Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter ofJerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment; He has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with his love, He will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:14–17
The other day I received a copy of a published prayer. The prayer of the young writer reflected a tremendous struggle with God. His view of God was that he needed Him. He had to please and satisfy God because God demands holiness, yet he knew he could not attain that holiness.
He prayed that God would give him a good night’s rest so he could feel refreshed in the morning to try again to do what God wanted from him. The prayer was written in a most thoughtful and respectful way. From the prayer itself one would surely consider it to have been written by a godly person.
What should be the test by which we gauge our view of God as Christians? When we read Scripture, we need to ask ourselves if the God who reveals Himself in it agrees with the picture we have of Him? Personal upbringing, preaching and teaching may all explain our personal impressions and feelings about who we think God is. The question is, however, whether or not our understanding of God is based on God’s Word itself?
The church background of this young man whose letter I read might help to explain the spiritual pain he suffered as he wrote his prayer. His perception of God’s demands and his own inability to live up to those demands drove him to such a state of depression that he saw no other way out than to end his own life. The man simply could not handle the burden any longer.
The causes of this kind of problem may turn out to be more complex than we first think. This prayer was such an urgent call for help, that I believe we, as churches, should pay careful attention to the matter of how we present God to our covenant people. Do we let Scripture speak in a care-ful and balanced manner or do we single out theological emphases that reflect a certain bias within church tradition? As a preacher I am the first to admit how exceedingly difficult this task is. But we must strive to be biblical and balanced in all the things we preach and teach.
There should be no doubt that the weight of God’s glory has been watered down in modern times. In much preaching and teaching today God is somebody who will not and cannot hurt us. On the opposite side there is the emphasis on the depravity of man in his fallen and in his renewed state. In that case, man is nothing but a worm even if he can confess with humility and joy, according to Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The prophet Zephaniah reminds us that the church is God’s prized possession. This is all the more true in light of the future redemption of which Zephaniah speaks that has made its appearance into our world, namely through Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. God has come to dwell with sinners so that He might restore fellowship with them. In Jesus Christ, God is now truly with us (Zephaniah 3:15,17). The ancient prophet gives us the picture of God as One who greatly delights Himself in His people. This picture of paternal affection from God is far removed from the perspective that God is still calling us to give an account of ourselves at the close of each day as we come to Him with fear and sorrow because we realize how deeply we have disappointed God.
Don’t misunderstand me. Sorrow for sin ought to have a meaningful place in the Christian’s life. What is important for a healthy spiritual development, however, is that our people know that God, through Christ, has accepted them as His full sons and daughters (Q/A 1, Heidelberg Catechism). Let Scripture be our guide as it shows us the real God who delights Himself in His people. Test what view of God you have when you look at God’s involvement on Good Friday when He let His own Son die? How deep do we look into the heart of God’s pure love when we see Jesus hang on that cross crying out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” This knowledge should determine how we preach and teach about sin and judgment to come. This love expressed by Christ’s suffering in our place should teach us that we are the prized object of God’s love. When we consider that Christ rose from the grave, His open tomb should fill us with absolute wonder and joy and continuous amazement at how much we are loved by God!
The severe nature of sin and its stubborn resistance in the life of the reconciled sinner and saint may not and should not be ignored as though this is something of the past. No, like ‘Christian’ in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we as God’s people are on a long journey. Our path is filled with potholes and opportunities to waver.
The church is engaged in spiritual battle on the way to glory. We must recognize that something has dramatically changed. We are speaking about when Christ was born in the flesh, suffered and died to atone for the sins of the church, and rose in victory on Easter. (I John 4:7–12). Christ has laid the foundation for the promise to come true for all of God’s children when He says “I will bring you home” (Zephaniah 3:20).
If you struggle with sin in your life and despair of the lack of sanctification, take your eyes away from yourself and look to Christ. See Him who loves you and always will. His triumphant love always comes before our inadequacy. By God’s grace, you are God’s delightful child in whom He greatly rejoices.
Rev. Fritz Harms is the pastor of the Champlain Valley URC in New Haven, Vermont.