“To the Merciful, You Show Yourself Merciful” – Brad Jersak
25 With the merciful you will show yourself merciful; with an upright man you will show yourself upright;
26 With the pure you will show yourself pure; and with the fraudulent you will show yourself devious.
Now for the psalmist, this was a matter of straight reward and retribution. In this Psalm, the Lord simply rewards us according to our righteousness (vs 20, 24), and punishes them according to their wickedness. But of course, this becomes problematic for the psalmist, the prophets and especially Job when the recompense appears to be arbitrary, disproportionate or unjustly reversed. Jeremiah, scratching his head and wiping his tears prays,
You are always righteous, LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? (Jer. 12:1 NIV)
So there was a broad faith that God is always righteous, immutably good, and because of this, there is a real law of sowing and reaping in our world. And yet at the same time, there are many drastic exceptions to what you would expect if it were that simple. But they also noticed that sometimes, the same appearance of God affects witnesses in very different ways. The most famous of these was the incident of the pillar of fire in the wilderness. To Pharaoh’s armies, it was darkness and terror and storm. But to the children of Israel, the same phenomenon brought light and comfort and protection (Exod. 13:21-22; 14:19-20, 24). Thus we see that one’s posture to the very same God greatly determines how we experience him.
We’ll see this in Malachi as well where some experience the Day of the Lord as a purifying “refiner’s fire and a launderer’s soap” (Mal. 3:2-3). The Sun shall rise with healing for some (Mal. 4:2), while others end up as “ashes under the soles of your feet” (Mal. 4:4).
In other words, Psalm 18 applies to this experience as well: to the pure, God is pure and the Purifier. But bring the haughty and their own pride will experience God as a consuming fire.
Two other biblical examples at least illustrate this, and thus become favorite stories for incorporation in early church worship. Remember the story of the three youths thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace (Dan. 3)? Then “one like a son of the gods” or “the Son of God” (KJV vs. 25) appears with them. The early church didn’t take the furnace or its flames as a symbol of God and his glory. Rather, they thought of it as a type of Satan and hell, into which Christ would descend on Holy Saturday to deliver the dead (cf. Catherine Aslanoff, ed., The Incarnate God, Vol. 2, p. 141). The point is that the flames had no effect on the three youths, other than to burn away their bonds, while they consumed those who had been stoking the fire. The longer version of Dan. 3 (which used to be in all Bibles) describes it this way:
And the flame poured out above the furnace forty nine cubits; and it spread out and burnt up those of the Chaldeans it found around the furnace. But the Angel of the Lord came down into the furnace with Azarias and his companions, and shook the flame of the fire out of the furnace. And he made the midst of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it; and the fire did not touch them at all, nor hurt them, nor trouble them. Then the Three as with one voice, hymned, blessed and glorified god in the furnace, saying: Blessed are you , O Lord, the God of our fathers: to be praised and exalted unto the ages.
The other famous example of two experiences of the same encounter comes to us from the Mount of Transfiguration story (Matt. 17:1-9). When the cloud of glory descends to cover the mountain (as it had on Sinai!) and the voice of God speaks, we find Moses and Elijah standing in the midst of the glory, but Peter, James and John fell on their faces in fear. The traditional explanation is that those who have been glorified can stand in the glory, while those who themselves have not been transfigured from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18) are not yet able to withstand the intensity of the “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16).
Ultimately, Eastern Christianity began to see the final judgment, not as a verdict sending two kinds of people (saved and lost) to two different places (heaven and hell), but rather, two experiences of God himself, from whose throne flows a single river of fire (in Dan. 7), which represents the glory of his infinite love. For those who’ve been changed by the fire of love through the power of the Spirit, that love will be experienced as heaven. But for those who are darkened by their own persistent rejection of love, the glorious love of God will be a torment to them (like the coals of mercy in Rom. 12:20), for the “worm” of our own regret will accuse us of resisting perfect love. We can only hope and pray that the mercy of Christ will yet prevail in wooing all hearts to receive love, for while we can be very stubborn, God’s lovingkindness is everlasting.
All of this becomes exceedingly poignant for our own faith journey when it comes to how we perceive God. Following the principle of Psalm 18, to the merciful, God shows himself to be merciful. But to those who who with a lust for judgment and destruction, God appears to them a vengeful God of retribution. Nor is it simply a matter of saying that God is a projection of whatever we believe: love to the loving and wrath to the wrathful. Rather, to the former, appears as he truly is, and to the latter, he appears as they are! A few supporting quotes may be helpful. Though the thought here is complex, the basic lesson is plain: the more Christlike our image of God is, the more it reflects the One True God that Christ revealed. The less Christlike our image of God is, the more it reflects our own temperament.
Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonpetra: “We receive, not simply what we’ve prepared ourselves to receive, but what we’re capable of receiving: what we’re able to contain within ourselves. He who receives is the one who is able to contain what he receives within himself (Matt. 19:12). We receive, then, whatever we’re capable of understanding; in proportion to the idea of God we have.” (The Way of the Spirit, 130).
St. Maximos the Confessor: “God reveals Himself to each person according to each person’s mode of conceiving Him. To those whose aspiration transcends the complex structure of matter, and whose psychic powers are fully integrated in a single, unceasing movement around God, He reveals Himself as Unity and Trinity. To those whose aspiration is limited to the complex structure of matter, and who psychic powers are not integrated, He reveals Himself not as He is but as they are, show that they are completely caught in the material dualism whereby the physical world is conceived as composed of matter and form.” (Philokalia, 2:186).
Without ‘outing’ the author, I read this post today, illustrating the problem perfectly:
“________, I don’t know you all that well … but I would strongly warn you to be quite careful about the doctrines and worldviews espoused by some people online. The Bible is very clear and detailed: He will rule the nations with a rod of iron. He will destroy His enemies with the sword protruding from His mouth (His Words). Yes, Christ came, meek and mild, to save the lost world. But His return (“the great and terrible Day of the Lord”) will be in victorious glory, leading His armies (that’s us). Do not be deceived by someone claiming the ‘God is like Jesus.'”
Where would a critique even begin? Read through the lens of the Cruciform God of the Gospels, the post fails to perceive that the sword that proceeds from the mouth of Christ is the gospel–the good news–and that the reign of Christ is a kingdom of peace established by his love at the Cross. His glorious return will be a victory indeed, but the means of that victory is the blood of the Lamb and the glory of resurrection life. Perhaps the most offensive deception is the notion that God’s armies will ever be actual death-dealing troops … and honestly believing “that’s us.”
Sharing this illustration is risky for those whose spiritual temperament might cause them to perceive God as they are: either so angry or, more likely, so fearful of their perceived enemies that the bloodbath slaughter of millions of human lives seems like good and glorious news. Even more scary, IF he were actually correct, then the lack of mercy and eager desire for wrath would actually put him outside the camp, since it is “to the merciful that He shows Himself merciful.”
But perhaps others will see my point: while we do not all see God the same way, we can all open our hearts further to God’s mercy (for ourselves and for others) and so be empowered to grow in the experiential knowledge of God’s true nature: the great width, height, length and depth of divine love alone.
After all that, I think Jeff Turner gets the last word: The backbone of our message is not fear and terror, but freedom, hope and healing. To miss this is to miss the gospel.