December 30, 2001

SUPREME RULER OR SPARE TIRE?

From everlasting to everlasting you are God. Psalm 90:2

2001 has been a very difficult, challenging year. Huge events have shaken nations, killed thousands, and frightened millions. Amid the difficulties and challenges, many people have appealed to God for help and comfort. Even public officials and public schools have talked a lot about God and prayer.

This has horrified the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. Always eager to insure freedom from religion and to ban mention of God from public institutions, the ACLU sank to a new low after the terrorists attacked America. When a school sign posted the words “God Bless America,” the anti-God legal eagles of the ACLU demanded that the school removed the message. The ACLU spoke of “God Bless America” as a “hurtful, divisive message.” Who but an anti-religious zealot would consider a wish for God’s blessing to be hurtful and divisive?

When many people and institutions talk about God, whether in America or in other nations, the main danger is not that the word “God” hurts atheists. The greater danger is that God might be trivialized by some who speak of him. God might be regarded more as a spare tire than as the supreme ruler. One pastor, commenting on some appeals to God in this time of crisis, put it this way:

Someone with the name “god” is being invoked frequently, but this “god” bears no resemblance to the Father of our Lord Jesus; rather, he bears great resemblance to a spare tire: they are glad to have him in the trunk but very sorry to have to use him; as soon as their problem is fixed they fully intend to put this god of theirs back in the trunk.

Here at the end of 2001, it’s a good time to ask yourself: Do I see God as supreme ruler or spare tire?

If that question sounds too cynical, let me just say that not everybody who turned to God in the recent troubles has regarded him as a spare tire. For some of you, calling on God in times of trouble flows out of a long-standing, healthy relationship to God through Jesus Christ. You’ve trusted the Lord for years. You love him and count on him at all times. The latest crisis has been just one more occasion to depend on him afresh.

For others, you may not have had a healthy relationship with God when the year started, but God used the troubles of 2001 to get your attention and to change your life. You may have turned to God more out of panic and desperation than any noble motives, and yet you’ve been changed in ways that are real and permanent. Now you realize how sinfully you ignored God in the past, you truly trust God’s love in Christ, you worship his majesty, and you believe his message in the Bible. You’ve entered a relationship with God in 2001 that will last the rest of your life and for all eternity.

I’m not a cynic. I rejoice in the abiding faith of long-time Christians and the life-changing faith of new believers. But I also know that that some of the recent God-talk has little to do with God as he really is. It’s undeniable that some people regard God pretty much the same way they regard a spare tire. If that’s true of you, you wouldn’t bluntly say that this is your view of God. You wouldn’t actually call God a spare tire, but that’s what your attitude boils down to: you treat God as a gadget that’s handy for an emergency. You wish you didn’t need him, and you’ll put him back in the trunk where he belongs when things are fixed.

Backward Binoculars

In easier times, when things are going pretty much the way we expect, you and I may wonder whether God is relevant to our daily lives. But that just shows how out of touch with reality we can be. The real question is never whether God is relevant to us, but whether we are relevant in relation to God. We might sometimes wonder why God should matter much to us, but the real question is why we should matter much to God. God is immense, unstoppable, eternal. We are small, weak, and short-lived.

Why do we look so big to ourselves and God look so small? Well, have you ever looked through binoculars? When you look through one end, things are magnified to look bigger. But if you look through the other end, even big things look tiny. Pride gives each of us binoculars. When we look at ourselves, we look through the end that magnifies things. We look bigger than we really are. But when we look at God, we look through the binoculars backward. We look through the end that shrinks things and makes them look much smaller than they really are. Looking through the lens of pride, we seem huge, and God seems tiny. We barely see how God is relevant in even a small way, never mind seeing him as the almighty, everlasting ruler of all that exists.

Every once in a while, though, reality breaks through. We glimpse our own smallness and weakness, and we begin to sense that we need God. This can happen when calamity strikes at a personal or national or international level. How can we survive? How can we cope? We find that we need God more than we thought we did. Another occasion for this dose of reality can be the end of a year. We realize how quickly time is slipping away from us. How could time go by so fast? Will the rest of our years vanish as quickly as this year? When all our years are added together, will they amount to anything? And when we run out of years, is there an eternal reality beyond our short time on earth?

As 2001 comes to a close, there’s never been a better time to throw away the backward binoculars of pride. There’s never been a better time to seek to know God as far more than a spare tire. There’s never been a better time to bow humbly before him as the supreme ruler.

Everlasting God, Human Dust

In Psalm 90 the Bible records a prayer of Moses, the man of God. It’s a realistic prayer, a prayer in which we come with our frail, fleeting lives into the presence of the everlasting God. Psalm 90 begins by saying, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

The moment we speak of taking refuge in God everlasting, we have to face the fact that we’re not everlasting. We don’t last long at all. God is eternal, but we die and turn to dust. And God himself is the One who makes it happen. Psalm 90 says,

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning–though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered (90:3-6).

We sometimes think we’re big and important, but God can turn us back to dust in a moment. We make big plans and make a big deal of the next few hours or months or years. When we started a new century and a new millennium, it was a big deal to most of us. But to God a millennium is almost nothing. A millennium is like a day or even less than a day. A thousand years to God are like a few fleeting hours in the middle of the night to us.

What a contrast between God and us! In our unrealistic moments, we think we’re big. But when we see things clearly, we find that our affairs are much smaller than we thought and the things of God are much larger and nearer than we thought.

Have you ever driven a car with a rearview mirror which says, “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear”? A mirror like that can make you think things are smaller and farther away than they really are. You drive along in your car and want to switch lanes. You glance in the mirror and see only something that looks tiny and far away, so you start to move over. Suddenly a monstrous horn blasts and your head jerks around in panic. The tiny object in the mirror turns out to be a gigantic truck that makes your car look as small as an insect–and it could easily squash your car like a bug.

Some of us cruise through life, thinking only of where we want to go next and of the fastest way to get there. If we notice God at all, he’s just a speck in the rearview mirror. Psalm 90 is the blast of a horn: it alerts us to a God who is much bigger, much closer, much more dangerous than we might think. Compared to the overwhelming reality of God everlasting, we don’t amount to much. We’re dust. We’re grass: here one moment, gone the next.

That message from Psalm 90 is echoed in Isaiah 40. There the Bible says, “All men are like grass… Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales… Before him all nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing… He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers… He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing” (Isaiah 40:15,17,22).

When 2001 started, the World Trade Center stood tall and proud. Now it is dust. Many people who were alive when 2001 started are now dust. Perhaps someone close to you was still alive when this year began, never thinking this would be their last year, but now they are dust. When God says, “Return to dust,” that’s it. Young or old, rich or poor, nice or nasty–God sweeps them away in the sleep of death.

The Wages of Sin

God is everlasting and we’re not. God is all-powerful and we’re fragile. But there’s more. Why is it that our lives are troubled and short? In Psalm 90 Moses says that sorrow and death exist because we are sinners, and God’s anger against sin brings death to all of us who are infected by sin.

We are consumed by your anger [says Moses] and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. The length of our days is seventy years–or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

No matter how great or good we like to think we are, all of are born sinners in a sinful world which is under God’s wrath, and all of us “finish our years with a moan.” Some people’s dying moan comes early, but even if we live to what we call “old age,” our seventy or eighty brief years are over so fast we can hardly believe it. Then we pass on.

We might want to pretend that death is just a normal part of life that we must learn to accept without too much worry or fear. But the Bible insists on the connection between sin and death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The fact that we return to dust isn’t just a fact of nature; it’s the result of sin. It was because Adam sinned that God said, “Dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). And God doesn’t just say that to Adam. According to Psalm 90:3, he says to all of us, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” God turns us to dust for the  same reason he turned Adam back to dust: our sin and his anger against it. As Psalm 90:7 says, “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.”

That is the truth, but how many of us are willing to face it? We go on fooling ourselves and avoid thinking about our weakness and death and the wrath of God–unless God himself drives the lesson home to our minds and hearts. In verse 11 of Psalm 90, Moses says, “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”

How great is God’s anger? It is as great as the gap between the honor he deserves and the honor we actually give him. How much honor does he deserve? The infinite power and perfection of God deserve complete obedience and total adoration. How much honor do we actually give him? Not much. Now, if someone deserves a small amount of honor, it might be a small sin not to honor him. But if you dishonor and disobey Someone whose honor is infinite and eternal, your sin is infinitely horrible. God’s majesty and might and honor are infinite and everlasting, and so his wrath against those who fail to honor him is also infinite and everlasting. That is why the just punishment for sin is not only physical death but also everlasting anguish in hell. His wrath is as great as the fear that is due him.

One measure of respect for God–or lack of respect–is the way we use his name. These days one of the most common phrases people use is “Oh my God!” Lottery winners howl “O my God!” and they’re not praying. When people are delighted, they misuse God’s name. When they are horrified, they also misuse God’s name. Think back to September 11 and the reaction of TV personalities and people on the street as they witnessed the explosions. Person after person exclaimed, “O my God!” They weren’t praying. They were misusing God’s name out of long habit.

You might object, “Who cares? Compared to such horrible things, what does a little swearing matter?” Well, what if I suggested using flags as rags? What if I said, “Go ahead, everybody, blow your nose in your country’s flag. Wash dishes with the flag. Scrub toilets with the flag. It’s no big deal. After all, a flag is just a piece of cloth.” How would you feel about such a suggestion? If you love your country at all, you’d be furious. A flag isn’t just a piece of cloth. It represents something great and precious to those who love their country.

A flag isn’t just a rag, and God’s name isn’t just a word. God’s name represents the great Lord of heaven and earth, and that name is precious to those who love him. Misusing his name shows terrible ignorance and disrespect of the living God. You may think it’s no big deal; God says otherwise: “The Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7). God’s wrath is as great as the respect that is due him.

Do you believe this? Do you know how fierce and fiery God’s fury against evil really is? Do you have a fear of God that matches the force his wrath? The less you fear God, the more you ought to be afraid. And, strange as it may sound, the more you fear God, the less you need to be afraid. Holy dread of God’s wrath and a healthy respect for his power and purity are among the signs of knowing God and having a relationship with him.

If we lack the wisdom to see our own smallness and sinfulness and to take God as seriously as he ought to be taken, then let’s at least learn to count. In Psalm 90:12 Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” If we learn to count our days and years and see the shortness of our lives, we may gain enough wisdom to look beyond ourselves and to beg God everlasting for life everlasting.

Make Us Glad

Once we see our frailty in the light of God’s eternity and our sinfulness in the light of his holiness, we can take the next step with Psalm 90 and ask the Lord to turn aside his wrath, deal with us in love, and make us glad. In Psalm 90:13-15 Moses prays,

Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble (90:13-15).

This is great faith! Flimsy, fake faith tries to talk about God’s kindness and love without mentioning his power and wrath. But what good is faith in a phony god who is too wimpy to do anything and too sweet to get angry about anything? What good is faith in a God in who nothing more than a spare tire–handy to have in case of an emergency, but otherwise kept in a trunk?

Great faith believes in a great God. Great faith is greatly humbled by God’s majesty. Great faith is greatly gladdened by God’s goodness. Real faith knows that God’s wrath is real and devastating and perfectly just. But faith knows something else. Faith knows that although God’s wrath is greater than we realize, his love is great beyond all knowledge or imagination. Great faith trembles before God’s great anger, and still dares to expect great things of God’s great love.

One great thing faith asks for is forgiveness. Faith counts on God to relent and somehow turn aside his wrath, even though his wrath is just. Such a thing might seem impossible: how can God remain holy and not unleash his full wrath on those who have dishonored him and offended his holiness? Well, God has come up with a way. He absorbed his righteous wrath himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was nailed to a cross and suffered God’s anger against sin. He did this so that God could answer prayers like Psalm 90, turn aside his wrath and forgive people who deserve a lifetime of trouble and an eternity of hell.

And faith doesn’t just ask God to forgive us and “let us off the hook.” Faith pleads for positive blessings, for satisfaction and joy. In Psalm 90 Moses begs, “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” And what was God’s ultimate answer? He went far beyond anything Moses dreamed. Moses prayed, “Satisfy us in the morning.” On Easter Sunday morning, God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus arose not only so that we could “be glad and sing for joy all our days” (as Moses asked) but so that we could be glad and sing for joy for all eternity!

The Bible says that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). In Christ he has certainly done immeasurably more than Moses asked or imagined. Moses knew that if the Lord forgave his people and gave us as many days and years of joy and happiness as he gave of affliction and trouble, then the Lord would already be giving us more than we deserve. Still, Moses asked for these joys, trusting God’s compassion and love. But God’s love in Jesus is so mind-boggling that he went far beyond anything Moses requested and gave people an inexpressible and glorious joy in Jesus that goes on forever without end, a joy as everlasting as God himself.

How can that joy be yours? Here’s how: Humble yourself before God everlasting. Admit your sin. Trust in Jesus and rest in God’s promise to give eternal life to all who believe in him. Then honor and obey the Lord and seek his glory above all else. Don’t treat God like a spare tire. Honor him as your supreme ruler, and enjoy him as your supreme delight.

True faith makes us truly God-centered. When you and I have that kind of faith, we become eager for God to keep making his glories known to us and to our children and grandchildren after us, not just for the sake of our own joy but also for the sake of God’s glory. Once we’ve seen the glory of God in the face of Christ, we want others to see that same glory. We long for his favor to remain with us always, and we long for him to make our lives and our efforts of lasting value. We know that as the years fly by, only God, the supreme ruler, can fill our years with splendor and grant eternal importance to our work.

So let’s join Moses in praying the last two verses of Psalm 90: “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us–yes, establish the work of our hands” (90:16-17).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.