Monday, June 23, 2014

God's goodness to the pagan

In Acts 14 Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra, which I'm sure will go down in history as one of their most "interesting" evangelistic experiences. They speak to a large crowd about Jesus Christ, and when a man who'd been crippled from birth was healed, the persons gathered thought they were Hermes and Zeus incarnated. So the priest of the temple to Zeus brings oxen and garlands for the sacrifices, and Paul and Barnabas work to stop it; Paul says to them:

Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good -- giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy (14.15-17).

What is wonderful here is the reference to God's filling the hearts of these worthless, godless pagans with joy. Though they've turn away from the worship of the true god, though they live in deep sin and idolatry, though they engage in all manner of immorality and have long departed from the intention of God for humanity, yet God is good to them. He gives them joy in their hearts, and he rejoices to see the human person with a smile on his face.

It's too easy to fall into the trap of thinking God is full of nothing but ire and wrath for the human person outside of the fellowship of his covenant community. We may judge that we are being pious and biblical in thinking this way, since we might think so on the basis of a strong doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity. But we ought to accept what the Bible says without always trying to fit it into our theological systems, or compromising it by reference to another text elsewhere. Paul says that God is the one who fills the heart of the godless pagan with joy, and gives him food to eat out of his own goodness!

The emphasis here is on the goodness of God, and this ought to be properly expressed in our evangelistic endeavors, as well. In his De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, Athanasius hardly ever if at all mentions God's wrath or anger at sin. Again and again his point is to refer to mankind's apostasy, on the one hand, and the benevolent, merciful response of God, on the other. Indeed goodness seems to be the guiding principle of all of God's actions for Athanasius, as in DI 6 he says that it would have been beneath the goodness of God merely to allow his creation to become destroyed under the incurred curse of death, even if deservedly

Now if God is good to the pagan and the godless, we must ask the question: how much more good will he do to the one that is his own? Recently I posted on the faithlessness of the people of Israel in the desert. After God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, they face a tiny bit of adversity and automatically turn on God, ascribing to him malevolence and evil desire, claiming that he must hate them and that he's brought them into the desert to be killed. Far be it from us to think this way! God is good and only good: he will do you good and only good, if you put yourself at his disposal and trust in him, no matter how things may seem. Don't allow that your vision narrow and lose all perspective merely because a few things seem not to be right.