legitimate costs.

Taxation is, quite simply, the only reasonable way I can think of for a government to meet its costs. We all pay taxes because we all use those things which government provides: stability, rule of law, freedom from foreign aggression, and so on.

A government could, I suppose, make its money by charging large fees for services like passport applications or marriage registration or the like, but why should only those using said services be stuck with the entire bill for the things we all enjoy? We all rely on the existence of the rule of law and stability. We rely on them so much that we don’t even think about them as government services, but they are. Take away an effective government and you get Somalia. In some ways, even a tyranny is better than that.

Is taxation always justified? Probably not. It can certainly be burdensome and oppressive. But there is a difference between taxation and theft.

Personally, I have a wider view of what legitimately belongs in the government’s purview than most people I meet. However, I live in Texas, and a lot of people I come across would probably think that the Ferengi from Star Trek were dangerously liberal. (Incidentally, Trek could have made the Ferengi terrifying, if they hadn’t decided to play them for laughs. The evil corporate sharks of the Trek universe, soulless corporations constrained by no law or conscience, only profit. They could have given the Borg a run for their money as most terrifying villains).

Government, in my mind, has a legitimate role in restraining the power of business so that it is a servant of the people and not a master. History shows the tendency of large business interests to become predatory on the common citizen, from child labour in the 19th Century through to the sweatshops of the 21st. To my knowledge, no industry has voluntarily cleaned up its act without being made to by the enaction of laws or the prosecution of key players. Not all business people are sharks, but the historical record speaks for itself. Corporate leaders aren’t stupid; they are going to look for ways to make as much money as they can. This is part of what makes them successful. And the actions of those who bend and break the moral law (even if what they are doing is technically legal) skew the field for everyone. If “everyone” is acting oppressively, it takes a brave, wise and perceptive individual to challenge the rightness of it. It has become normal, and normal is “right”.

Except it isn’t. This is what Jesus’ actions in driving the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the Temple are about. The Temple market may have been normal, but righteousness is something else.

Anyway, I cannot agree with the idea that taxation is theft. Oppressive, perhaps. Unfair, undoubtedly, at times. Overburdensome, certainly, at times. But not theft. More like a service fee. We all pay because we all benefit from having a government not an anarchy.

In many ways I’m shocked that this conversation even needs to take place, but apparently it does.

Now, if we could all stop the misleading use of loaded words like “theft” and “extortion”, we can all get back to arguing over how much we should legitimately expect the government to handle for us.

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Hosanna

Sunday will be Palm Sunday. The start of what has traditionally been called Holy Week, and the continuation of another round of the great liturgical calendar of the Church.

We’re familiar with the story, most of us. Jesus knows that His time is coming. He sends His disciples to go and find a donkey that’s never been ridden and bring it to Him. They put their coats on its back as a saddle, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem, accompanied by throngs of people cheering His entry as the Son of David and the One who comes in the Name of the Lord.

And this year, I wonder how much the crowd knew.

How familiar were they with Isaiah’s prophecy that the King-Messiah would come to Zion riding on a donkey?

Were they aware of the prophetic import of Jesus’ choice of mount, or were they expecting someone more in the image of an Alexander or a Caesar, astride a mighty war-horse or pulled in a chariot?

Were their shouts of Hosanna an actual prayer of “Save Us!”, or just the emotion of the moment?

It’s difficult to tell. On the one hand, the wider cultural expectation was that kings don’t ride donkeys. It would be like the President of the US driving himself around in a Fiat Punto.

On the other hand, according to many historians Messianic expectation was running fairly high in Jesus’ day, and the crowd’s shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” are certainly what we would expect from people who were familiar with the prophecies and knew something of what to expect from their Messiah.

So how much did the crowd really know?

I don’t have any absolute answers, but it does look like they knew a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. We’re apt to juxtapose their loud acclamation at the Triumphal Entry with their equally loud cries of “Crucify!” a week later, and dismiss the shouts of Hosanna as the emotionalism of the moment.

I’m not sure I buy that. Based on what they were shouting, it looks like they had an understanding of the prophetic significance of riding into town on a donkey. This was the action of the Messiah-King, coming in to set the nation to rights, drive out the evil Roman pagans and set up a Divine Kingdom in the image of King David’s. With liberty and justice for all. The crowd knew about the prophecies. They memorised the Scriptures, heard and read the words of Isaiah and the other prophets. They knew enough to at least recognise it. Here was the King.

But then, once in Jerusalem, Jesus doesn’t behave at all like the Messiah is supposed to. He doesn’t drive out the Romans from the city of God; He evicts Jews from the Temple. He doesn’t raise an army to oppose the Imperial taxes, He instructs His followers to give to Caesar what belongs to him.

He opposes the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the holiest people around and as model Jews, but surrounds Himself with prostitutes, drunks and Roman collaborators.

Then He commits the worst error a Messiah can possibly make: He gets defeated.

Dragged off in chains by the holy Pharisees and handed over to the evil Roman overlords, it’s little wonder they turned on Him. “How dare You raise our hopes and then dash them like this?”

How dare You claim Messiahship? You aren’t He; He is God’s special King and does not get defeated!

Disillusionment can turn easily to anger. If Jesus wouldn’t act like a proper Messiah, then He must obviously be a deceiver. Away with Him!

So the appropriate question may not be “how could they turn on Him so quickly?”, but “how do we react when God won’t do what we think He should?”

Heal my mother/sister/brother/father. Make me wealthy. Fight against the godless liberals/conservatives/radicals/oppressors. Condemn this group or that group of evil God-haters. Make my country the world leader that it ought to be.

God may not be fighting the godless liberals because He is fighting something more fundamental than which side of the political dividing line we are on. He may not be making me wealthy because He wants me to seek Him for Himself rather than for rewards. He may not be making my country a world leader because the government belongs to Him, not to any one nation.

In other words, our ideas of what He ought to do may need some adjustment.

After all, He is good. He is the Source of good; everything good and perfect comes from Him. More, He’s omniscient; He really does know everything and see everything, so He knows what is really good and what merely looks the part. More than that, He’s all-powerful. Nothing can prevent Him from doing the good He intends. He can’t be forced to do evil.

More even than that, He’s pure. He alone has pure motives and is incorruptible. Even something He wants will not bend Him towards evil; there is no shadow of turning in Him.

If we can’t trust Him to know what He ought to be doing far better than we do, we have a problem. We’re in unbelief, trapped by a false image of who He is.

Jesus rides into our Jerusalem on a donkey in large part to deal with this. The crucifixion was all part of the plan; it was the only way to separate beloved Humankind from the sin and deceptions that dominated us. He has already died to put an end to our sin, and risen to set us free from it.

Hosanna, indeed.

O Families of Nations

My regular Bible readings took me to Psalm 96 yesterday.

It’s a fairly familiar Psalm, beginning “Sing to the LORD a new song”. And the thing about fairly familiar passages is that they are easy to gloss over. If we’ve been following Jesus for any length of time, we can have a tendency to read them almost by rote, not really taking it in but just letting the words wash over us.

What struck me today about the passage was its evangelistic, missionary emphasis.

We can tend to think that in the Old Testament, God is exclusively concerned with Israel. They are the people with whom He has made a Covenant. They are the people He calls His own. They are the nation of faith. All the stories of Joshua, Gideon, King David, Elisha and the rest are all stories of God fighting against the evil pagans who are attacking His people.

Right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, God is certainly concerned to maintain His Covenant with His people. Even when they are faithless, He remains faithful.

So He’s going to defend them. He has a purpose and plan for them that is not served by their destruction. More, He genuinely loves them and wants their good.

But it never has been solely about Israel. They were and remain God’s chosen people, but chosen for what purpose?

Chosen so that through them God might display His glory to the world.

Abraham was blessed as the father of many nations, ancestor of Israel and father to the nation of faith. But the corollary of that was always that “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed”.

Psalm 96 makes it clear that God wants the praise not just of His Covenant people, but of all peoples. “The gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” is basically evangelistic in tone. Turn away from these worthless things that you have been serving! There is a real, Living God that made the heavens and can actually do something to help you!

“Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations/Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength/Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name” continues the theme. Giving glory to the LORD is right not just for Israel, not just for His Covenant people whether Old or New, but for all the earth and its families of nations. He made the whole world; He has a right to the praise of the whole world. More, “the gods of the nations are idols”, and ascribing God’s majesty and attributes to a created thing is enslaving yourself to a lie.

It doesn’t much matter if that created thing is money, sex, power, the stars and planets, a carved block of wood or a human philosophy or ideology, it’s a made thing, not a Maker. And when you attribute to it that which is rightfully God’s, that’s the point at which it becomes an idol.

And the passage goes on even more remarkably: “Bring an offering, and come into His courts”. This is, of course, a reference to the Temple worship in Jerusalem.

Under the Law of Moses, Gentiles were forbidden from coming into the Temple beyond the outer court, known as “the court of the Gentiles”. They could observe and listen, but they were outside the Covenant and barred from participation unless they became a Jew by being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses. “Bring an offering and come into His courts” is especially shocking because it follows on from “Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations”. In Hebrew, the words “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same, so the sense is pretty clear. Here is King David, prophetically reaching forward to a time when Gentiles will no longer be barred from the worship of God. A time when the invitation to “bring an offering and come into His courts” is for everyone, not just a chosen few.

Part of what the Cross does is open doors and destroy barriers. The sacrificial death of Jesus opens the way for the Gentile, the outsider, to be brought all the way inside the promises of God. And what Psalm 96 helps to show is that this was always the plan. The Gentile Church wasn’t a surprise to God. It was already in the plan. It was the plan: no division any more, but one people worshipping one God.

We can see foreshadowings of it with the Egyptians who chose to go with Israel (ref), with Rahab (a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite), Bathsheba (probably a Hittite), Naaman (a Syrian) and others. All the nations of the world being blessed and coming to know God.

The GPS Blocker

As I’ve mentioned before, I run a construction GPS unit in my day job. And today, I have a problem.

One of the big trucks being loaded with rock to be hauled offsite has a GPS blocker.

There are a lot of companies which put GPS tracking devices in their company vehicles and monitor them for things like speeding, or whether you are where you say you are, or how long you remain stopped in one location, etc. From the company’s viewpoint, it makes sense. Not only does a GPS tracker give you the ability to track your vehicle if it gets stolen, but it helps make sure that your employees are doing what they are supposed to.

However, there are a lot of employees that resent the lack of trust and invasion of privacy this monitoring represents, and so there’s a market for devices that block GPS signal reception.

I think one of the trucks has one, because when it shows up I start to lose satellite reception.

Interestingly, though, I still pick up the Russian GLONASS satellites, but those by themselves don’t give me the precision that my job requires.

In other words, I’m being hampered in my work by something that blocks my access to input from above.

I started to think. Is this also sometimes the case spiritually?

A channel to heaven is blocked, and I’m not hearing the voice of God. I’ve committed a sin, and my sensitivity to the Spirit is muffled. I’ve chosen to pursue a sin, and now I’m vulnerable to believing any lie that justifies it. There’s demonic interference and I’m not receiving the answer to prayer that the Lord has already spoken.

Does this happen? What does Scripture say?

Well, we can see instances in which it certainly does appear that way. Daniel fasted and prayed for understanding of his vision for an extended period before the angel showed up. But the angel says nothing about “because of your persistence in prayer the Lord has heard you”. On the contrary: “As soon as you began to pray the Lord sent me…” But the angel encountered spiritual resistance from outside.

We in the West sometimes don’t like to think about it very much, but there is a very real and dangerous enemy of our souls, who wants to do everything he can to hinder the work of the Lord. Including delaying or stopping answers to prayer. Just like the truck with the GPS blocker came and parked itself where it was interfering with my signal reception, so our enemy does appear to sometimes have the ability to park himself over us and interfere with the channel between us and the Lord. If as soon as you sit down to pray you are bombarded by a flood of sinful thoughts, you might just be under attack in this way. If God has clearly spoken something and it has been confirmed in multiple ways, and yet you’re not seeing His promise fulfilled, you might be experiencing this sort of attack.

Of course, equally, you might not be. We read at the beginning of the Exodus story of Pharaoh hardening his heart, but then towards the end of the ten plagues we begin to read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He was given numerous chances to turn. He even agrees to do it God’s way in order to get rid of the plague, but then after the plague is lifted he reneges on his promises. But then he seemingly gets to a point of no return, and God deliberately makes his heart hard.

Part of this is the spiritual battle going on behind the scenes. The Exodus is not just a conflict between Pharaoh and Moses, it’s a conflict between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel.

Each of the ten plagues is a carefully-crafted demonstration of the power of YHWH over a different Egyptian god. The Nile was worshipped as a deity, and called “the blood of the kingdom”, and here it is as actual blood. Frogs were sacred to one of the goddesses and you couldn’t kill them. Yet here they became so prevalent that you couldn’t take a step without killing them. Livestock, especially cattle, were sacred symbols of one of the main gods, and here they were dying in the fields. Personal cleanliness and hygiene were sacred duties to the Egyptians, yet here they all are with boils. The sun-god was another major deity; the light-bringer and one of the main ruling gods. And darkness envelops the land. And the highest of the Egyptian gods at that time was Horus, first-born son of the sun-god and ascendent ruler of the morning, who was also in another guise the god of rebirth known as Osiris. And the first-born of all the Egyptians died. Our God is systematically taking on and destroying the gods of the most powerful nation on earth.

There’s more going on than just Pharaoh. From a certain point of view, it’s almost that God needed a hard-hearted Pharaoh in order to fully display His majesty over the gods of Egypt.

But certainly personal sin has effects. You can’t just keep on sinning and expect to maintain an open line to God. By repeatedly choosing sin you’ve given the devil a foothold, and he’s not enough of a fool as not to take advantage of that. Your conscience gets dulled in a particular area, because your habit of violating it has worn it down.

As Jesus Himself said, you cannot serve two masters. He was talking in that instance about God and Mammon, that is, the power of money, but the Bible equally characterises sin itself as another master. If you’re serving sin, you aren’t serving God, because the two are moving in opposite directions and you cannot move in all directions at once.

But part of me isn’t really comfortable with this idea we sometimes have that if we commit a sin, to that degree we make ourselves unable to hear or discern the voice of God.

If that were invariably true, why does any unbeliever repent?

They have an unregenerate nature that follows an anti-God course. They repeatedly choose sin because it is the path of the natural man. By this theory, they ought to be so unable to hear the voice of God that they will never be able to repent.

Thanks be to God, it is not wholly so. We serve a God who is a Communicator. He spoke the world into being. We call Jesus “The Word”. The Holy Spirit “leads us into all truth”. He is more able to speak than we are unable to hear Him.

And He wants to be found. He’s unwilling that any should perish. He delights when sinful people turn away from their wrongdoing and self-centredness and seek Him. Why would a God like this make Himself unable to be heard by those who most need Him?

So I don’t entirely think that personal sin makes us insensitive to the Spirit and vulnerable to believing any lie that will justify it.

I think it’s the reverse. I think the fact that we are choosing to sin shows that we are believing a lie about God. “God’s holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to have this good (poisonous) thing”. “God can’t be trusted to meet your needs. You’d better do it yourself”. “God thinks you’re worthless”. “God wants you to be in pain”. “God is more concerned with your behaviour than with the state of your heart”.

The lies take many forms. But if we’re believing one of them, it functions as a bent towards certain forms of sinning. This may be part of the reason why so much of Paul’s letters are concerned with theology: if we’re believing the wrong things, it will show up in our actions.

These, then, might be the real GPS blocker. And not so much of a “blocker” as a “skewer”. If we’re believing a lie, it can skew our perceptions, throw us off, make us think we’re where we’re supposed to be when we aren’t.

But God is still able to speak. And we’re still able to hear Him, though perhaps we might be training ourselves to ignore.

Post-Meta-Transmovementism

So my friend who starts using new philosophical terminology months before I hear it from anyone else has introduced me to another new term: Metamodern.

Now, I’m not really one of those people who keeps up with the latest trends in contemporary thought. Most of the people I know barely register Postmodern as a thing, and Post-Evangelical runs straight past them. The construction industry isn’t exactly known for its deep thinking, after all.

For myself, I’m still not convinced that we need the term “post-Evangelical”, but I don’t really consider a lot of the excesses that post-Evangelicalism appears to be reacting against as real Evangelicalism. For me, “Evangelical” is still a useful, positive and good term; what do we need a “post-” for?

I’m probably not intrinsically opposed to Metamodernism, though being so absolutely new to it I’m still not sure I properly understand it.

But the term itself bothers me.

“Meta” is a Greek-derived prefix technically meaning “beyond”, though in most actual English usage it is meaningless except as a signifier of “derivative of”.

But I’m told that the “meta” in Metamodern isn’t referring to the Greek prefix but to Plato’s idea of Metaxy. Or in other words, at least as far as I can understand it, the idea of a sort of “in-between” state of creative tension between two opposed extremes.

Um, that may be so, but linguistically I’m not sure it works. “Metaxamodern” would be the appropriate way to refer to Metaxy, but I’ll grant you it’s clumsy. “Metaxic”, perhaps?

For me, the Metaxy reference is completely lost, just looking at the word.

We have Post-Evangelicalism. We have Post-Modernism. Paranormal. Transgender. What “Metamodern” looks like is “add a different prefix”.

You think you know what “postmodern” means now, and we’re not that, because it’s crap. But we don’t want to return to Modernism, because that was crap, too. “Meta” is a nice, malleable prefix that we can make mean whatever we say it means. Here, have a new derivative!

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s better than “Post-Postmodern”, but that seems to be effectively what it is. Another reaction against its immediate predecessor, appearing to define itself purely negatively in exactly the same way Postmodernism did.

What’s “Modern” doing in there at all? Can’t we be any more nomenclatively creative than just swapping prefixes? Can’t we come up with a real new term that actually communicates what it is, not what it isn’t?

Now, I know I’m basing a lot of this purely on the word used. Metamodernism doesn’t seem to see itself as solely a reaction against postmodernism, nor as a generally negative movement. But names are important, particularly in this sort of sphere in which they describe a system of thought and belief that people choose to align themselves with. Exchange one silly prefix for another even more meaningless one and you have a new term for a new reaction against the reaction against Modernism.

I think we shall call this “Post-meta-transmovementism”. The desire to stop making infinite derivatives of the same old movement in reaction against one another.

It may be that my relationship to Metamodernism is rather like my relationship to Feminism. By any reasonable definition I am a feminist, but I still don’t much care for the term. As a man, I don’t find it helpful. It doesn’t appear to have anything for me. Similarly, I might actually be technically Metamodern in outlook (I’m not sure yet), but I find the term itself unhelpful.

There it is.

Who God Says He Is (Anniversary post)

Well, today is my first anniversary of having this blog, and it quite caught me by surprise!  In honour of this momentous occasion, I’ve reworked my “Who God Says He Is” miniseries into a single, longer post.  Apart from my introductory post (since reworked into the “Why “The Word Forge”? Page), this was my first post.  Enjoy!


In Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and proclaims His name. This is the first time since the pre-Fallen Adam that a human being has seen God without veil of disguise or vision, which makes it an incredibly significant event. What God says here in connection with this is key to our understanding of His nature and character.

In essence, this is the clearest single statement we have of who God says He is. If we get this wrong, we will have a distorted image of God, which will skew our understanding of the Scriptures, of who we are and of what He has called us to.

Who, then, is our God?

YHWH, YHWH

The eternal Name of God. The Great I AM, as He revealed Himself to Moses. Eternal, without “I Was”, nor yet “I Will Be”. Changeless in His character, the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus faithful and reliable. The same God who created the world good. The same God who went looking for Adam. The same God who saved Noah’s household because of his righteousness. The same God who would not sweep away the righteous with the guilty when destroying Sodom, who promised to spare the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous people.

Self-existent, without “I think, therefore…” The only One who exists simply because He exists, without reference to anything else. He alone is the fount of everything else that exists, because He alone is self-existent and not contingent on other things. He owes His existence to no thing; on the contrary, all things owe their existence to Him.

His self-existence implies All-Power, too. Limitless in His strength, the Creator of all things who was before all things. Not contingent on anything, He alone is the one who is in control. Nothing is beyond His reach, no act beyond His power, no sinner too far gone to save. Not mastered by anything, because He Himself depends on nothing.

The Compassionate and Gracious God

Full of grace and mercy. Giving fallen humans the good things they do not deserve and not giving them the bad things they do deserve.

Grace is, as Yancey says, the last best word. If we haven’t paid on time, sometimes there’s a “grace period” before punishment kicks in. In music, “grace notes” are special extra notes whose absence does not affect the tune but whose presence bring it alive. “Graceful” decribes beauty of motion and form. “Gracious” describes unwarranted kindness. “Gratitude” is the appropriate response when we are given something. We “say grace” before a meal to express thankfulness. Something “gratis” is not to be paid for.

Compassion and mercy are allied; two aspects of the same thing. Compassion has been defined as “seeing someone in need and wanting to help”. Mercy has been defined as not getting what you deserve. Giving someone a second chance. Withholding punishment out of love for the person. Mercy values people. Compassion sees a need – people are sinful and fallen – and wants to help. God has the desire as well as the power to do something about the human fallen condition.

These are, after His name, the first things God says about Himself. Along with His Divine power and eternal nature, this is the root from which it all stems.

He describes Himself as “the gracious and compassionate God” with good reason. The Ba’als and Ammons and Marduks of the ancient world weren’t gracious and compassionate. They were harsh and cruel. They were deities of vicious power, capricious and despotic, divine parodies of the horrific abuses of authority practised by the kings of the earth. Like their followers, they lorded it over their subjects and required grovelling obesiance. They could be bought off, but they never showed compassion, much less grace. Their help was always to be paid for.

How unlike our Lord! The gracious and compassionate God, who desires to help and will not be paid for it, because nothing we can offer Him will cover the cost. Who bears the price Himself, because He wants to.

Slow to anger

Not capricious and mercurial. Not dangerous and to be dreaded and feared, as if He will fly off into a rage over the slightest thing. Slow to get angry. Not quick to bring judgement, because He wants people to turn from their wickedness and gives every possible opportunity for them to do so.

A God who, though the all-powerful I AM, is in control of His temper. Who does not “lose it”. Who is not mastered by His anger or by anything else, but is in control of Himself. A God like this will not immediately whack off toes if they step out of line. It takes effort to bring Him to the point of executing judgement. Slow to anger, not easily provoked, not looking for an excuse to smite.

The gods of the nations were as capricious and easily angered as the elements – a Ba’al or a Chemosh who is slow to anger is a contradiction in terms. Only God can be rightly described as slow to anger, because only God is above the natural world and fully in control of Himself.

Abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness

Bestowing His favour lavishly, with an ocean-sized bucket rather than a medicine dropper. Not counting how much favour He’s giving you, as if there are invisible limits after which He has to stop giving. “Sorry; you just exceeded the recommended dosage of My favour” are words you will never hear from the Lord. He gives with abundance, because He Himself is without limitation. “His bountiful care what tongue can recite”. We see it in wildflowers scattered on a hillside at the back end of nowhere, beauty mostly unseen by the eyes of man. We see it in the rain, which falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and on the sea, which is already full of water. We see it in the sun’s boundless energy and light scattered on the entire surface of the earth and out into space where it serves no purpose at all. Limitless abundance.

And an abundance of what? Of favour. Of lovingkindness. Active tender care. Kindness stemming from love. Limitless goodness. As Rich Mullins put it: “And this Man of no reputation loves us all with relentless affection”.

Affection is a mild word, but we so misuse the word love sometimes that perhaps it’s better to avoid it. Relentless affection, kindness, wanting the best for others, wanting to bless and to do good for.

And unlike people, able to see exactly what real good and real blessing look like, because He is not blinded by sin and is limitless in wisdom. Not only does He have the desire to help us in our need for redemption, but more than that, He doesn’t stop there. There is no room in His character for a Redemption that stops with justification. He wants to bless, and to do so abundantly. He wants to go on and sanctify totally, to enable us to walk in His abundant favour, enjoying Him and in close, harmonious fellowship with Him. He wants to do us good, to satisfy our desires with good things. For no particular reason, just because. Not because we earn it or because we deserve it, but because He wants to. It’s who He is.

Maintaining love to thousands

Constant in His favour and love. Not just showing love once, but continuing to love. Reliable in His love, so that His people are not high in His favour one day and cast out the next, based on the unfathomable whims of an inscrutable Deity. When He says He loves you, it is not something that fluctuates with the seasons, nor even with our own righteousness. Firm, trustworthy, a Rock worth building your life on. His love can no more change than He can cease to be the I AM.

Maintaining love, not just to a select few, but to thousands. Multitudes. No-one can say “well, He loves you, but He couldn’t possibly love me”. In most ancient counting systems, thousands were the highest numbers they had. The Greeks and some others had myriads – ten-thousands – but a lot of cultures at this stage stopped with thousands. It’s also about the biggest number the human brain can really grasp effectively. Talking of thousands to whom the Lord continued to show love is using a multiple of the biggest number. It’s as if He’s saying “yes, even you.” No-one is excepted from being loved by the Lord.

Forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin

Because He is gracious and compassionate, because He is slow to anger, because He abounds with lovingkindness, and because He maintains love to thousands, He is forgiving. Forgiveness streams as naturally from His character as light from the sun.

Rebellion is the sin of willful disobedience. Rooted in pride, it will not humble itself and admit need or ask for help, but in its insanity assumes it knows best. Rebellion mistrusts the goodness of God, wanting instead to do its own thing and be its own arbiter. Contrary and stubborn, it will not yield, will not bow, will not obey, even when doing so is in its own obvious best interest. Perverse, it insists on its own way, will not take counsel, will not accept help, and will not bow the knee to the One who alone is worthy. And because it will not bow to true Authority, it creates false ones. Every tyranny on the planet is ultimately rebellious at heart. It’s no accident that with the sole exception of America, every rebellion or war of independence ever fought has turned almost immediately to despotism. It’s the spirit of rebellion.

Iniquity is impurity. Rejecting the pure and holy and craving the depraved and impure, it’s the dark, self-destroying impulse that wants what it wants, dammit, no matter that it is poison. Expressed in everything from sexual licentiousness and porn to gluttony, selfish ambition and abusive domination, it describes the fallen condition that takes drugs knowing that they will kill, which craves its own ruin and hates that which is pure.

Between them, they pretty much cover the bases of human depravity. But just in case we can come up with a reason why our sin is unforgiveable, He also states that He forgives “sin”, without categorization or modifying adjective.

It’s not because we deserve it. If we deserved to be forgiven we would not need it. He forgives because of who He is. Because if He did not, He would no longer be the gracious and compassionate God. He does it because He Is Who He Is.

Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished

And only after His goodness, grace, mercy and forgiveness have been firmly fixed in our minds does He begin to talk about His justice. He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished.

Grace and mercy cannot exist without justice. Unjust grace is not grace; cannot be grace. Unjust mercy is equally oxymoronic. Without the context of righteous justice, grace and mercy are random chance, not deliberate goodness.

God does not overlook sin; He deals with it. He doesn’t treat the wound of His people as though it is not serious, papering over our inward depravity with little legalisms and obediences. Evil has consequences, both for those who are sinners and those who are sinned against. God cannot be good and allow us to continue in sin; that’s not forgiveness, it’s being an enabler.

He loves us; He’s gracious and compassionate, slow to get angry and lavish in the desire to bless. And so He must deal with sin. Papering over the cracks isn’t going to cut it. If He doesn’t root out the sin itself, we just go on harming ourselves and others. Grace and compassion for the sinned-against as well as justice compels Him to not overlook sin.

So because He is the gracious and compassionate God, He pays the price for us. Not because we deserve it, but because He wants to. Because as well as having the desire to help – compassion – He’s the only one who also has the power. As the old hymn puts it: “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heav’n and let us in”. Others might have had the compassion, but God alone was the All-Powerful I AM who could actually do something about the problem.

If we in our fallenness treat “failure to stop and render aid” as a criminal offence, how much less can God stand by while we suffer in our sin, knowing that He alone has the power to help?

visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation

Even in His preliminary dealing with sin via the first covenant, He sets limits on how far sin can go. Only to the third and fourth generation, not forever. Some people have read this as “punishing the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation”. God denies this specifically in Ezekiel 18, then later Jesus Himself kicks the supports out from under this idea; all those wrong-end-of-stick questions about “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” are decisively set aside by the Lord Jesus as totally wrongheaded. This difficult-to-understand verse, then, must mean something else. But what?

People live in families, and traits are passed down. Sons are like their fathers, and daughters like their mothers. If we’re not very careful to choose different courses, we reproduce in our own lives what was modeled for us by our parents. Therefore, part of the consequence of sin plays out in the lives of our offspring. Not because of some bio-spiritual law of inheritance, but because that’s how families are. If I have the sin of unrighteous anger, and I sow to that in my dealings with my children, I will reap from them unrighteous anger in return. To put it another way, part of the consequence of your sin is that you have to live in a family that does it back to you. This is almost the Divine equivalent of rubbing the dog’s nose in its business when you are training it to use a litter box.

But even in His punishment of sin, our Lord sets limits. He will not visit the sins of the fathers on their children down through all the generations. We are not spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our unknown 12th-Century ancestors. We are not even spiritually fated to reproduce the sins of our immediate forebears. Sin has consequences, and God is not going to let us get away with it. But there is no fatalism that forces us to follow in the ways of our ancestors. Fatalism is for Muslims. We are followers of Christ.

Notice, too, that this doesn’t appear until way down the list. Normally the things first mentioned in a list are considered the most important; in this case, grace and compassion. This is in accordance with the rest of Scripture: “Mercy triumphs over judgement” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Yet there are consequences for sin, and God is not an enabler either. Sin cannot be permitted to endure forever. He will deal with it, because that, too, is who He is.

Out of the Miry Clay

When the snow melts on a jobsite, it leaves behind mud.

All of that water has to go somewhere, and so it just soaks into the dirt, producing mud.

In the sort of North Texas clay that exists where I work, it produces some of the worst sort of slimy, clingy, heavy, semi-liquid mud known to man.

Forget getting around in your 2-wheel-drive pickup truck; it can strand 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and even cause difficulty for things that run on tracks.

It’s one of the weather situations in which I, alone and on foot, can sometimes make better progress than a guy in a truck.

Not that it’s easy even for me. The mud sticks to my shoes, then more mud sticks to that, then more mud sticks to that. I end up with legs resembling golf clubs; great balls of congealed glop surrounding my workboots, so that each foot weighs about 5lbs and swells to the size of a small beach ball.

You think I’m exaggerating? Come and do my job for a day.

In addition, it’s slippery stuff, so that your feet lose a minimum of 3/4 of their regular traction, and it’s like walking on plate glass. Or more accurately, greased plate glass. The only way to walk in the stuff is doing a combination impression of an old man and a duck.

In addition, it’s cold. The pounds of unheated glop around your feet suck all the warmth from your toes, and sit there even after that radiating active cold into your boots.

It always puts me in mind of Psalm 40:

“I waited patiently for the Lord,

He inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me out of the miry pit;

Out of the miry clay”.

In the Psalm, the miry clay is symbolic of the troubles that surround us, and perhaps too of our own sins. Like Texas gumbo mud, they cling to us, weighing us down and hindering our free movement. They age us in the worst way, turning us from lightness and joy to sullen bitterness. Even out of the situation, the mud still clings, smearing itself on anything around that used to be clean.

But the Psalm doesn’t stop with God drawing us out of the mire. He sets our feet on a rock and gives us a firm place to stand.

Part of this necessarily has to mean cleaning the mud from our feet.

It doesn’t matter how good your workboots are if they are covered in slime. The mud will still act against friction, and even if you are set down on a rock, you can still slip and fall if your feet are muddy.

Anyone who has ever stepped from ankle-deep Texas clay mud onto a clean concrete building slab can testify to this.

Jesus doesn’t just take us out of the surrounding mud of sin. He cleans us as well; He enables us to stand.

And if we can stand, we can move freely. We can walk, run, leap, dance.

There’s a freedom that comes with being loosed from the grip of the mire that’s difficult to comprehend until you’ve experienced it.  Similarly, there’s a freedom in His grace, a lightness and liberty in walking free of sin.

In the run-up to Easter, it seems an appropriate thing to dwell on.