A Great and Terrible Love

A spiritual journey into the attributes of God
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Who then are you, my God? … Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful.—Augustine

We are desperate for a great and terrible love.

We need a great love, one that captures our imagination—and transcends it. The philosopher Anselm offered this proof for God's existence: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. We need a love that is greater than we can even conceive.

We are a desperately lonely people, in a lifelong search for someone who will listen without judgment; who will embrace without conditions; who will give us permission to be who we are—sordid, sinful, lost, confused; who will not interrupt when we admit our adultery or describe our schemes of revenge or explain the wicked intricacies of our motives. We don't want more advice. We don't want to be fixed. We don't need a seven-step plan for a better life. We need a love so great that it just listens with an empathy and offers an embrace that says it's okay to be, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, "a miserable sinner."

We also need a terrible love. A terrible love "causing great fear and alarm," like a terrible bolt of lightning. A terrible love that is "extremely formidable," like responsibilities that are terrible in their weight. A terrible love that is "intense" and "extreme," like a life that paid so terrible a price. And yes, a terrible love that is "unpleasant and disagreeable" at times, like having a terrible time at a party.

We are a desperately inadequate people. We know all too well all too often what we are called by divine fiat to do. From the daily calls to clean up another's mess to the life calls of serving others in the home and in the world, we know what we are supposed to do, and a part of us wants to do it.

But sometimes sloth stalls obedience to the call—we just don't have the energy to love another minute. We need a love that will strike us like a bolt of lightning, to get our hearts racing with the will to move.

Sometimes the problem is selfishness—some days we just don't care. We need a love that can help us carry the great weight of the responsibility to love.

Sometimes it is hopelessness—we have failed so many times in so many ways that we just cannot imagine that making another effort will do any good. We need a love that is so intense and extreme, it makes despair an impossibility.

A love like this will be unpleasant and disagreeable at times, but the kingdom party is not decorated in Mary Englebreit motifs. We need a love that will offer an embrace that braces us to do the unpleasant and disagreeable things we are called to do.

In the famous book and movie The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion approached in fear and trembling the Wizard of Oz, who with signs and wonders and a thundering voice described himself as "the great and terrible Oz." It was his terribleness that drew the three companions to him and sent them forth on a mission in the course of which they slew the Wicked Witch. It was his greatness that, in the end, embraced them with mercy and kindness.

I was preaching on that most enigmatic of passages—where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and then prevents him from doing the very thing he commanded (see Gen. 22:1-14). I spoke candidly about the mystery of God' sovereign will, about how difficult it is to discern what God is doing and why he's doing it. I chastised our weak attempt to explain and defend God's inexplicable behavior, both in Scripture and in light of then recent world tragedies. I reminded the congregation that the Bible is less interested in justifying God's behavior than in simply acknowledging his sovereignty:

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