Sometime ago I was speaking at a conference for singles in Texas. In the evening there was a discussion session in which the question of sexual ethics came up. Asked to share what I believed the Bible taught on the subject, I said it was my understanding that the Bible taught fidelity within marriage or abstinence outside it.

When I finished, a man challenged what I had said. He said he did not believe in a God who would impose those kinds of limitations, or even penalties, on the experience of sex. He then proceeded to tell me and the group what kind of God he did believe in—a God of love and not law, as he called it. He succeeded in putting into words something many people want to believe, although not many will be as brave as he was to say it in public.

My Kind Of God

If I were sitting in a seance and listening to witches talk of calling up spirits from the dead, it would not matter to me very much what kind of spirits they thought they might get, but it would matter a great deal what kind of spirits actually showed up.

I feel similarly about statements that begin, “The kind of God I believe in …” How often have we heard people say that, or said it ourselves? It is a funny thing to say when you think about it.

If God exists, then presumably God can make his desires known; if God does not exist, then there are, of course, no rules in the universe. But either way, it does not make much difference what kind of God we might like to believe in. For God—at least the God of the Bible—is not a product of the human mind, nor does our opinion of God change God’s nature. Nevertheless, people like the man in Texas keep talking as though it did. “The kind of God I believe in …” is very much a part of the search for a permissive God that so characterizes our age.

It is important to note that the man was not arguing against the existence of God, but rather for a certain kind of God, a God of peace and security who is there in our loneliness, a God of protection and encouragement, and, of course, a God of love and compassion. We do not want a God who makes demands on us or pries into our affairs, especially when it concerns things such as money, sex, or power. We want a God whom we can call on when there is a need, but who will otherwise leave us pretty much to ourselves. The Texan spoke for many in saying he believed in a God of love, not of law.

It is an attractive way of putting it, but the Bible does not offer us such a God. Nor would we end up liking such a God if it did. When Jesus called the four fishermen beside the sea, he did not ask them what kind of God they believed in, nor how much they knew about God, nor even whether they loved God. He called them to follow him. He made a demand. They had to leave something—their nets—in order to gain something greater—Jesus. In 1 John 2:4–5 we read, “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him” (NIV).

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A scene from Chariots of Fire illustrates this point. When Eric Liddell went to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he was assigned to run the 100-yard dash on Sunday. There was only one thing that Liddell took more seriously than his running, and that was his faith. His faith told him he could not run on Sunday. All efforts to persuade him otherwise failed. A British dignitary finally said in frustration, “What a pity we couldn’t have persuaded him to run.” After a moment’s pause his coach responded, “It would have been a pity if we had, because we would have separated him from the source of his speed.”

There it is: love and commandments. That is just what we feared. The one we like; the other we dislike. But the whole Bible is like this. It is not just that it will not separate faith and obedience, as though obedience were some kind of inheritance tax that God levies on the free gift of salvation. God cannot separate them and still offer salvation. There is something about love that is no longer love apart from obedience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept saying this in The Cost of Discipleship: “Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.”

Obedience is not a penalty levied on faith. It is the strength of faith. I like the way the eighteenth-century churchman Thomas Wilson said it: “The commands of God are all designed to make us more happy than we can possibly be without them.” The Texan had it wrong. The commandments are not oppressive; they are blessings. The more we obey God, the more real God becomes to us and the greater our faith grows. And the more we love God, the more we become like God. It is like a good marriage: people who love their spouses want to please them; and if they do not want to please their spouses, they can hardly talk of loving them.

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Coals Of Fire

You may be thinking that I am trying to put the best face on the worst things, that all this looks good on paper, but when your sins come flying at you like bats out of Carlsbad, you are helpless before them.

Origen, the third-century church father, taught that in the eyes of God each of us has been allotted a particular physical constitution as our appropriate sparring partner. Each person’s flesh and blood is particular to that person, and has been expressly calibrated by God to challenge the potentially mighty spirit of each individual to stretch beyond him- or herself. The gentle precision of God’s mercy ensures that our bodies are adjusted to the peculiar needs of our souls down to the finest details. To the eye of God, the temptations of Peter were as different from the temptations of Paul as were their fingerprints or handwriting. “You have coals of fire,” said Origen. “You will sit upon them, and they will be of help to you.”

These coals of fire do not burn and scorch, but they help. The commandments of God and the problem of obeying them, in other words, are not punishments or penalties, nor are they intended to destroy and defeat us. God knows each of our particular constitutions and circumstances, and they are calibrated to challenge the potentially mighty spirit within us to stretch beyond ourselves to others, and to God. God’s love is his law, his command to “follow me.”

What is the alternative to a God whose love is so deep that it requires commitments of his partners? Surely we must not lament the struggle of faith. Pain, after all, is a sign of life. A God of love without law is no God, a dead God, just as life without pain is not life but death. A God who makes no demands is an abstraction, and we do not need an abstraction in charge of the universe. The coals of fire are there to help us.

Moreover, consider what effect our trying to follow a God of love without law has on others. I close with another quotation from Thomas Wilson: “Nothing promotes atheism and disbelief in God more than people who claim to believe in God but don’t practice it. You call yourself a Christian? Tell me, how are you different from the heathen?”

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