Is God Severe…or Kind and Gracious?

That question is like asking me, “Syd, what is your favorite kind of pie”?

Pie, in my book, is the king of all deserts. So when people ask which is my favorite, I respond with a smile and a “yes.” Truth be known, my favorite-of-all is actually Marion berry. Wait…maybe it’s really peach. But then there’s pumpkin…with whipped cream….

In the book Fear and Wonder I have attempted to answer the question whether God is severe or kind. After carefully searching the Scriptures I have discovered the answer is unequivocally “yes.” God is both kind and severe. We simply can’t isolate one of His characteristics from the rest. His attributes are not a box of chocolates where I can pick my favorite flavor and ignore the rest.

In fact, those two attributes, kindness and severity, are the very words Paul chose to use in Romans 11:22, where he writes: “Note then the kindness and severity of God….” Two words that appear to be separated by miles on a personality test have been harnessed together to describe, not two distinct people, but one Person. Several other words are used throughout Scripture to complement these two attributes of kindness and severity.

God’s kindness is described by words such as mercy, grace, patience and love—words we love to think about or sing about. His severity has been described with words like justice, wrath, vengeance and judgment—words we are less comfortable talking about and are very unlikely to sing about. In Romans 11:22, Paul uses both severity and kindness to describe God’s response to Israel’s disobedience and rejection of their Messiah. God severely cut off Israel—like pruning off an unfruitful branch—while at the same time, displaying His off-the-chart kindness by actually grafting Gentiles into the tree.

You will need to get the book (tentatively scheduled for release in June 2019) to discover my expanded commentary on Romans 11:22. That is not the purpose of this blog. In fact, I am reaching back to last week’s comments about the “pendulum effect ”as the Church swings between emphasizing God’s more severe and gentle attributes.

I have witnessed the pendulum swing between God as a cosmic cop or a doting grandfather. In Fear and Wonder I describe how my early impressions about God were shaped by a legalistic congregation—where we were frequently warned about God’s wrath and judgment. Evangelistic sermons blazed with visions of hell and God’s wrath. I remember praying as a child in a Sunday School class, asking Jesus into my heart in order to avoid a fiery hell. Looking back, it was more like taking out a fire insurance policy than falling in love with Jesus. Such an experience adversely affected my spiritual journey for decades. I fell in love with the Church, the Bible, and preaching and teaching, but Jesus seldom felt up close and personal.

I learned to preach while a teenager driving a farm tractor. A good sermon, in my home church, was judged by its volume and the emotional tension and guilt it stirred among the faithful. My favorite sermon—preached with great fervor from my seat on the tractor—was “Comet in the Kitchen and Cobwebs in the Closet.” (Don’t you like the alliteration? Not bad for a thirteen year old.) This was my point: Fellowship gatherings and potlucks were usually well attended, so the kitchen was always clean and well stocked with Comet Cleanser. But the prayer closet (a Wednesday night prayer meeting) was poorly attended and cobwebs hung undisturbed.

I preached it loud, going for all the guilt I could generate. In my congregation of one, however (our farm dog, Pal, who relentlessly followed the tractor around the field hour after hour) there was never any evidence of Holy Spirit conviction. Pal just jogged beside the tractor, tongue hanging out a mile and a half. The only similarity to a congregant was Pal occasionally looking up at me with that “When can we get out of here and go home?” look. I recognized Pal’s countenance because I had felt that way many a Sunday when I would have preferred to be fishing or hunting.

My home church in Nebraska faithfully proclaimed God’s holiness and wrath and the impending judgment. Yes, I’m sure we also talked about God’s love and grace, but somehow it never caught on. Perhaps all the talk about the severity of God smothered kinder words like love and grace.

All I know is that while I never felt close to God, I certainly feared Him. Many a night I lay in bed repenting and re-repenting some past sin—just in case Jesus returned before morning.

So I’m asking here…are we preaching the whole counsel of God today—or has the pendulum swung past the center of gravity? Is our teaching about God’s attributes biblically balanced—or are we in danger of, in our reaction against the abuse of over emphasizing God’s severity, swinging too far by virtually ignoring God’s wrath and judgment?

That’s the question I address in the book. Today, I am certain of this one thing: exaggerating one of God’s attributes to the neglect of another attribute is not a laughing matter. It is idolatry—like creating a god in my image.

Scripture brims over with warnings about God’s severity and wrath against all forms of idolatry. And it is there for good reason. Nobody but nobody can compare with our God. Nothing from one end of the universe to the other, nothing in time or eternity can compare with the intertwining of tender love and severe wrath displayed at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on my behalf and yours.

God is the very definition of holiness and grace, and if we ignore either one it is to our peril and incalculable loss.

Yes, God is both kind and severe.