God of the old and new
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight looks at mother-love and father-love relationships and how this can help us understand God's love for us in the Old and New testaments.
Japanese novelist Shusako Endo once wrote that in the New Testament Jesus Christ brought us the mother-love to be coupled with the father-love of the Old Testament. While it is not true (as some think) that the God of the Old Testament lacks the love and compassion of the Jesus we see in the New Testament, one ought to be mindful of how these differing perceptions of the Old and New Testaments affect those assessing it, from the view of how parents ordinarily love their children. The God we see in Jesus who would leave ninety nine sheep in the circle of safe fencing and go looking for the one that was lost is of course very consistent with a mother’s instinct to protect all her children, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that any half-decent father would not do exactly the same.
Studies of families over the past hundred years have shown quite clearly that children who are raised in a stable home with two parents develop much better than those whose home has faced breakdown or parental dissolutions, although that does not mean, of course, that some people cannot be raised very well by a lone parent and emerge from unfavourable circumstances into successful adulthood. But as a rule, with both sets of parents influencing a child, he or she has the requisite balance of mother-love (a love less centred on conditions, more on sensitive and instinctive love) and father-love (much more centred on nurture, development and provisional guardianship), and this is conveyed throughout the Bible as a template for what the family would ideally look like.
Given the foregoing assessment it is easy to see why many who do not know God have a binary paternal/maternal impression of Him with regard to the Old and New Testaments, but although I wouldn’t conceive of a distinction in quite the same way, I can I think concur with the distinction, for I believe that God perfectly well encompasses both kinds of love in the three aspects of His personality (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
God is the same from beginning to end, and attempts to impute to His eternal character some nuanced differences over time based on our temporal precipitations is a bit like saying the rules of grammar in totality are different in different times because a comma happens to look different to an exclamation mark. We are told from the beginning that God is a merciful God (Deuteronomy 4:31), that He is a faithful God who keeps His covenant of love (Deuteronomy 7:9), and also that He is a God who will never leave us nor forsake us (Joshua 1:5). If there are changes in our perceptions that does not mean that our God changes, just as our differing experiences of dark and light at different times in the day and night does not mean that the sun has changed.
God is a giver – He always has been and He always will be. He created us because He loves to give, and that is the sense in which our perceptions of Him changing and the real nature of His perpetual giving become crossed like wires – we see Him acting in necessary ways in order to discipline those who needed it and we automatically draw a line in the sand attempting to separate that God from the Christ that we worship in the here and now. But this is a grievous error - for we know deep down that an all-loving and all-powerful God can never really change; it is our perceptions that change.
The real kind of relationship between the giver and the recipient should be one of benevolence on both sides which could not of course involve reciprocal exactitudes, as we are not up to God’s level. But in human terms isn’t it right that if one gives the other gives back just as much and both acts of generosity create mutual altruism? If so, how can we place ourselves in God’s eternal care when love makes no enjoyment of our being dependent? Well, I think I can conceive of a human situation that tenuously reflects the situation between creature and Creator; that is, where someone could be dependent on someone else, and both the one doing the caring and the one being dependent could both be happy. Picture to yourself a woman and her husband happily married. Now suppose she contracts an illness which renders her solely dependent on her husband for the rest of his life. She was a proud and active housewife, and now she is immobile, intellectually impaired, and very demanding indeed. Now suppose that she is able to accept her fate without feelings of disconsolation and resentment - suppose she can receive her husband’s love and care without feeling herself to be a burden, and suppose he can give freely, caring for her without any diminution of character.
There you would have an example of what I mean - the woman would have a harder job receiving than her husband would have giving. And if she learned to master this feeling of letting in love over constricting anxiety, and embraced a sense a freedom which allowed the relationship to breathe, she would be more blessed because of it. It is something that because of human weakness no ordinary love can possibly enjoy in the same way as with God, but it is something which can turn a natural love into something even more blessed; a gift of learning to receive something despite our dependence on it. I suspect that no man has come into full contact with the transforming of his love for the beloved into his freest love for God, for the gradual transformation is probably similar, in one sense, to a long cross-country journey - you see things pass by but cannot always at any stage in the journey recall exactly where you saw what.
I think the key to seeing an eternal non-changing God is to place ourselves in His care, for when we do that we can see the God we know operating in the entire Bible, as one unchanging, all-loving God. Let’s face it, it is only those that do not know God very well that ever accuse Him of being different in different pieces throughout time. The real truth about Him is very unlike that which we often presume or expect - and the key has always been getting to know Him well enough to find this out. He loves us as much as it is possible to love – there is no change in that – thank God.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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