I’m up to my neck in a Jeremiah study this fall.
There’s a Bible study in Kentucky of which I am an honorary, if distant, member. When I lived in Nashville, I drove up once a week to pore over this or that book in the Old Testament with these people, and six years later, I’ve kept at least loosely up as they’ve plowed through the major prophets. The understanding these long-distance studies have opened in my heart cannot be measured. Take, for instance, the spring of Isaiah
One blustery spring Saturday about three years ago, my dear friend (the teacher) came over during one of my Kentucky visits just so I could spill my hundred and three questions about our current Isaiah study. Rain light poured in a bay window over the table where we sat with coffee, Bibles open, notebooks spread, pens in hand. For three hours–three hours, mind you–we talked our way through Isaiah. At the end of it, I remember sitting back in my spindle-legged chair, that pure, grey light in my eyes and a light just as serene in my spirit. Finally, that day, I grasped that God’s judgment is part of his love
I saw mercy in those epic books of judgment. I never thought I would. My walk with God has often been marred by my fear of him. Not a holy reverence, but a cringing, slave-like terror that I would never be enough to please the God I serve. For a while, this fear so shaped my eyes I could barely open the Bible without finding some new thing to worry about, some new evidence of my own perpetual inadequacy and God’s resulting frown.
I came to my quiet time one day, Bible in hand, and told God I really didn’t want to open it. I was not strong enough, I felt, for the challenge of Scripture. Obviously, I failed to grasp whatever it was that set everyone else rejoicing. But I did pray. I begged to know God’s love and in the silence that followed, God spoke so clearly in my heart it startled me. I must open my Bible. He could, he said, hold me safe through this fear, teach me the truth about himself. But only if I would engage again. Only if I would open that Bible in my hands, plunge into the battle and let him fight for me. I sighed and resigned myself to my task. My study of Isaiah began in sheer obedience. I remember this now as I delve into Jeremiah, because each day I find myself awed.
I keep on finding mercy, right there in the judgment. Mercy so epic in story and scope, my soul is wide with it, and my faith finally has air to breathe. The thing I ached to know and am finally touching as I study the prophets is simply God’s grace. But this is key, I have realized that grace has many faces. There is the tender, father-hearted face. I’ve seen this clear as water in Jeremiah. This is the face that weeps when his children go astray, crying out for the lost ones to return. There is the strong, kingly face of kindly rule. The benevolent Master offering rain and gladness and wine and feasts if his people will only acknowledge his name. There is the Lover who yearns over the wife of his youth, lamenting her beauty, her lost faith.
But when those faces of goodness fail to move the hearts of a dark-spirited people, a new face appears. There is the face of the Maker, the keeper of all power who wields lightning and wind and forms the mountains. There is the frown of the holy-hearted Spirit who cannot bear to see his people turn from goodness to worship idols and destroy their children. And there is the final face of judgment, the stern, stone-set gaze that brings pain on the children he made.
But every one of those faces is mercy. Every one of those faces is rooted in love, begun and ended in grace. What would happen if God didn’t judge his people? What if he left them to go about their merry, idolatrous way and said not a thing? What if God left me to the vagaries of my own sinful self? Judgment is what happens when tenderness and tears are not enough. If we will not have the personal God, the Lover, then we shall be left with the elemental God, the Maker of the the mighty heavens and the pathless earth. And every force of his holy, creative power will run through us as a purging fire.
But the fire, the pain, is mercy. It is destruction with the goal of redemption. Over and over throughout the prophets, God states the goal of his judgment: a people who no longer need law or rod because goodness is etched on their very hearts, formed in their very souls. The goal of judgment is annihilation only of our sin. We, ourselves, come through cleansed. We may be broken apart, but it is only so that the dirt drops off and God can craft us beautiful again.
The miracle is that God sticks around to see it through. Any other god would just zap the sinful lot of us and be done. To bring nations and peoples through the process of a judgment that leads to full redemption is a true, everlasting love. It is a faithful love that is not willing to leave us in sin, nor finish us in anger. Love is the only force I know that works throughout every change to bring about the goodness, restore the beauty of the beloved. I used to be afraid of the prophets in all their bluster. Now, I know, they are just expressing the storm of God’s grand and many-faced mercy.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she’s not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.