In our last chapter we raised the question of God's ultimate love. What is it that He is about? This is a critical question because, in order to evaluate the sufficiency of someone for a given task, we must understand what that task is. This is the question of the ultimate love precisely because, when push comes to shove, all personal beings dig down to the non-negotiable factors of their priority systems. At the outer boundaries of priority systems there are many desirables. But at the core are only the non-negotiables. In crisis situations, desirables sometimes get sacrificed in favor of the non-negotiables. When sin entered the universe, competing value systems were set up.
So, for as long as sin is permitted to exist in this creation, there will inevitably be situations where value conflicts arise. In those situations, whoever has the power will finally enforce the non-negotiable elements of the value system he holds.
God has the power. It will, then, be His values that are finally enforced.
Thus, we have a need to know what His values are in order to understand His revelation about His plans. This is true whether we are for Him or against Him. We have only two options before us: to cooperate, or to combat. The third option--to do neither--is actually a combat technique (the foot-dragging of what psychologists call the passive-agressive personality has shown this is true). So, it is really not a third option, it is merely a variation on the combat option. So, if we are going to cooperate, or combat, we still need to know what it is that God is about.
In our last chapter we argued for some definite directions:
God's love focuses upon those who believe Him. He flatly refuses to save those who will not trust, and He glorifies Himself only so that those who need to know Him can.
That brings us to another question: for those who will believe Him, what is it that He is most committed to? To answer, we must begin to consider some major truths that give us clear direction.
The first of these truths is the priority of eternity over time. The Scriptures constantly call upon us who believe to make this value shift. We are forbidden to permit issues of only temporal significance to undercut issues of eternal import.
There are very good reasons for this.
All of biblical revelation teaches that man is an unending entity. Scripture declares that once we become alive, we will never cease to exist. There are several proofs of this fact.
For instance, the doctrine of universal resurrection clearly establishes that physical death is not the end of our experience. The doctrine of universal judgment (of believers for reward and of unbelievers for condemnation) also insists that our life on this earth is merely a staging ground for eternal existence. Also every biblical appeal to us to live in the light of the possibility of eternal blessedness and the warning of eternal condemnation falls helplessly to the ground if we will ultimately cease to be. In fact, Jesus' awesome sacrifice would have been massive overkill to the point of vanity if we will cease to exist at some point.
Our everlasting existence is also supported by the fact that the Bible says that this universe has been established upon a foundation of righteousness. This means that there is a principle of retribution that will not be denied. If retribution can be denied, Jesus died in vain. But if there is a principle of retribution, we are destined to consciously exist somewhere forever--for we must so exist in order to be subject to the retributive principle. Our actions are primarily God-ward. God is infinite. Our actions toward the Infinite mean that we must be subject to everlasting existence to benefit from, or to be subject to the penalties of, the principle of righteous retribution.
Action that affects the Infinite God must carry response from Him to the actor--meaning that the actor must be around for the future for as long as God is.
God's commitment to His children must be understood under this over-arching umbrella of His commitment to their eternal welfare at any points where it conflicts with their temporal welfare.
A second major truth that helps us understand the love of God is His demand that faith be exercised in order for benefit to follow. As with the focus on eternity over time, there are some very good reasons for this focus upon faith.
In the very beginning (Genesis 2) God set forth the necessity of faith for those who would benefit from His activities. In that place He warned the first couple that there would be serious negative consequences if they acted in a certain way. These consequences were summarized in the words, "...ye shall surely die." At the very heart of this statement is the unstated assumption that they would have to believe Him if they were to be guided by Him. And it was at this point that the adversary launched his most frontal attack with the words "...ye shall not surely die." Thus, from the very beginning faith was a prerequisite to any prolonged experience of benefit in relationship with God.
This is logically true. The Christian faith is fundamentally a system of truth that reestablishes a personal relationship between God and those who believe Him. Nothing good can be sustained in any relationship where there is no trust.
But it is also fundamentally biblically true. God demands faith.
Note the willingness of God to permit death if faith is not exercised. This means that though God would rather we have direct access to all of the blessing that He has to offer, He will not elevate our blessedness over the requirement of faith. In fact, He can't. There are some things that are not possible even for God (in spite of the misquoted statement by Jesus that with God all things are possible). God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). He cannot change (James 1:17). He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). And He cannot communicate lasting benefit to anyone who does not actively trust Him.
Thus, we can say without hesitation that faith is a very fundamental and absolutely crucial prerequisite to our experience of lasting benefit from God. And with that point made, we can also say that in the value system by which God orders this universe (His love), faith is more critical than salvation. The fact that He will reject to everlasting condemnation all those who refuse to trust Him makes any objection moot.
A third major truth that helps us understand the love of God is the reality that, when faced with an irresolvable conflict between what we need in our spirits and what we need in our body, God focuses upon the spirit first. This is revealed clearly in two telling texts of God's dealings with us through the words of the apostle Paul.
The first of these texts is I Corinthians 5:5 in its context. The situation in Corinth is that there is a man who is a believer in Jesus who is living with his father's wife. This is a kind of incest that even the pagans of those days found repulsive. In giving instruction to the church on how to deal with the problem, Paul wrote: "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:5). Here, without debate, Paul clearly says that both God and the church that adopts His love will be willing to sacrifice the body of the errant believer in order to ultimately save the spirit. When the situation is one in which a willful believer's commitment to death pushes against God's commitment to his life, God will sacrifice the physical, temporal well-being of the believer for his eternal and spiritual best interests. In passing, it should be noted that God's values also exalt righteous behavior over physical well-being.
The second text is 2 Corinthians 12:7. In this context the apostle is telling of his experience of being caught up to the third heaven to hear and see revelations that he was forbidden to speak. But this brought him into a very difficult situation in which he was very liable to pride since he had been extended phenomenal privilege. So, about this he writes: "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Corinthians 12:7). The thorn in the flesh was a physically debilitating weakness. It came from Satan. But the Lord of love, who exalts the spirit of man over his body, refused to remove it. Paul, who knew the Father loved him, did not complain about this. He rejoiced that God was a God whose care for him was spiritual and eternal.
It should be noted that this text reveals that God does not just treat willful believers with this kind of exaltation of the spiritual over the physical. He also treats committed believers with this kind of value system. If we understand God's focus upon our spiritual well-being, we can relax about our physical problems. This won't make the physical pains go away, but it will give us a basis for understanding why God seems to be deaf when we pray for relief.
A fourth major truth that illumines our understanding of God's value system is the fact that in some cases there develops a conflict between what we need in our soul and what we need in our spirit. In these cases, God consistently opts for what is most necessary--and that is the spirit's need.
The proof of this is found in the context we appealed to earlier: 1 Corinthians 5:7-13. Just after Paul commanded the Corinthians to turn this brother over to Satan, he commanded them to put him out of their fellowship. Ostracize him. Eventually we will get to the significance of relationships, but suffice it to say now that the soul is the critical sufferer when relationships break down. The command for ostracism is validation of the principle that when the critical need is in the area of salvation of the spirit, the needs of the soul get sacrificed.
There are a host of texts which teach this. Many of them are texts which deal with the practice of church discipline and excommunication. The fact that they exist in the Bible is sufficient proof that God operates on a value system that puts the need of the spirit above the needs of the soul.
And finally, another truth that helps us understand the love of God is His focus upon the need of the soul when that need comes into a conflict with the needs of the body. When it cannot be both ways (the body and the soul both getting what they need), God will invariably opt for the greater good--the need of the soul.
This is the easiest principle to prove from the Scriptures. In many places Jesus taught how foolish was the man who accumulated wealth for hedonistic purposes and left his soul in poverty. Jesus could hardly condemn us for that unless it is a part of the love of God to value the soul above the body.
"And I will say to my soul, Soul, Thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, [and] be merry. But God said unto him, [Thou] fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" (Luke 12:19-20)
Thus, when God sees a conflict between the need of the soul and the need of the body, He opts to let the body (which is little more than a tent to house the man) suffer rather than the soul. We who see God's focus in this way can see, again, why God seems often to be deaf when we pray about our physical aches and pains. He is not unfeeling. He simply knows what is best and refuses to be moved off of that better pursuit.
When we ask about the love of God, we must ask our questions within a specific framework. In our last chapter we showed that God is fundamentally committed to life for those who trust Him. Since that life is inescapably tied to us as a tri-part being, God's commitment of love is to us as a spiritual, soulish, physical being. The developing framework of revelation consists of God's instruction concerning how He deals with the conflicts of values that are inevitable in a fallen world. When those conflicts come, God acts with the life of those who trust Him in mind, with eternity in mind, with faith as a prerequisite for solution, and with our makeup in an order that puts the spirit above the soul and the body, and the soul above the body. So, with a focus upon our eternal well-being, God requires that we believe Him with an understanding that our spirits are more important than our souls and our souls are more important than our bodies.
This is not to say that God does not care about our bodies. If that were so we would not have such a tremendous focus in His Word on physical resurrection from the dead. God is interested in the body--but not at the expense of more critical concerns.
The point of this chapter is simply this: sin introduced the reality of values which compete with one another and God has revealed a certain pattern of love within which He operates. It is for us to learn what that pattern is, and submit to it if we desire harmony with Him.