He Comes Back to Love: A Thought from the Early Chapters of Jeremiah

For a long time, I’ve lived with the impression that when the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to the nation of Israel, they were simply speaking out of God’s displeasure, and it was all condemnation and judgment. 

I knew there were bits of hope in there. Jeremiah speaks of the “righteous Branch” of David (23:5-8), a small encouragement smashed between words of condemnation and disappointment in the people of God. But most of what I remember from my first reading of Jeremiah is the warnings and the disciplinary words.

And I get it. The book was mostly written, scholars say, after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. There’s explanation and context given for their circumstances. 

But stuck in chapter 3, early on, is one of the reasons why I love God and I love Jesus.

After talking about how Israel has “played the whore” (v. 6) and “took her whoredom so lightly” that she began “committing adultery with stone and tree” (v. 9), Yahweh, through Jeremiah, offers an escape. He tells the prophet to face north and say:

“Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the LORD your God, and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree, and have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD. Return, O faithless children, says the LORD, for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (v. 12-14)

There’s something very — as evangelicals like to say, and that’s not a criticism — “Gospel-centered” in this passage. God is saying to His people, the ones who have abandoned Him, that they’re not beyond reconciliation and saving. He doesn’t ask them to do any spectacular acts of repentance or make up for their mistakes — simply acknowledge their guilt and return.

It’s so simply powerful to me that God offers this chance at reconciliation to the people of Israel. This is a people that worshipped false gods, disobeyed the real God’s commands and abandoned the One who had given them so much. As a result, they ended up in exile in Babylon. But God says they’re not too far gone, not too far away to be saved.

So many people will speak of the God of the Old Testament as a judgmental and angry God. And I get it. There are many words even here in the first few chapters of Jeremiah that get that message across loud and clear. And there’s confusion that even I have had recently about this seeming juxtaposition between the loving and grace-filled God of the New Testament, represented best by Jesus, and the condemning and disciplinarian God of the Old Testament. 

These verses show that those versions of God actually meet in the middle. 

What the authors of the books of the Testaments report to us is that God is a complex figure, but at the end of the day, He comes back to love. He centers on it. His inclination is to love. Even if His children have disappointed Him and He has to discipline them, He comes back to love, community and togetherness. That’s His default. 

So when we speak of God, we must speak of Him faithfully, as the prophets did, as Jesus did, as Paul and Peter did — a God driven by love and welcoming, not one driven by judgment and condemnation. Yes, He has standards and desires for us, mainly one: to love others as He has loved us. 

Let that be our default as well.

Not Qualified Is Where God Starts

One of the most disheartening things that has ever happened to me was not getting hired for the position I wanted at the student newspaper at Elon during my junior year of college. I had applied for one of the highest positions, but I got what was basically a watered-down version of it with the leadership aspect of it taken out.

The editor-in-chief told me that I hadn’t proven myself enough as a capable leader that could fill the proposed role well enough. I was devastated for a little bit. I felt that a vital part of my personality had been personally attacked. Was that the proper way to think about it? I don’t think so. But it was a dig nonetheless, whether intentional or not. I felt like I was unqualified, incapable of performing the task that I so desired.

I often feel that way when it comes to ministry opportunities. An opportunity may present itself, and I think about whether or not I should do it. The first question that crosses my mind is usually: “Am I qualified?” Or “Have I done anything that would disqualify me?” I think there’s a sense where this is a legitimate question, but at the same time often it’s the wrong question to ask if we take it too far.

God Is With Those He Calls

There are three specific instances I love in Scripture where God calls men to be of service to Him. I love them because I can relate to each and every one of them.

First, Moses. In Exodus 3, God appears in the form of a burning bush and tells Moses that He’s going to use him to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses isn’t sold. He questions whether or not he’s the right guy because, well, who is he? Verses 11-12:

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ (God) said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’

Second, Gideon. In Judges 6, “the angel of the LORD” comes to Gideon and charges him with the task of saving Israel from the invading nation of Midian. Gideon isn’t sold. He questions why him because he’s the weakest one in the weakest family. Verses 15-16:

And (Gideon) said to (the angel), ‘Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.’

Third, Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 1, God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah isn’t sold. He questions why him because he’s a young guy. Verses 6-8, Jeremiah writes in the first person:

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.’ But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.’

Notice the pattern developing? Each time, God told His man that He was with them. And what happened? Moses led the people out of Egypt, was given the Ten Commandments and is responsible for writing the first five books of the Bible. Gideon led a group of 300 soldiers against more than 100,000 men and was victorious. Jeremiah spent his life prophesying about judgement and punishment, but also about coming grace and salvation.

God Qualifies the Called

When I read the Jeremiah story in particular, a few months ago, I was in the midst of a season of depression and frustration over a lot of things in my life. I read that first part and keyed in on how God basically ignored Jeremiah’s complaint and says, “Look, I’ve set this up, I’m calling you! Doesn’t matter what complaints you have. I’ve got you!” What I learned from that is that God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called simply by His presence. There is something to be said for having the skills and tools and talents for doing a certain thing in ministry. But there’s a sense where we shouldn’t be totally reliant on those things. We should be reliant on God working in us and through us in ministry.

Oftentimes it’s easy for me to look at ministry opportunities I’ve been given – like this blog – and think, “Well, because of this one particular sin in my life and my young age and my relative lack of life experience, who am I to do this? There are people far more qualified than me.” And yes, there are.

But I have the opportunities I have because God has given them to me. Not because I have any special qualifications or skills, but because He’s given them to me, because He deemed it necessary for me. Maybe He gave me the talents or skills to help with those things, or set up opportunities for me to learn those things.

But at the end of the day God calls me and you to different kinds of opportunities, within ministry and without, on His merit, not ours. And we should embrace and rejoice in those opportunities, praising God for Him qualifying us by His call on our lives. When we feel inadequate in whatever our calling is, we should pray and ask God for strength, trust that He knows what He’s doing by giving us these opportunities, and move forward, not leaning on our own understanding of ourselves and our weaknesses, but trusting what God says of us and what He’s giving us.

God’s view of you and His leading in your life are the most qualifying things you’ll ever have.

Faith Doesn’t Come Through Understanding It All

I’m somebody that needs to know the steps of doing something before I do it. Otherwise, I’m super nervous about doing that thing.

For instance, in college, when I worked for the student newspaper, I had to go through media relations people to talk to the school’s athletes or coaches for an interview. But when I worked for the newspaper in my hometown the summer after graduation, often there weren’t media relations people. I had to learn how to do something all over again, more or less.

Since the steps were new, I was a little unsure when I first started, a little nervous, to be honest with you. It’s like when you go on a first date with someone you don’t know all too well – you’re not quite sure what to expect, so you try to prepare for every eventuality. You end up sounding like Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation. Seriously, watch the video.

But in those situations, any of them, we need to learn to step forward anyways. Following Jesus is kind of the same thing.

I’ve been reading Jeremiah over the last couple weeks (you can read here some thoughts I’ve had already), and this thought occurred to me today. It is not our understanding of things that saves us, but our faith that is counted as righteousness, even when we don’t fully understand.

I was reading Jeremiah this morning and reading about how God was going to judge the Israelites, and I just wondered why God acted the way He did towards them. Why did He not show them grace? Why did He not show mercy? He’s full of grace and mercy, why couldn’t He show it then?

I don’t understand why, but I don’t have to understand. He’s God. He’s majestic. He’s glorious. He’s in control. He’s all-wise. And I’m not. And I don’t get it.

For whatever reason, as Christians, we’ve been told that we have to accept everything full-on with no questioning, no real processing. We can’t be “good Christians” and try to think through things. I say that’s awful. I’d say that we shouldn’t just accept everything at face value because someone told us to. What kind of faith is that? It’s based more on somebody else’s thoughts than your own.

To be honest, I read Jeremiah and I wonder why God was the way He was. I question God. It’s in those moments of questioning where we need to bank on what we know about God, what we believe is true and know for sure and have no doubts about, and trust that He’s got a plan and that He knows better.

If you’re questioning God or things about God and you’re in a church/Christian context, don’t be afraid of it. Maybe it’s something the Lord is using to create a stronger relationship with Him. That’s definitely how it’s working out in my life.

Recently I’ve been going through a dry spell in my walk with Jesus where I’ve questioned a lot of things, even, at times, whether or not I believe, whether or not God really cares for me, whether or not it’s worth it to follow Jesus. I know it’s worth it, I know that God is the only way this world makes sense, but I’ve allowed myself some space to work through some things instead of getting down on myself for questioning things in the first place.

I think that, in that space, God has done some of His best work on my mind and on my soul.

But I have to remember that, at the end of the day, there are some things that, this side of heaven, I may never understand. And then, I recall to mind Romans 4:5 –

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…

It’s not me understanding everything that saves me, it’s me believing in God, who justifies the ungodly, of whom I am most certainly one.

I’m Not OK with God’s Wrath Sometimes

I’ve been reading through Jeremiah, sort of, trying to, the last month or so. I’m only on chapter 8 now, so it’s been slow going. I haven’t been terribly consistent or disciplined with my quiet time.

Anyways, I was reading chapter 7 today and was struck by all the violence that God declares on the Israelite people. I have a journaling Bible, which is a really cool Bible that has big lined margins on the side where you can take notes or record thoughts. Jeremiah 7 is a particularly condemning chapter. Verses 16-20 read thus:

“As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you. Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. Is it I whom they provoke? declares the LORD. Is it not themselves, to their own shame? Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.”

Don’t know how you, the reader, feels about this passage, but I struggle with it. In the margins by a different verse, I wrote, “Sometimes I wonder why God was so harsh, so rash. Why was He so unforgiving then but is forgiving now?”

ask-question-2-fb180173e13f21ad6ae73ba29b08cd02I feel like sometimes in the church culture, we have to have an explanation for everything, otherwise people will question God. Otherwise people will not believe in God. God’s wrath is one of those things that often gets people. How can a loving God do this?

To be honest with you, I don’t know if I have an answer for that that I am totally behind. I know God is judge as well as lover, and that He executes perfect justice on the earth. But why did He wait until later to show grace, particularly to me? I am just as equally a sinner as these people were, yet because I was born after Jesus, I have the opportunity to experience the goodness of the grace of God.

Not that the people God speaks of in Jeremiah didn’t have an opportunity to believe in Him. They had plenty of opportunities. Jeremiah 7:25 speaks of God’s “servants the prophets” who were sent to speak to the people.

But don’t you ever feel like God maybe was a little too harsh on the people of Israel?

Now, some people might hear me ask that question and think I’m not a believer, think I don’t think God is good, think I doubt that God is who He says He is, think I don’t believe the Bible is perfect, or whatever. But I’m tired of just going along with what everybody says just because everybody says it. So often in the Christian culture we just hear what a pastor we like or our favorite author says and then we go along with it because they said it.

Is our faith ever really our own?

Maybe I’m wrong for questioning this. I don’t know. But I can’t help but wonder if we might be strengthened and encouraged as a body of Christ if we’re more honest about the real questions we have about what we believe, what the Bible says, how we’re supposed to live our lives.

So if you have questions, ask them. Don’t just believe something because somebody said it. Don’t believe me just because I’m saying what I’m saying right now. Question me! I think Christians are scared of asking questions because we’re “supposed” to have all the answers. Only non-Christians question God, right? We’re supposed to know everything, right?

No. I don’t think so. And we Christians get scared when people find out we don’t know everything. “They won’t believe in Jesus if we don’t give them all the answers!” It’s not up to us. It’s up to God who believes. God draws them, saves them, not us.

It’s too bad, because our God knows all the answers. We may never get all of them this side of heaven, but He’s given us His Son as an answer or part of the answer to a great many of them. Namely the important ones: How do I find purpose? How do I deal with all the crap I’ve done wrong? What happens when you die? How do we know God?

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Feel free to comment, share this with your friends, talk about this. I’d love for this to be a place of dialogue where the 10 people (maybe) that read this talk about things that matter, such as the questions that Christians have about God and the Bible. We may not know the answers, but dialogue can be an incredibly helpful thing.