God’s Nature – Safe vs Good

Hebrews 10:31 “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (ESV)

When I first decided to write a series on the effect of Christianity on worldview (of which this is the third entry), I did not plan to cover this topic. Following the outline in my previous post, I knew that I was going to be covering something to do with the relationship between God and man. Initially, I intended to discuss man’s right orientation towards God as subject, not sovereign. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this as an entry in the series; all going according to plan, I still intend to use it for my next post. Nevertheless, I found myself uncomfortable with the idea of using it as the first topic in the series. I had to wrestle with this for quite some time before realising the problem: it is a topic primarily focused on defining who man is when in right relationship with God and, therefore, I would be starting my list of topics with a man-centric post. Anytime we centre our thoughts on man, we risk losing sight of who God is; it felt wrong to start the series on that tone. I realised that the solution to my problem was to start the series by contemplating who God is, and what that means for our worldview.

The idea for this post was born when I encountered a theologically liberal post on another WordPress blog (I haven’t linked it here for two reasons: firstly, because my intent is not to refute the argument made in the post but some of the assumptions behind it, assumptions that are hardly unique to that particular post, and secondly, because I didn’t realise at the time that it would be so significant and thus didn’t think to store the link for later use). The post in question was discussing a purportedly Christian perspective on sexuality and gender, and the author made a claim along the lines of, “God’s desire is for every person to be true to their core nature and to achieve self-actualisation”. I was, to put it mildly, horrified. Not, I might add, because of the position being argued for (although I disagreed with that as well), but because of what this said about the author’s view of who God is. A God who desired this for man acts as the perfect sanctuary; a place of safety in which one can be themselves regardless of what others think of them.

The title of this post alludes to a quote from C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. One of the protagonists asks a question about Aslan, Narnia’s leonine analogue of Christ: “Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”. The reply she receives is worthwhile pondering for any Christian who has not already done so: “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you”. Lewis intended, by analogy, for this to be a description of Christ (and, by extension, the triune God). Of course, as far as I am aware, the Chronicles of Narnia are not inspired Scripture; there is no guarantee that this is an accurate description of God. So, we ask the question: is it accurate?

To begin with, perhaps we first need to define the terms “safe” and “good”. The applicable definition given by the Oxford Dictionary for “safe” is “not likely to cause or lead to harm or injury; not involving danger or risk”. The essence of “safe” is lack of either the ability or tendency to cause harm. For “good”, the Oxford Dictionary gives “to be desired or approved of”, “having the required qualities; of a high standard” and “possessing or displaying moral virtue” as definitions that could fit in context. The essence of “good” is the possession of positive traits.

So, is God safe? If he is, somebody needed to let the Israelites know. Most Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments given to Moses in Exodus 20; the narrative in chapter 19 isn’t quite as familiar. Firstly, God declared that he was going to speak to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9). He was to go only with Aaron, with all the other Israelites forbidden from even stepping foot on the mountain (Exodus 19:24). Anyone who disobeyed this command faced the death penalty (Exodus 19:12-13). Despite the fact that they were not to touch the mountain, Israel still required consecration in preparation for this occasion (Exodus 19:14-15). These were the actions of a people who recognised the overwhelming power of the God who had led them out of Egypt, and who trembled in awe.

Perhaps, though, this was merely a special case for a spiritually immature people. After all, the Israelites in this era were still largely conditioned to the worship of the Egyptians gods after years of captivity. God could simply have ordered them to treat him in the way they understood as worthy of gods, before teaching them of his true nature in time. The problem with this is that quite the opposite occurred. In 2 Samuel, we find the account of Uzziah. While transporting the Ark of the Covenant, containing the holy law of God, Uzziah laid a hand on the Ark when he stumbled. This violation of holiness was sufficient for Uzziah to be struck down instantly (2 Samuel 6:3-7). Uzziah was not serving a God who lacked either the ability or the willingness to cause harm; his was not a safe God. Fast forwarding to Isaiah, God is to be the one we fear and dread; he will cause those who are against him to fall and be broken (Isaiah 8:11-15). Fear is not an appropriate reaction to safety, but to danger. It would seem that the God of the kings and prophets was just as dangerous as the God who led Israel out of Egypt.

Of course, we know that man’s relationship with God was fundamentally changed by the work of Christ on the cross. The veil was torn; man could once again come before his heavenly Father. However, when we examine the New Testament, there does not seem to be any apparent change in the God we worship. In 2 Corinthians 7:1, Paul writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God”. Just as fear of God led the Israelites to consecrate themselves in Exodus, so Paul exhorts Christians to cleanse themselves and seek holiness through the fear of God. And, of course, the entire book of Revelation is a testament to the fact that, even though he is suspending his judgement until the time is right, God is anything but safe for those who fall under his judgement. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God indeed.

Both Isaiah and Paul speak of fear as being an appropriate reaction to who God is. Fear can provoke many responses though. Sometimes we flee from fear, other times we are overwhelmed and just shut down. At other times, we stand and face the object of our fears. What is the appropriate response when faced with the recognition that our God is anything but safe? In Deuteronomy 10:12-13, this command is given to Israel: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (ESV) Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 7 echoes the same idea; we respond to fear of God with obedience.

On the surface, this seems like I am suggesting works salvation before a tyrannical God. God is fearsome, and it is only by obeying him well enough that we are protected from his wrath. This conclusion is inconsistent with the rest of the Biblical testimony; justification is by faith alone, not works (Romans 3:28). I believe that Hebrews 11:7 is the key to unlocking this dilemma. “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (ESV) Here we see a series of linked ideas: faith, reverent fear, obedience, safety. Noah first placed his faith in God. Understanding who it was he had placed his faith in, Noah reverently feared God, and responded by obeying God’s commands. As a result of his faith and reverent fear, Noah then became safe. God is not a tyrant who wills our destruction; in fact, he wills that all would be saved (2 Peter 3:9). He warns us when our path leads to destruction, and offers a safe path as an alternative. This is the great irony of God: it is only when we recognise that he is not safe, and we respond accordingly and that we are truly safe. Even then, however, God has not become safe through abandoning justice; God has granted us safety through his abundant mercy.

As for God’s goodness, very few Christians will call this into question. Whether we echo Psalm 25:8 in describing God as “good and upright” or Matthew 5:48 in describing him as “perfect”, God is certainly good. Where “safe” may be an entirely inappropriate word to describe God, there are few words more accurate than “good”. It would seem that C.S. Lewis was onto something with his description.

Returning to the blog post that I mentioned earlier, to state that God’s desire for man is for man to be true to his nature is to state that God is safe. There is no worry about what he thinks of who we are choosing to be; no recognition of his holiness and inability to tolerate sin. There is certainly no fear of God; in such a mindset, Hebrews 10:31 must seem nonsensical. But really, it’s the view that God is safe that is nonsensical. A man who stands before God seeking his own desires is in the least safe place in existence. Only by responding the way Noah did, through faith and reverent fear, do we receive the safety that God offers. God does not desire that man achieves self-actualisation, but obedience. When building a Biblical worldview, this is where we start. We recognise that the world is not ruled by a safe Creator, but a good Creator. There is no place for man’s will as an idol. A Biblical worldview begins with the recognition that, before God, the only way to be safe is to accept his offer of safety on his conditions.

“Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting the Creator of heaven and earth”. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you”. With apologies to C.S. Lewis, there are few truer words that could be said. It is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but in his goodness God has promised we can yet be safe. God’s way so often operates contrary to the thinking of the world. Never forget that we worship an awesome, fearsome God who is anything but safe; never forget that, when we respond with reverent fear, the same awesome, fearsome God promises that we are nevertheless safe.

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