I screwed up, and now I’ve got to suffer the consequences.
How often do we think that?
Even as believers, we sometimes view God as a strict disciplinarian, making sure we “learn our lesson” each time we fail. But is this an accurate view of God? Is He really the angry and wrathful person we imagine Him to be?
A close friend recently called me, upset and worried about a lack of finances. As a full-time student, he doesn’t have a job, and a long-awaited check was smaller than expected. Car insurance, gas to get to school, and other expenses aren’t going away, and there just won’t be enough money to see him through the end of the term.
His immediate reaction was one I’m very familiar with—where did I go wrong? Did I spend too much money over the summer? Should I have looked harder to get a job? (He’s moving out of state as soon as the semester ends, and has been unable to find a temporary, part-time position.) Is God letting me suffer the consequences of missing His will?
When things go wrong, it’s easy to look for blame, and I, at least, tend to blame myself first. Even thought I have no idea how, I assume that I’ve disobeyed God somewhere, and now I deserve whatever’s coming.
Sometimes that’s true. In spite of the new life we have in Jesus, we’re still fallen human beings, and we sure mess up a lot. But as I gently pointed out to my friend, there is a huge difference between open rebellion and making immature mistakes.
I’ve been reading Isaiah and Jeremiah, which tell the story of Israel’s apostasy—open rebellion—and subsequent fall. First one kingdom and then the other succumbs to the armies of the Babylonians. The people who survive the war are carried away into captivity.
If you read straight through both books, the overwhelming sense is one of grief. God isn’t out to get the Israelites. He loves them. He pursues them with promises of prosperity and joy, if only they would turn and come back to Him. He waits while generation after generation breaks His heart, worshiping idols and ignoring the God who would be a husband to them. While in the end God inflicts their punishment, in a very real sense the people’s refusal to repent brought it upon themselves. God will punish rebellion, but it’s not because He’s vindictive. He wants us to come to Him so He can love us.
Compare God’s response to willful disobedience to verses such as Psalm 103: 13-14: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
God doesn’t expect us to be instantly mature, any more than we expect a 2-year-old to be always kind, considerate and patient. When we make mistakes—because it is our nature to make mistakes—He responds with grace and mercy.
Yes, at times we get to suffer the consequences, because that’s how we learn. Just as with a traffic ticket, consequences provide a deterrent to repeating that mistake. However, God doesn’t allow our situation to overwhelm us. There may be some pain involved, but not more than we can handle.
Thankfully, we don’t have to be perfect to ask God for help.
In my friend’s case, he has been trying the best he knows how to listen to God, to obey, to go in the right direction. Yes, he could use a lesson in financial self-control. As a result of earlier spending, he might have to do without a few wants, even though they are very reasonable desires, and that will hurt.
Yet I feel confident that God will supply everything he needs. He’s not going to starve, find himself homeless, be unable to pay for his insurance, etc. God will take care of him, even if he doesn’t deserve it. I don’t think my friend’s financial situation is a punishment so much as yet another lesson about our failings and God’s goodness—with maybe a unit on responsible spending.
Remember, mercy is when we don’t suffer the consequences of the wrong we do, and grace is when we get something good even though we haven’t earned it. Both of those are difficult concepts for us. After all, we really do deserve to pay a penalty when we mess up. It’s counter-intuitive that God should let us off the hook. We are used to being held responsible for our mistakes, and we make plenty of mistakes.
I love the story of the prodigal son. It certainly applies here. The younger son squandered his inheritance in “wild living” and ran out of money. He had absolutely no grounds for requesting help, and he knew it: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” (Luke 15:19) Yet, how does his father respond? Filled with compassion, he provides not only necessities, but an abundance:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. … But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
Yes, we’re going to make bad decisions, disregarding God’s wisdom and direction and choosing to go our own way. This doesn’t surprise God. His main concern isn’t that we always get it right, although we are to do our best to follow Him. He cares most about what the prodigal son did in verse 20: “So he got up and went to his father.” God wants us, warts and all.
When I struggle with accepting God’s grace and mercy, He takes me back to the cross. As I reminded my friend—if God really intended that we suffer all the consequences of every wrong decision, Jesus never would have died for us.