Thursday, September 20, 2012

Day 18: Uncomfortable Tension

Today's Reading: Romans 9:5-33

What might make you uncomfortable:

Knowing God intimately means grappling with truths that stand in tension due to our limited human understanding. How we embrace God in this mystery can be a test or indicator of our Christian maturity.

Today's Devotional:

Two powerful truth's about God's nature are explored in today's reading in Romans: the mercy of God and the judgment of God.

Both of these attributes teach us something powerful about the God we serve. At the same time, at times these truths stand in tension before us. Sometimes our circumstances or personalities cause us to identify with the mercy of God. Other times we are drawn towards God's judgment. Occasionally, life events cause us to be offended with God's sovereign mercy or justice. In some ways, our spiritual maturity is tested as we learn to live in this tension.

Uncomfortable Mercy

The Epistle to the Romans stands as one of the most through and powerful theological explanations of the grace of God, but it's not until here in Romans 9 that Paul explores the mercy of God.

Grace is the "the free and unmerited favor of manifested in the bestowal of blessings" (New Oxford American Dictionary). Essentially, when we experience grace, we receive something good when we don't deserve it.

Mercy is the "compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm" (New Oxford American Dictionary). We receive mercy when we deserve punishment but are forgiven without merit.

Grace is blessing without merit. Mercy is forgiveness without merit. Mercy is a powerful attribute of God's character. Moses himself heard God said "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy" (Exodus 33:19).

As Romans 9 explains, God in His sovereignty chose to show mercy to Israel. Israel was adopted by God, given the glory and covenants of God, chosen to establish temple worship, led by patriarchs, and entrusted with the ancestry of Christ (9:4-5). What did Israel do to earn this awesome responsibility? Nothing.

This is exactly Paul's point. God shows us mercy apart from our works. Paul goes forward to demonstrate how the patriarchs of the Hebrews, Abraham (9:8), Isaac, (9:9), and Jacob (9:13) were all unequally deserving of mercy but received it anyway.

It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy (9:16)

Mercy is given by God according to His choice, not ours.

Uncomfortable Judgment

God distributes mercy according to His will and His sovereign grace. In the same way, God delivers judgment according to His will. Justice is not given according to human logic or reason but according to the will of God.

As Paul appealed to the Hebrew patriarchs in regards to mercy, he also explains the concept of God's judgment through the example of Pharaoh, another important historical person to the Hebrew People.

We know from Exodus that God gave Pharaoh many chances to repent and release Israel from slavery. Two times Moses pleads with Pharaoh. Scripture says that in response to Moses, Pharaoh "hardened his heart" (Exodus 8:15, 8:31).

Pharaoh hardened his heart and chose not to respond to God. In response, God exercised His right to judge Pharaoh. As a result, God Himself hardens Pharaoh's heart. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart is attributed to God in Exodus 9:12; 10:20,27; 11:10; and 14:8.

Just like described in our devotional on Romans 1, there are times when God exercises judgment by leaving us to our own devices. He allows people to be turned over to the lust of the flesh and removes His leadership from their lives. He opposes them as a result of their pride, leaving them in a state of spiritual darkness.

Addressing Objections

Paul often wrote in a style known as "diatribe." Imagine if Paul were reading this letter aloud and being interrupted by a heckler. Paul anticipates the voice of this heckler and uses rhetorical questions to address arguments against God's word.

Two objections addressed by Paul in Romans 9:

  1. The Objection to Mercy:God is not just. Paul uses the diatribe style to state this objection in 9:15. "Is God unjust?," Paul asks.

  2. The Objection to Judgment:God is not fair. "Why does God blame us?," Paul demands.

In the style of the Book of Job, rather that specifically addressing the question, Paul attacks the pride behind the question itself. Paul reminds readers that...

  • God has a sovereign choice to distribute mercy and wrath as He wishes (9:18).
  • We are not in a position to question God's choice (9:21).
  • Without wrath, Israel would not have been rescued from Egypt.
  • God used wrath against Israel's enemies to prepare the nations to receive mercy (9:22-24).
  • Without mercy, Israel would not know God (9:25-26).

Truly, we do not want God to be just. It was not perfectly just to Jesus to take on our punishment. But because God suspended justice, we now have mercy.

Furthermore, we do not want God to be fair. God chooses to not treat everyone equally not out of favoritism, but out of love. He custom crafts a plan for each of us to know Him better. He is intentional with each one of us. In God's Kingdom, we all get special treatment like Jacob.

Living in Tension

For some, God's sovereign choice can be a "stumbling block" (9:32). We can feel angry and afraid of God for being a judge, but also confused regarding mercy. Paul closes today's reading with this:

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.”

Without the mercy of God we are all subject to God's judgment. We cannot work out way out of wrath nor can we earn our way into blessing. We are totally dependent on God for righteousness and live by faith.

Don't let God's sovereign wrath and mercy be a stumbling stone. Instead, chose to celebrate in His grace. The tension is simply beyond our comprehension.

A God we can't question simply isn't comfortable. What if He does something we don't understand..or worse...what if He does something we disagree with?

A God like that certainly isn't like us. But who wants a God like that?


What is harder for your to grapple with emotionally, the mercy or the wrath of God? Explore the reason for that emotion in prayer.

Finally, relinquish your right to understand God's ways. It is often in our admission of powerlessness that God supplies the most revelation.

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