Lighthouse Leader Study Guide
Date: October 16, 2016
Series: While We Wait
2 Thessalonians 3:4-5
This Week’s Printable Resources:
Overview of this Lesson
This week is Week 3 of GO Month at First Family. In our Lighthouses, we will devote specific time each week to praying for one of our partner families. This week our prayer focus will be Tri-Grace Ministries in Utah and Courtney Johnson in Haiti.
We will look specifically at the Love of God this week. One of the things we learn quickly is that we often possess a skewed perspective on the Love of God. You will often hear questions that ask, “How can a loving God allow such evil in our world?” Or, “does God love everyone or does he love only the elect?” These are indeed difficult questions.
In order to avoid a lot of rabbit trails during your Lighthouse Lesson, I’ve purposely avoided these questions in the discussion portion. Still, these questions may come up as part of your group discussion. I’ve provided an excellent article at the conclusion of this week’s Lighthouse Leader Study Guide that will help you navigate some of these questions if they come up. The article is, “Everything I Need to Know About the Love of God I Learned in the Nursery?” from the book The God Who Loves by John MacArthur.
Memory Verse for This Week
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:5
Faithfulness (Proverbs 3:3-4): I have established a good name with God and with others based on my long-term loyalty to those relationships.
This Week’s Take Home Truth
“Long obedience in the same direction is inwardly motivated by both God’s love towards us and Christ’s perseverance for us.”
- Our siblings and childhood friends have often been present during some of our most memorable times. What’s a great memory you share with your siblings or childhood friends?
- Looking back at your notes from this week’s sermon, was there anything that particularly caught your attention, challenged or confused you?
Make sure you ask this question this week. It gives people the opportunity to discuss questions or issues that come up beyond the written questions. People’s responses can often lead into one of the questions in the “Digging Deeper” section. Also, some weeks this question will result in a lot of discussion, other weeks, not so much.
Read the Text (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)
This last major section of the epistle called on its readers to live in the light of the truth previously revealed and by the grace of God just invoked. Read 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5.
2 Thessalonians 3:1–5 (ESV)
1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
In this section, feel free to develop your own questions to help guide your group’s discussion. Below are some suggestions. Remember, if you are hearing from everyone in your group, chances are you won’t have to time to discuss every question. You may start with one that catches your attention so you don’t run out of time. For example, it’s not odd to start with Question #6, then go to Question #5 and if you have time come back to Question #4.
3. How do you think the world around you defines “love”?
Let’s be honest, most of our friends haven’t a clue what love really means. Most of us connect love with relationships—the love of a mother for her child; the love of a husband for his wife—but we also use the concept of “love” in a multitude of ways. I “love” a grilled steak. I “love” the Cubs or Packers. I “loved” that movie.
The truth is, most of us connect the concept of love with an emotion—how we feel about something or someone. Think about how this is reinforced in our culture by the music we listen to:
Nat King Cole sang When I Fall in love…
REO Speedwagon sang Can’t fight this feeling any longer …
Love is usually something that we fight for or against, a feeling or passion for some unfulfilled craving or some expectation that is never quite met.
4. How does biblical love contrast with our cultural concept of love?
As we noted above, our culture’s concept of love seems wrapped up in passion and emotion. It burns hot and dies quickly. We fall in love and fall out of love. It is an uncontrollable force that plays havoc with our emotions and with our concept of self-esteem and self-worth. If you love me, then I am good … attractive … worthy; If you don’t love me, then I am stupid … ugly … worthless.
Contrast this to the biblical concept of love. John MacArthur notes:
‘Love, according to Scripture, is not a helpless sensation of desire. Rather, it is a purposeful act of self-giving. The one who genuinely loves is deliberately devoted to the one loved. True love arises from the will—not from blind emotion. Consider, for example, this description of love from the pen of the apostle Paul:
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).
That kind of love cannot possibly be an emotion that ebbs and flows involuntarily. It is not a mere feeling. All the attributes of love Paul lists involve the mind and volition. In other words, the love he describes is a thoughtful, willing commitment. Also, notice that genuine love “does not seek its own.” That means if I truly love, I’m concerned not with having my desires filled, but with seeking the best for whoever is the object of my love.
So the mark of true love is not unbridled desire or wild passion; it is a giving of oneself. Jesus Himself underscored this when He told His disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). If love is a giving of oneself, then the greatest love is shown by laying down one’s very life. And of course, such love was perfectly modeled by Christ.
5. How would you describe the Love of God to an unbelieving friend, relative, or co-worker?
Here is how Tim Keller defines God’s love:
Man of you have told me, “I can’t figure out God’s love. I don’t see how it really operates. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
God’s love, like God, is a fire. The Bible tells us God is a consuming fire and, therefore, his love is a fire. Now fire is a strange thing. Its properties are such … The heat of fire is, on the one hand, life-giving, but on the other hand, dangerous, consuming, burning, and purifying. In the same way … Well, do you understand that about fire for a minute? It’s warming and refining. It’s life-giving, and it’s also dangerous and painful.
Likewise, we often don’t understand that, on the one hand, God’s love is wonderfully warming, and on the other hand, is dangerous and painful, because God’s love is also life-giving and warming and at the same time refining and purifying. Or, to put it another way, God’s love is more free than we believe, and more expensive, at the same time. Do you know why? God’s love, like God, is a matter of transcendent superlatives.
God’s love is more free than we know and it’s more expensive than we know, and this is one of the things that bothers us. It’s more free than we believe because it reaches out and envelops and heals the most wretched and most hopeless people and conditions. But on the other hand, it’s more expensive, because it is a jealous love. It’s more jealous for our health and for our perfection and for our purity than we are for ourselves.
God’s love is not at all like the sickly, sentimental thing that human love often is. It’s a matter of transcendent superlatives. It’s actually a matter of extremes.
6. This week we distributed a Scripture Sheet with verses that describe God’s Love to us. What qualities can you draw from the verses that are listed below:
Psalm 69:13–But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
Daniel 9:4–I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,
Romans 5:8–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Ephesians 2:4–6 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
The qualities mentioned in these verses are self-evident:
- God’s love is steadfast (unwavering).
- It is God who keeps his promises and loves us unconditionally. It is through the power of His Spirit and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that we keep his commandments and live according to His word. (This is a work of the Spirit in us, not the self will of the flesh.)
- God’s love for us is not based on our performance; he loved us when we were unlovable.
These questions are given to prompt both reflection and learning on a personal level, and should likely be completed individually and apart from your regular group time.
7. Looking back at this week’s teaching and study, what’s the most important thing to remember?
8. The terms ‘love of God’ and ‘patience of Christ’ are indications that ‘every virtue we possess, and every conquest won, and every thought of holiness are His alone’. Does this encourage as well as challenge you?
Everything I Need to Know About the Love of God I Learned in the Nursery?
By John MacArthur
Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
From childhood most of us have heard that God loves us. The Bible tells us that love is at the very heart of who God is: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16, emphasis added) and He is “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor. 13:11). Those truths are so wonderful that they are always among the first things we teach our children about God. And that is as it should be.
But don’t get the idea that God’s love is only a child’s subject. And don’t think that you have mastered the subject by absorbing what you were taught as a child. This subject is certainly not child’s play. As we have seen already, God’s love raises some very complex and sometimes disturbing questions. These questions need to be thought through carefully and answered biblically.
I promised at the very beginning of this book that we would return to deal with some of the hard questions the truth of God’s love brings to mind. Even after all we’ve learned about the issue in the preceding chapters, we must still admit that these questions are among the hardest dilemmas any pastor or theologian will ever be faced with: If God is love, why is the world such a theater of tragedy? If God is so loving, why does He allow His own people to suffer? If “God so loved the world”—then why does He allow all the suffering and torture and pain and sorrow and grief and death? If God is both loving and omnipotent, then why is the world such a mess? Why would a loving God ever allow wars and famines and disasters to cause so much human anguish?
If God is the loving Father of humanity, why doesn’t He act like a human father who loves his children? Why does He allow His creatures to make choices that result in their destruction, when He could prevent it or overrule it? If God is a loving God, why did He allow sin in the first place, and why death?
There are more questions, and they get even harder: If God is love, why isn’t everyone saved? Why are only some said to be “elect,” chosen by God to eternal life (cf. Matt. 22:14; 2 Tim. 2:10)? Why would a loving God send people to hell to suffer forever? Why would a loving God devise a plan that has so many people going to hell for all eternity?
What kind of love is it that can control the world but allows the world to suffer the way it suffers? What kind of love is it that is sovereign and yet sends poor, suffering people to an eternal flame? How are we to understand that kind of love?
Wrong Answers to the Hard Questions About God’s Love
Those questions are reasonable, and they need to be faced honestly. It won’t do to pretend such difficulties are easy to answer, or simply ignore them and hope they go away. Anyone who thinks deeply about God will eventually come face-to-face with those very questions and others like them. They are unsettling, vexing, even bewildering questions. Genuinely satisfying answers to them are elusive. There’s no point in pretending such questions should pose no problems for the Christian.
In fact, history reveals that those who settle for easy answers to these questions often make shipwreck of the faith. Usually they will cite Scripture selectively and ignore half of some important biblical truth while grossly overemphasizing the other half. And so they tend to go to extremes. The casualty list of those who have run on the rocks over these questions is enough to make the discerning Christian realize that these are hazardous waters to navigate.
Universalism, for example, teaches that in the end everyone will be saved. Universalists believe that because God is love, He cannot eternally condemn anyone. In the end, they believe, hell will not even exist. Some teach that the devil and his fallen angels will be redeemed. As we shall shortly see, Scripture contradicts such a view (Rev. 20:10).
Another attempt to solve the dilemma posed by God’s love is a theory known as annihilationism. Under this scheme, God takes believers to heaven and puts the rest out of existence. They experience no conscious punishment or suffering; they are judged by having their existence terminated. According to this view, therefore, there is no such place as eternal hell. Many cults and apostate denominations have embraced this doctrine.
A doctrine closely related to annihilationism is a theory known as conditional immortality. This view suggests that the human soul is transient until immortality is bestowed upon it. Since eternal life is given only to believers, all others simply pass into oblivion after the final judgment. This view is gaining popularity these days, but it too contradicts Scripture (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 14:11).
Those views may serve to salve human emotion to some degree, but they don’t do justice to what Scripture teaches. Therefore, they are errors—and extremely dangerous ones at that, because they give people a false sense of safety. Jesus Himself described hell in graphic terms. In fact, He had more to say about hell than anyone else in Scripture. He described it as a place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48). He called hell “outer darkness; (where) there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 25:30). He warned unbelievers about the judgment to come: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being cast out” (Lk. 13:28). He described hell as “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12) and a “furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42). And He warned those who heard Him preach, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43).
Furthermore, Revelation 14:11 describes hell’s torments as unremitting and eternal: “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night.” Revelation 20:10 states, “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Matthew 25:46 says, “These unbelievers will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” That verse employs the same Greek word for “eternal” (aionios—meaning “perpetual, everlasting, forever”) to describe both the bliss of heaven and the punishments of hell.
Embracing any of these theories also usually has the effect of making people indifferent to evangelism. They begin to feel comfortable that everyone will either be saved or put out of misery, so evangelism loses its urgency. The gospel seems less compelling. It becomes easy to kick back and think less about eternal matters. And that is precisely the effect these theories have had in churches and denominational groups where they have been espoused. As the churches become liberal, the “Christians” influenced by them become cold to spiritual things. Many times they deny the faith altogether. The history of universalism provides abundant evidence of this. Because the doctrine is at its heart a denial of Scripture, it is a sure road to serious apostasy.
But one can easily err in the other direction as well. As I noted earlier, there are some Christians who ponder the hard questions about divine love and conclude that God simply does not love people who aren’t His own; He hates them. Under this scheme, there’s no tension between the love of God and His wrath. There’s no reason to wonder how God can love people whom He ultimately condemns, because you simply conclude that whoever He condemns He hates. The non-elect are people whom God never loved in any sense. People who hold this view are quick to remind that God is angry with the wicked (Ps. 7:11); that He loved Jacob but hated Esau (Rom 9:13); and that He hates those who practice wickedness (Prov. 6:16–19). They conclude that such hatred and genuine love are mutually exclusive. Therefore according to this view, the love of God is limited to the elect alone.
That view doesn’t do justice to Scripture, either. It restricts God’s love to a remnant, and pictures Him hating the vast majority of humanity. In terms of sheer numbers, it suggests that God’s hatred for humanity overwhelms His love. That is not consistent with the God of Scripture, who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exod. 34:6). It doesn’t seem befitting for the One whom Scripture describes as “a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness” (Neh. 9:17). And it doesn’t seem consistent with the truth of Psalm 145:8–9: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (emphasis added).
And what about “God so loved the world” (Jn. 3:16)? I realize that there are some good commentators who have tried to limit the meaning of the word “world” in this verse to the elect alone. As noted in chapter 1, however, that view seems to run contrary to the whole thrust of the passage. John Calvin correctly saw this verse as a statement that “the Father loves the human race.” In fact, the whole point of verse 17 is to assert that Christ’s advent was a search-and-rescue mission, not a crusade for judgment: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (v. 17). The point is that God’s primary purpose in sending Christ was born out of love, not a design to condemn. Christ’s purpose in coming was to save, not to destroy.
Inevitably, those who want to limit the meaning of “world” in verse 16 will suggest that “world” in verse 17 cannot include every individual in the world, unless this passage is teaching a form of universalism. The verse says Christ came so that the world might be saved through Him. Obviously not every individual in the world is saved. Therefore, they suggest, “world” in both verses must be limited to the elect alone, and the verse can only mean, “God so loved the elect.”
But “world” in this context seems clearly to speak of humanity in general. If we try to make the term mean either “every individual” or “the elect alone,” the passage simply makes no sense. The word “world” here is a synonym for the human race. Humanity in general is the object of divine love. And verse 17 simply means that Christ came to redeem this fallen race—not every individual, but humanity as a race. Titus 3:4 also speaks of God’s love in these very terms: “The kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared” (emphasis added). The whole sweep of these texts seems to be saying that in a broad sense God’s love is set on the whole human race, not just the remnant of elect individuals.
Indeed, to make good sense of this passage, we must interpret the expression “world” in verses 16 and 17 as broadly as we understand the same word in verse 19: “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.” Clearly the word “world” has a universal and corporate aspect that envelops more than just the elect alone. God’s love is for the world in general, the human race, all humanity.
So how are we to understand Romans 9:13: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”? Did God really hate Esau? Yes. He hated the evil Esau represented. He hated Esau’s unbelief and sin and worldliness. And in a very real sense, God hated Esau himself. It was not a petty, spiteful, childish kind of hatred, but something far more dreadful. It was divine antipathy—a holy loathing directed at Esau personally. God abominated him as well as what he stood for.
Esau, for his part, hated the things of God. He despised His birthright and sold it for one bowl of lentil stew (Gen. 25:34). He brought nothing but grief to his parents (26:35). He plotted to kill his own brother (27:41). He married pagan women because he knew it displeased his father (28:8–9). He lived a careless, worldly life of utter disregard and disrespect for the God of his ancestors. Certainly God hated all that, as well as Esau himself.
It is worth pointing out that the passage Paul quotes in Romans 9 is Malachi 1:2–3. God was speaking of two nations, Israel and Edom, merely calling them by the names of their respective ancestors. The words “I have hated Esau” (Mal. 1:3) have a meaning that goes beyond Esau himself and encompasses the whole evil nation of Edom. The hatred this describes is not a petty, spiteful loathing, but a holy abhorrence of people who were thoroughly and absolutely debauched.
But God’s hatred for Esau and the nation of Edom does not prove that He had no love, no compassion, and no charity whatsoever to Esau or his descendants. In fact, we know from Scripture that God was kind to this despicable nation. When the Israelites left Egypt on their way to Canaan, they passed through the land of Edom. God firmly instructed Moses, “Do not provoke them, for I will not give you any of their land, even as little as a footstep because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession” (Deut. 2:5).
This holy hatred combined with lovingkindness implies no inconsistency or equivocation on God’s part. Both love and wrath are reflections of His nature; He is loving, yet holy. He is compassionate, yet indignant over evil. As I have already noted, hatred and love are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Even in the range of human emotions, such feelings are quite common. Most people know very well what it is to hate and love the same object at the same time. One might, for example, have both sincere compassion yet deep revulsion toward a filthy tramp who has lived a life of dissipation.
Furthermore, as any parent knows, wrath and love do not rule out one another. We know that God is often angry with those who are the objects of His everlasting love. After all, before salvation, even the elect are enemies of God (Rom. 5:10); “children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). Conversely, God genuinely and sincerely loves those who are the objects of His eternal wrath.
We simply cannot resolve the difficult questions about divine love by concluding that God actually withholds His lovingkindness, compassion, mercy, and goodwill from all but the elect.
So we must reject universalism, annihilationism, and conditional immortality. But we must also refuse the notion that God’s hatred for the wicked rules out any love for them. How then shall we answer the hard questions about divine love?
One other solution is often suggested. It is to tell those inclined to ask hard questions, “Shut your mouth. You have no right to ask the question.” People who take this approach will point to Romans 9:20–21, where the apostle Paul replied to a skeptic of God’s sovereignty by saying, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ’Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?”
Who are we to question God? That is what Paul asks. God is God. He will do whatever He wants to do because He is completely sovereign. He is the Potter. He decides what the pot will be like. And the pot has no right to object.
Obviously, that is all very true. God is God. We cannot comprehend His ways. Many of the questions we ask have answers we could never comprehend. Certainly we have no right to challenge God’s motives. We are not entitled to subject Him to our interrogation, as if He were accountable to us. And sometimes the questions we raise do not even deserve to be answered. In the end, we will be left with many unanswered questions. That will bring us to Romans 9:20 and the inevitable place where we must simply close our mouths and stand in awe.
Before we get to that point, there are many things that we do need to understand. Romans 9:20 is a fitting response to a skeptic. It is appropriate for the person who will not be satisfied with knowing what God Himself has revealed. But for the truth-seeker sincerely wanting to understand God and His love, there is much in the Bible to help him come to grips with the hard questions before coming to a stop at Romans 9:20.
That is not to say that we can find all the answers to our hardest questions. We can’t. Take, for example, the very difficult question of why a loving God does not redeem everyone. If God is love, why does He send some people to an endless hell? Why doesn’t He redeem everyone?
We simply do not know. Scripture doesn’t say. God Himself does not reveal to us the answers to those questions. Anyone who pretends to know more than God has told us is foolish.
Ultimately we reach the place where we must leave our questions to God and trust His essential righteousness, His lovingkindness, His tender mercy, and His justice. We learn to live with the unanswered questions in light of what we know to be true about God. At that point, Romans 9:20 becomes a satisfying answer, because we know we can trust the Potter. Meanwhile, as we search God’s Word with an open heart, God’s own self-revelation gives us a wonderful, marvelous, rich, comprehensible understanding of His love.
Wrong Questions Based on a Wrong Perspective of God
In grappling with the hard questions about God’s love it is crucial to bear in mind that human tendency to see things from the wrong perspective. We cannot comprehend an infinite God with our finite minds. If we attempt to measure God from a human perspective, all our thinking about Him will be out of whack. And we sin against God when we think things of Him that are unbefitting of His glory.
God Himself rebukes those who underestimate Him by thinking of Him in human terms: “You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you, and state the case in order before your eyes” (Ps. 50:21).
Remember how the book of Job ends? After all Job’s suffering, and his friends’ counsel that actually added to his sufferings, God rebuked not only Job’s counselors, but also Job himself, for entertaining thoughts about God that were not sufficiently high. Both Job and his counselors were attempting to explain God in human terms. They were trying to make sense of what Job was going through, but their failure to see God as far above His creatures had skewed their view of what was happening. The counselors were giving the wrong answers, and Job was asking the wrong questions. God put some questions of His own to Job:
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who enclosed the sea with doors, when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; when I made a cloud its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and I placed boundaries on it, and I set a bolt and doors, and I said, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop”? Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, and caused the dawn to know its place; that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? (Job 38:2–13).
I love that portion of Scripture! God is recounting His own creative works, and asking if Job is wise enough to tell God how these things are to be done. From this point on, for three or four chapters, God lists the marvels of His creation and challenges Job to tell Him if he knows better than God how the universe ought to be run. Rather than seeking to vindicate Himself in Job’s eyes, God simply appealed to His own sovereignty. “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it” (40:1).
Job, wise enough to know when he had said too much already, simply replied, “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; Even twice, and I will add no more” (vv. 4–5).
Then God asked Job, “Will you really annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? Or do you have an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like His?” (Job 40:8–9). Job’s questions, valid as they may have seemed for someone who had suffered all Job had suffered, actually cast aspersions on God’s character. Job was stepping over the line if he thought he could justify himself at God’s expense.
Job, by God’s own testimony, was a blameless and upright man. There was no one like Job on the face of the earth (Job 1:8). Yet he suffered—probably more than anyone else had ever suffered. Job was not as deserving of such suffering as anyone else would have been. Why was he taking the brunt of so much catastrophe? Where was God’s love and His sense of justice and fair play? It was inevitable that Job would struggle with some very difficult questions like those, as people do today.
But the moment his questions reflected misgivings about God—His wisdom, His love, His goodness, and the equity of His justice—Job and his friends had crossed the line. They were appraising God by human standards. They forgot that He is the Potter and we are merely the clay. So God rebuked them.
Job immediately saw his sin: “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).
We need to bear in mind as we ponder the love and the wrath of God that in many ways these things touch on knowledge “too wonderful” for us. “It is too high, we cannot attain to it” (Ps. 139:6). “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge, and informed Him of the way of understanding?” (Isa. 40:13–14). And “Who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him?” (1 Cor. 2:16). Those are the same kinds of questions with which God confronted Job.
Therefore as we ponder our own hard questions about God’s love, we must take great care lest the very questions themselves provoke us to think inadequate or inappropriate thoughts about God or develop sinful attitudes toward His love and wisdom.
Wrong Inferences from a Faulty View of Divine Providence
We dare not make the error Job’s counselors made, thinking we can observe the workings of providence and thereby discern the mind of God. Job’s friends thought his sufferings were proof that Job was guilty of some secret sin. In reality, the opposite was true. Since it is clear from many scriptures that we cannot know God’s mind, we must not try to read too much into His works of providence.
By that, I mean we cannot assume we know the meaning or purpose of every fortune or disaster that befalls. Often the unrighteous seem to prosper and experience God’s goodness: “The tents of the destroyers prosper, and those who provoke God are secure, whom God brings into their power” (Job 12:6). “I have seen a violent, wicked man spreading himself like a luxuriant tree in its native soil” (Ps. 37:35). “Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth” (Ps. 73:12). So what often seems like divine blessing is no proof of God’s favor. Don’t think for a moment that prosperity is proof of divine approval. Those who think in those terms are prone to go astray.
On the other hand, the righteous frequently suffer: “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). But God uses such suffering to accomplish much good: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).
In other words, the very thing that seems good will end in evil for the impenitent and unbelieving. But for God’s own children, even trouble and discipline are intended for good (Gen. 50:20). Therefore the greatest disaster from our perspective may actually be a token of God’s lovingkindness.
The area where I live is active with earthquakes. Over the years we have experienced regular tremors. I never feel the earth shake that I don’t also think of the infinite might of our God. At 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994, I was suddenly awakened by the most severe tremor I have ever felt. That earthquake, which lasted less than ninety seconds, leveled several freeway overpasses very close to my home. A high-rise medical office building in the vicinity dropped ten feet when the second floor collapsed. A large shopping mall was virtually destroyed. Hundreds of apartment buildings and homes were demolished. Sadly, several people asleep in one building were crushed to death when the ground floor crumbled underneath the weight of two upper stories. From a financial perspective it was the most costly natural disaster in the history of our nation.
Everyone seems to see the hand of God in such an event. In the midst of our city’s crisis, we suddenly heard newscasters and civic officials openly discussing the awesome power of God and speculating on whether the earthquake (and a wave of other civic and natural disasters that had befallen southern California in recent years) might contain some message from the Almighty.
Someone noted that the epicenter of the earthquake was in an area well-known as a major production center for pornography. Sadly, many Christians were confidently declaring that the earthquake was God’s judgment on the community. It was proof, they said, that God was finally fed up with the sins of southern California. This was such a topic of conversation that one of the major networks sent their top news anchor to interview me for a story on the earthquake as a judgment of God. One of the first questions the anchorman asked was whether I thought the earthquake was a divine judgment.
My response surprised him. I said I thought God had shown more mercy than judgment in the earthquake. After all, it occurred at an hour when most people were at home in bed, on a Monday that was a government holiday. Fewer people were on the roads than at any other time during the week. The national media had shown scenes of vehicles trapped on islands of roadway where portions of a bridge had collapsed in front of and behind them. Incredibly, not one vehicle had fallen to the ground below. Freeways collapsed, parking structures crumbled, and high-rise office buildings fell. Many people I know narrowly escaped death or serious injury. But of the millions of people living in the quake area, fewer than sixty were killed! In fact, the most remarkable thing of all about the earthquake was the low death toll.
On reflection, then, what most of the world saw as a catastrophe, what most Christians assumed was a severe judgment, was undoubtedly a token of divine mercy. It surely was a warning of greater judgment to come. But like most incidents that we deem tragedies, the quake undoubtedly held a mixture of both the goodness and the severity of God. In my estimation, the blessings far outweighed the calamity.
Clearly, however, we cannot know the mind of God. There are, therefore, many pitfalls to avoid in both asking and answering the hard questions about God’s love. The subject is not child’s play. With those things in mind, we can delve into what God Himself reveals in His Word—and surely we will find that it is a very fruitful study.
Two Aspects of the Love of God
In the chapters that follow, we’re going to examine the love of God in even greater depth. We’ll attempt to keep a balanced perspective of God’s universal love for all men and women, and His particular love—a saving love—for His chosen ones, the elect. As we weave together many threads of thought, please try to avoid jumping to preliminary conclusions. Once we have a full picture of all that Scripture has to say about the love of God, all the different strands of truth will make a rich tapestry. Some things may not seem to make sense until we step back and look at the finished work. But when we see the big picture, it is breathtaking.
These two aspects of God’s love—His universal love for all humanity, and His particular love for the elect—must not be confounded. To affirm that God loves the elect with a saving love is not to suggest that He has no love whatsoever for the rest of humanity. And to acknowledge that God genuinely loves even those whom He does not save is not to impute any kind of feebleness to God. In the end, none of His purposes are thwarted, and every aspect of His love perfectly declares His glory.
Source: John F. MacArthur Jr., The God Who Loves (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).