God isn’t as nice as I think I would often like Him to be. He isn’t as nice as I think most people imagine Him to be. I suspect that many people mentally mold God into a shape that they can comfortably worship, or “celebrate,” as is so popular in the 21st century. But when we have molded whatever we are worshiping, isn’t that a false god? When we devote ourselves to a god that doesn’t match our own scriptures, aren’t we arming our atheist friends with reasonable arguments?
I’ve addressed this before, in “God is Good,” but I had a very interesting conversation with some Christian friends in Africa recently that brought these thoughts to the surface yet again, like Nessie in that famous lake in Scotland. I spent a night in a sleeping bag on the rocky north shore of Loch Ness once, and I found it amazing what my mind will do to make itself comfortable. In spite of the fact that I didn’t honestly believe that a prehistoric dinosaur-like creature actually lived in the cold black waters splashing at my feet, I slept better once I brushed-in my sleeping bag for camouflage and placed it far enough from the water that Nessie’s long neck couldn’t reach it. I’m suggesting that man does something similar with God, but in reverse.
I made something real in my head, out of fiction, then began to protect myself from getting too close to it. Men make something fictional in their heads, out of reality, to make themselves comfortable with drawing close to it.
In the recent conversation, my Christian friend urged the point that God desires to heal everyone, both physically and spiritually. I respectfully dissented. We both held strong to our positions. He correctly asserted that God is a good God, and explained that a good Father would not give His son a serpent if he asks for a fish. (Luke 11:11) I pointed out the story of the Pool of Bethesda (John 5), where Jesus heals one man at the pool, but apparently leaves all the rest to their sufferings. We worked through this and other stories of Jesus’ healing, and finally agreed to disagree.
Having continued to ponder this, I kept studying, so now, in addition to the installment mentioned above, please consider the account of Jesus and a leper told in Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 5. As the story goes, Jesus was moving through the villages of Galilee, around Capernaum, and a man with a serious skin disease approached Him, requesting healing. But instead of simply tugging at Jesus’ cloak, as a woman once did, or asking Him directly, as many have done, this man said “If you are willing, you can heal me.”
This is where it gets interesting. A 2011 version of the New International Version of the Bible then says “Jesus was indignant.” Pretty much any other translation, in that same verse, says “Filled with compassion, Jesus. . .” The English Standard version says “Moved with pity. . .” All this reminds me of the old Sesame Street game: “Which one of these is not like the other?” (I wonder if they still play such a “divisive” game)
“Jesus was indignant” This is in the Bible Gateway NIV today. When I saw this, as compared to the other versions, I had to look up the Greek:
I don’t know whether some manuscripts say one thing and others say different, but all the greek bibles I can find have nothing about “being indignant.” So how would one arrive at Jesus being indignant? Being indignant is clearly not the same as being filled with tenderness or compassion or being moved with pity.
Regardless of whether this is a difference in translations or manuscripts, here’s the problem: “Moved with pity” (ESV) might imply that Jesus suddenly acted with more compassion than usual. Then again, it might imply that constantly existing pity was simply the emotion that drove his actions at the moment. That would suggest that Jesus might not always be as nice as we want, or at least that “niceness” was not always his motivation. But in the 2011 NIV we find our Lord to be “indignant” which would suggest that He was always so interested in healing that He would be insulted or offended if someone were to question His willingness to heal. (Like some modern American Christians maybe) Oddly enough, suddenly “indignant” could be seen as consistently “nicer” than suddenly “motivated by compassion,” as this would be the exception to the rule, rather than the rule.
Without getting into what I’ve learned about the aorist greek verb tense, suffice it to say that Jesus was “filled with compassion” deep in His past, and this is what He acted upon – what moved Him – at the point that the leper requested it. The Bible makes it clear that He always had the compassion, but it wasn’t always the driving force of each individual act, though it was the compulsion to take on the human form initially and to take the cross.
But there’s more. Because someone fabricated the idea that He would be indignant at the suggestion that He’s not always willing to heal, the meaning of “I am willing” has been bent as well. θέλω means simply, “I want” or “I am willing.” It does not mean “I always want” – θέλω πάντα. It is a present-indicative verb.
This is getting complicated, but that seems to be a requisite of going deeper into understanding God’s character. Apparently, Jesus always had compassion. He was sometimes specifically moved by such compassion. And based on that, on occasion, he deliberately healed people.
He was and is always nice, but one way that we are made in the image of God is that one single characteristic or emotion is not always what motivates us to action. Jesus didn’t heal everyone, and doesn’t heal everyone. But this is not because He doesn’t care – just the contrary – sometimes He cares too much to limit our suffering, because He knows what it will produce in us. This is “nice” or “not nice” – take your pick – like the dad who refuses to bail his son out of jail.
The point of all of this is that I refuse to try to mold God into something to which I can comfortably devote myself. I love Him because He created me and He loves me and shows it. Not because I understand Him or because I agree with His methods. I would rather study and understand than simply assume what I want or what I fear, like I did with Nessie. If I am to worship a God, I want it to be the real thing.