For the past couple of years, God has been slowly teaching me about mercy. I have all these questions. Some days I have cried out to Him, not knowing enough truth to decide what to trust Him for. Who are You? How do You work towards us when we fail? How long is Your long-suffering? What do You still accomplish through us when we hold back from You?
I think that the reason I have struggled so much with these things is that the answers are not the same for every person, every time.
This is something I discovered last week when I pondered Isaiah 59:2. It is not new with me, to be uneasy about this verse and the way I have learned to use it. Allow me to quote it:
“But your iniquities have separated you from your God,
and your sins have hidden His face from you,
so that He will not hear.”
Growing up, I memorized this verse to use in presenting the gospel. But, is that a right division of the word of God?
Firstly, the verse is in an Old Testament prophecy to the nation of Israel. By extension, since it says “your God,” we might apply it to those who claim YHWH as their God, namely Christians. But it seems rather far-fetched to apply it to all humans, particularly to speak it to those whose very condition is having rejected God as their God.
The prophecy itself is directed not as an eternal promise or principle towards God’s chosen people, but as a message to them at a certain time. In context, the passage reads: “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity. No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity.” God is able to save, but in this case, He is not willing. Israel’s sins did not constrain God; they provoked Him, and this was His response.
God’s use of the terms “separated” and “hidden” and “not hear” apparently do not prevent Him from knowing the situation, from speaking to them, or acting on their behalf (see Isaiah 59:16-21). This does parallel the situation with the unsaved, for “when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” The terms, however, suggest a serious, but less desperate situation. Israel’s national sins caused a covenant-based relational rift in their help from God. The individual’s state of sin leaves him an enemy, justly deserving of God’s wrath, and unable to accomplish anything good, doomed – apart from the grace of God – to suffer punishment for his rebellion through ongoing eternal spiritual death in hell.
Though in a sense we may say that our sin-nature and our sinful acts have separated us from God, the Bible’s language of salvation and the gospel does not use that picture, of separation. The New Testament frequently refers to salvation as as being changed from enemies by Jesus’ death on the cross and by His resurrection to reconciliation with God. The Bible says that we were dead in our sins, but that God makes us alive, gives us eternal life as spiritually born children of God. I favor these metaphors to that of “separation”. In part, they speak much more dramatically to our salvation being useful immediately, and not merely to keeping us out of hell after we die.
In addition, when we are preaching the gospel, we are telling people to “call on the name of the Lord” to be saved. The good news we are sharing is that because of Jesus’ work, God will hear that prayer.
Returning to God dealing with those who are His, does He always treat their sin with a cold shoulder? In Ezekiel, God addressed similar sins by saying that when Israel would seek Him, He would answer them (and it would be a fearful thing)! Hebrews says that God deals with those He loves as sons, chastening them to produce the peaceable fruit of righteousness. He is a merciful God who, without excusing doubt and disobedience, continues to reveal Himself, to teach, to work through us. He often pursues us to bring us to full repentance, to have peace and intimacy with us when we are fully yielded to Him. But He may do good, un-thwarted by our turning aside to our own ways.
But I do not believe that God is obligated to show mercy in this way. He may refuse to heed our prayers, as David acknowledged: ”If I regard iniquity in my heart, The Lord will not hear.” So it makes sense to me to ask Him to be merciful, if He will allow us to pray this way.
I praise God for the times that He has elected to have mercy on me, and I continue to cry out to Him, begging Him to be merciful towards me and towards those I love.
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn