8YHWH our God, you answered them.
You were a forgiving God to them,
But one who punished their misdeeds. — Psalm 99:8
One of the tough things about learning to forgive is the feeling that we’re letting someone off the hook. Deep down we feel that they should get what’s coming to them for what they did to us. For many of us, we also feel that we should get what’s coming to us. That’s one of the very difficult things about graceâ€”it feels unfair. We get angry at the injustice when grace is shown to someone when we don’t think they deserve it. Indeed, they can’t deserve it, but we still feel that some are less deserving than others!
Now let’s be clear. Grace isn’t fair. If God was fair, none of us would make it. So let’s be thankful for a God who isn’t fair at all, and gives lots of good things to people who don’t deserve them.
But at the same time, God is also trying to make us grow up. We think of growing up as a child’s problem. But in following God’s pathway, we will always be growing up. Even though we get our perfect, spiritual bodies, I think even in heaven we will continue to learn and grow. In order to grow up we have to learn new lessons, and there’s nothing like consequences for learning lessons!
That’s the subject of our text today. God worked with Israel using grace and forgiveness along with consequences. He made the consequences very clear in Deuteronomy 30:15-18:
15Look! I’m setting before you today life and well-being, death and disaster. 16The things that I command you today, to love YHWH your God and to follow his ways, to keep his commands, statutes, and judgmentsâ€”if you do these things you will live and become great and YHWH your God will bless you in the land where you’re going to take possession. 17But if your heart turns aside, and you don’t obey, and if you are drawn away and worship other gods, and to serve them, 18I tell you today that I will certainly destroy you. Your days won’t be extended on the land which you’re crossing the Jordan to go and possess. — Deuteronomy 30:15-18
You see, forgiveness is powerful. Grace is powerful. One of the things it does is give us a choice, where none existed before. Because of grace we do have the choice of life and death. Without grace we have only the choice of death.
But grace is also an invitation. It invites us to follow God’s pathway. Isn’t that a contradiction? In fact, doesn’t Psalm 99:8 look like a contradiction? God forgives and punishes. There is forgiveness, but there are also consequences.
No, it’s not a contradiction. Our problem is that we look at things from too narrow a perspective. God wants to forgive you, but he also wants to transform you. Both of these things are gifts, but transformation only occurs when you get on board.
Think of it this way. Supposing I see you walking down a path which is going to end in a cleverly concealed drop-off. I can come warn you about the drop-off ahead. That would be nice of me, wouldn’t it? Supposing, however, that I leave you to think that because you have been warned, you are now safe, and you continue following the path.
God’s grace and forgiveness let us know that we’re on the wrong path. They let us know that we serve a God who will forgive our getting on the wrong path. At the same time, we serve a God who wants us on the right path, and is going to do everything possible to see that we change from the wrong to the right path.
Seen in that light, the punishment, and the consequences, are themselves part of grace.