By Pastor Glenn Pease
Martin Luther spent a major portion of his life looking for a God who liked him. He was devoutly religious from his childhood, but religion was more a burden than a blessing, for his God was not his friend. He knew God hated sin and demanded perfection and so he was obsessed with trying to be perfect. As a monk he went beyond the rigorous rules of the monastery. He fasted and prayed longer than any of the others. He denied himself the normal allotment of blankets and almost froze to death. He punished his body and devoted every ounce of energy to being super-spiritual.
He once wrote, "I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work." Suicide by super-spiritually was the direction he was heading. It sounds like such deep devotion, but in reality it was all based on fear. God was not a father he loved and a friend he served. God was a tyrant he feared.
Luther was so obsessed with his sin that he made his confessor a nervous wreck. Others would confess their sin in a few minutes, but he would stay for hours, and once even stayed for six hours confessing the sin of the previous day. On and on he went for everything he did was a sin in his eyes. He even confessed that he stayed up after the lights were to be out to read his Bible by candlelight. That was one of his sins. Staupitz, the leader of the monastery, finally got fed up with Luther and in anger said, "Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you come in with something to forgive-parricide,blasphemy,adultery,instead of all these peccadilloes. Man, God is not angry with you, you are angry with God."
When the truth finally sunk into Luther's head and heart, and he saw that he was the problem, he found the greatest treasure a man can find-he found God was his friend. He was a loving Father who provided for us what we needed in order to be forgiven. We do not have to earn our salvation, but freely receive it as His gift of love. When Luther stopped working to save himself, and took salvation as a free gift from God by faith in Christ, he made a lot of new friends, but the greatest of them all was God. He found a God who liked him. Luther was losing friendship on both the earthly and heavenly level because he was blind to the fact that he was the problem. When we are full of misconceptions and misunderstandings, we are in bondage, and only the truth can set us free.
A prominent American writer read the book Forgive Us Our Trespasses by Lloyd C. Douglas. She wrote to the author and said, "As I read your book I saw myself as I really was. I finished it late at night and the next day I went out and recaptured five friendships I had lost because of my unforgiving spirit." The truth had set her free. The fact is, most of the broken relationships in life, and the loss of friendship with men and God, are based on our false conceptions. Like Luther, we are often angry with God and with others, and we misinterpret this as their anger with us. If you examine most of the conflicts you have in marriage or with children and others, you will see they usually start with your rotten inner mood at someone else's behavior. We create God and others in our own image when we are full of hostility and we blame them for being what we are.
The ancient world is full of myths that portray God as the foe of man. Zeus, the king of gods in Greek mythology was so portrayed. Prometheus was a god who took pity on man and tried to warm and cheer his life by giving him the gift of fire. Zeus became very angry because of this grace and love expressed by Prometheus. He had him chained to a rock in the Adriatic Sea. He was tortured with the heat and thirst of the day and the cold of the night. And then for an added touch of sadistic pleasure he prepared a vulture to tear out his liver. Zeus was very creative in his bitterness. He made it so the liver would keep growing back so the vulture could tear it out over and over again. This was the picture of God that many people had, and, of course, the only reaction to such a tyrant is rebellion and hostility.
When I read the writing of famous atheists like Robert Ingersal, I see this anger at God. He is so mad at God that he blames God for all that is awful and evil in life, and this justifies his anger. You have a right to be angry at a God who is responsible for all that is evil. Believers sometimes fall into this same trap. They start with a false view of God and His relationship to a world of evil. It looks to them like God does not care about them and they are angry. This is where we see the elder son in the parable of the prodigal. He is mad at his father and his anger blinds him to the fact that he is the problem. Instead he tries to justify his anger by making the father look like the culprit, and the cause for his hostility.
The first thing we see here is that it is not enough to know that God is our Father to have a right relationship to Him. The elder brother had no doubt about the fatherhood of his father, but he did doubt the friendship of his father. In other words, being a father does not guarantee that one is a friend. The world is full of fathers who are not friends. Knowing that God is a father does not help many people who have fathers who abuse them, reject them, and refuse to give them love and attention.
Jay Kessler, for years the president of Youth For Christ, says the idea of the fatherhood of God is not adequate to appeal to a generation of kids who have been rejected by their fathers. He says imagine what it is like to a child who has been abused,beaten, scorned, and rejected by a father to be told by Christians that now what we have is an even bigger and stronger one of these for you to get to know. Is it any wonder that they would say, no thank you? God as father is not always the greatest truth to reach people.
The elder brother did not need to know that his father was his father. He needed to know that truth which the younger son discovered, and that was that his father was his friend. In his anger the elder brother felt like his father was his foe. The younger son felt the same way earlier. He felt he had to get away on his own to experience the best of life. He felt that his real friends were somewhere out there in the world waiting to be found. It was not until he had lost all and had hit bottom that he came home to discover that his father was his greatest friend. This is what Luther had to discover about God, and this is what all men have to discover about God. Joshua Liebman wrote-
In this vast universe
There is but one supreme truth--
That God is our friend!
By that truth meaning is given
To the remote stars, the numberless centuries,
The long and heroic struggle of mankind-....
O my Soul, dare to trust this truth!
Dare to rest in God's kindly arms,
Dare to look confidently into His face,
Then launch thyself into life unafraid!
Knowing thou art within thy Father's house,
That thou art surrounded by His love,
Thou wilt become master of fear,
Lord of life, conqueror even of death!
If this be the peak of truth, and there is abundant of evidence to support it, then, like all other peaks, it is not arrived at with a step, but is a hard climb. And like any other climb, there are hindrances and helps. If we are to know God as our friend, we have to be aware of the hindrances to be overcome, and of the helps to aid us in arriving at this pinnacle of truth. We cannot cover them all, but I think the greatest hindrance and the greatest help can be seen clearly in this Parable of the Prodigal.
I. THE GREATEST HINDRANCE.
The greatest hindrance to believing God is our friend is God's permissiveness. God as represented by the prodigal's father let him take his share of the estate and set off for the far country. This is one of man's major problems with God. God does not run a very tight ship. He let's men do the most foolish and stupid things, and it fill the world with evil. If God was not so permissive, the world would not be in such a mess, and so it is basically God's fault. The father could have said no, but he let his son go off and make a fool of himself. Sure he would have hated his father had he not let him go, but it would have been for his own good. But he just let him go his own way to do his own thing.
Men came to Jesus in Luke 13 and told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices, and about the 18 on whom the Tower of Siloam fell. The question in their minds was, why did God permit these tragedies? The popular answer, in the tradition of Job's friends, was that these people must have been worse sinners than others, and so deserved this judgment. Jesus rejected this answer and said they were not worse sinners, and that unless they repented they would all perish. Jesus made it clear that God permits good things to happen to bad people as the sun shines on evil as well as the good, and the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just. God also permits bad things to happen to good people. All of the Apostles died violent deaths, and so suffering and tragedy does not mean at all that God is judging someone for their sin.
Jesus rejected the concept of God as the judge, jury, and executioner who stands ready to exact his pound of flesh like a Shylock eager for revenge. Jesus portrays a God who is temporarily tolerant of evil. He is the father of the prodigal who tolerates and permits him to do what is almost certain folly. He is the sower who sows good seed in the field, and then permits the enemy to sow weeds in his field, and then permits the weeds to grow with the good seed until harvest. The critics of God do not go for all this permissiveness. This, to them, is only proof that God has his priorities out of order. Instead of wasting his time in the trivial business of counting the hairs on our heads and noting the sparrows that fall, God should be preventing all that His permissiveness allows. He should be stopping falling towers and weed sowing, and stubborn sons from going off half cocked with the family savings.
God should be more repressive and not so permissive is a basic human criticism of God's governing of the world. None of us can escape this obstacle to our faith in God as a friend. We live in a world where evil is no longer hidden. The tyrants who keep masses of people imprisoned and oppressed are on the front page, and we wonder how God can permit such evil men to have such power. Why does God permit the drug trafficker to ruin millions of lives? Why does God permit so many dens of iniquity that rob the world of justice and righteousness? The world is full of people angry at God for allowing so much evil, and it puts a strain on our conviction that God is really a caring friend.
The number one cause for Christians getting angry at God is His permissiveness. Isobel Kuhn and her family were missionaries in China when World War II broke out. Her children had to be sent away to school, and her husband was off to gather remnants of his scattered people. In her loneliness she vented her anger on God. "I am a family person-I need my family," she railed at God. Her anger was destroying her health and her relationship with God, and she came to realize the folly of blaming God for the folly of men. She was reconciled to God and regained her peace, but the point is, God permissiveness was a great hindrance to her conviction that God was her friend.
Soren Kierkegaard was right when he said, "God is our greatest anxiety." When we do not understand Him, we do not understand ourselves or others, and we are in a wrong relationship to everyone. The villain of the parable of the prodigal is the elder brother. He did not understand the father's permissiveness. He not only permitted the younger brother to take off with his share of the estate and blow it, he permitted him to come home again with dignity, and he even threw a party for him. The elder brother was so full of anger at the fathers permissiveness that it was destroying his relationship to everyone he once loved.
I have a hunch a large proportion of broken relationships can be traced back to this kind of hostility toward God. The inability to grasp and cope with God's permissiveness leads to the breakdown of all relationships. Harold Kushner is the Jewish Rabbi of a congregation of 2500 people. He has become famous in America for his book When Bad Things Happen To Good People. He wrote the book because his 3 year old son Aaron developed that rare disease progeria. It makes the child age rapidly. He died of old age 2 days after his 14th birthday. He never got to live as a child, but only as an old man. He and his wife went through the battle of anger at God for permitting such a thing, but he came to a wiser conclusion than the elder brother. He wrote-
I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses,
accidents, and natural disasters, because I
realize that I gain little and I lose so much
when I blame God for those things. I can
worship a God who hates suffering but
cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can
worship a God who chooses to make children
suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.
Some years ago, when the "Death of God"
theology was a fad, I remember seeing a
bumper sticker that read "My God is not
dead; sorry about yours." I guess my
bumper reads "My God is not cruel; sorry
We could go on for hours showing that God's permissiveness is the greatest hindrance to our believing he is our friend, but we need to move on to find a solution, and so we want to look at the second point which is-
II. THE GREATEST HELP.
The greatest help to believing God is our friend is God's permissiveness. Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, we are dealing here with a paradox; a two point sermon with one point, which is the paradox of permissiveness. I'll admit that the second point sounds like a rerun of the first, but let me assure you that the same thing can be seen from a radically different perspective. This which can make men so angry at God can also be our greatest assurance that He is our friend.
Ordinarily the cause and the cure of a problem are two different things, but this is not an absolute necessity. Vaccination is an illustration of how the cause of a disease can also be a cure. The virus that causes the disease is actually put into the body in a controlled form so the body can develop an immunity to it. It is a paradox, but nevertheless true, the cause and the cure are the same thing. So it is with the permissiveness of God. It is the cause of a great deal of doubt about God's love for man. It is bad enough that He permits the prodigal to live in sin, but this is mild compared to what else is permitted.
The prodigal's sins were sins of pleasure, and he did not leave a trail of blood behind him as have the tyrants of the world. How God can permit the Herods and Hitlers of history to stay on the stage for even a few years is cause for great agony of soul. But lets look at the other side of the coin of permissiveness. We all have the same options as they did. We are as free to abuse God's gift of freedom as they were. We can choose to be prodigals too, or we can choose to learn from his folly and take the shortcut right to the father's love, without the degrading detour into the far country.
The very essence of what it means to be made in the image of God is in our freedom to choose. To give this up would be to become a computer of God rather than a child of God. The prodigal's father permitted him to be a sinner, but he also permitted him to come back home and be a forgiven son. His permissiveness is not the problem. It is what the son chose to do with it that is the problem. The abuse of a precious gift is no reason to reject the value of the gift. If I use the new Bible you give me to start fires in the fireplace, does that make it a bad gift? Not at all, and freedom is a wonderful gift no matter how foolishly men use it. If you let your children mix cool-aid on a painting of Rembrant, that is no reflection on the value of Rembrant, but on your own values and common sense.
The permissiveness of God is abused and misused, but the fact is, it is still the greatest act of friendship God has shown by giving us such freedom. If we were not free to choose, we would not have been capable of being redeemed. We could not chose to put our faith in Christ and receive Him as God's gift. We would be things and not persons. Christ would not have died for things. Things cannot choose, but only those who were made in God's image can choose, for they alone have the capacity to see the value of God's permissiveness.
Yes you can abuse what God permits, but you can also choose what God permits, which He also wills. He does not will everything He permits. This would be nonsense and meaningless, for it would be saying everything is the will of God. All evil, sin, folly, and rebellion would be God's will. All of this God permits, but none of it does He will. The prodigal's father did not will any of the folly he permitted him to do. And God does not will any of the folly He permits us to do. The father also permitted the prodigal to come home and to confess his folly, and to be forgiven. He permits the prodigal to do everything that is essential for reconciliation. He permits him to humble himself, and pray, and to seek his father's face, and to turn from his wicked ways. The tyrant forces you back. He drags you home kicking and screaming to be his slave. The father, as a friend, permits you to come home freely as a son.
This permissiveness of God is the very essence of his love and friendship, for he permits those who have violated his holiness to come back into his presence, and into his family, and to celebrate with him the victory over all that the abuse of his permissiveness led to. If this does not say to us God is our friend, then nothing will, for there is no way to say it more loud and clear. God is our Father, but that is not enough. The message is not complete until we know too that God is our Friend. This bright side of God's permissiveness is the basis for all the songs of praise for life and for all that God has given us to enjoy for time and eternity. The poet put it-
Lord, thank you
for setting me free.
Free to blow bubbles,
listen to seashells,
build castles in the sand,
wish on stars.
for setting me free.
Free to hunt for four-leaf clovers,
explore oak trees with inviting branches,
run laughing in the rain,
wave at trains.
for setting me free.
Free to yellow my nose in buttercups,
catch a firefly to see his light,
pick the first wild strawberry,
count the stars,
talk to ladybugs,
chase a thistle.
for setting me free.
Free to see you in
sunlight dancing on the water,
dogwood smiling at the sky,
willows curtseying to the river,
azaleas flaming across the land,
for setting me free.
Free to play with,
all that you have given me.
And free, as well,
to give it back
We can hate what men do with God's permissiveness, but we cannot help but love what it means for life when we use it as He wills. If there was no positive side to the Father's permissiveness, there would be no happy ending, but because the door swings both ways, father and son became great friends. It is God's permissiveness that allows all sinners a second chance. He permits men to sin and defy His law, but then He permits them the freedom to repent and be forgiven. He made their freedom possible by providing His own Son as a sacrifice for their sin. Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for a friend. God in Christ became the greatest friend of all, for He died for all.
God's permissiveness is why prayer is a universal reality. If God did not permit His free creatures to have a say in what happens in this world, prayer would be of no value whatever. If God, by eternal decree, had already determined every detail of history before history began, then prayer is meaningless, for nothing can be other than it is. Prayer can change nothing if this is so. But the Bible makes it clear that God permits the prayers of men to change things from what they might have been. Abraham pleaded with God and God came down to ten righteous men as the number for which He would have spared Sodom. God listened to Abraham like a friend.
God said that in 40 days Ninevah would be destroyed. But when the people repented and prayed to God, God changed His mind and did not destroy them, but in mercy spared them. Prayer not only changed things, it changed God because He is a God who permits man to make a difference. He permits man to be truly free. Abraham Lincoln said, "As I would not be slave, so I would not be a master." Is this more noble than God? Not at all, for God will not be a tyrant who makes the will of man of no account. He will respect their freedom to be fools, or to be friends, and this is our greatest aid to knowing God as our Friend.
The elder son chose to be a stubborn fool, but the fact is, the father left the door wide open for him to still be a friend. The door was just as open to him as it was for the younger son. The father wanted him to join the party. That is the way it is with God and all rebels. They are welcome to join the party and be in on the joy of being part of the family of God. Prayer is the exercise of freedom. Prayer can change things; can change you; can even change God. All men are free to pray and make a difference in this world because of God's permissiveness. God permissiveness leaves the door open for anyone to come in to the party and discover God as their greatest Friend.