I originally ran this post back on August 16, 2013, yet I thought that it may be of interest to you again today, particularly since so many of you weren’t readers of this blog back then. This is a critical point in understanding Scripture, a point that is well worth reconsidering every so often, so here goes. I hope you find re-examining it as useful as I have…
I used to ask seminary students this question, “What is God’s most notable attribute from the ancient Hebrew point of view?”
Nobody ever got it right the first time around!
I got answers that contained wonderful divine attributes and these always included love, mercy, kindness and the sharper ones would chime in with faithfulness. But theologically speaking, these are all subcategories of the one I was looking for.
To the Hebrew, God’s most notable attribute is restraint.
Without restraint, God (and man, for that matter) cannot possess love, mercy, kindness or faithfulness., for each of these things requires restraint. Bear in mind that God is all- powerful; that He did not use His power to obliterate Adam and Eve when they deliberately rebelled against Him shows tremendous restraint. Truly, if I had that kind of power, and you rebelled against me, you would be toast, and maybe that’s why I didn’t get God’s job!
Of course, my little remark above demonstrates that I don’t think the way the ancient Hebrews did. I am Western in my thought process. To the Greek mindset, and the Western mode of thought that most of us have, God is more notable for His power than for His restraint, and this shows up clearly in much of the Western church tradition, particularly in the Catholic tradition. Not so for the Hebrew…
This is of vital importance for us to recognize today as we study the Scriptures and try to understand them more fully, and it is crucial if we want to understand how God is working both in the church and in the world around us. He is exercising restraint. The very fact that He works through His people to make disciples is a perfect example of this restraint, for since He is all-powerful, all-present and all-knowing, couldn’t He make disciples of every human being by some sort of process like a direct download? Of course He could but He doesn’t.
A couple more examples of restraint that are helpful for Westerners to pick this idea up are these:
1. God has given His revelation to Man in the form of the Bible. The Bible shows us the mind of God in human language and is limited to the rules of human grammar. This puts a limitation to the expression of concepts that are heavenly, for we have no language to communicate those things, so we have passages that are communicated in allegory, metaphors or parables.
2. To establish relationships with humans, God makes covenants with people. A covenant, by its very nature, restricts the actions of both parties in order to reach an agreement. Christians have a relationship with God as a result of entering the New Covenant. The New Covenant requires both Man and God to do or not to do certain things, all of which require restraint.
3. God allows Man to have free will. The fact that we have the ability and freedom to choose either to enter and keep a covenant relationship with God, or to turn our backs and walk away, requires tremendous restraint of God’s part.
There are many other examples, but this is probably enough to think about for one post. Try to remember this the next time you are moved to ask something like…
How could God allow…?
Why doesn’t God just…?
Why does evil persist?
…and so on. The answer to these types of questions is that God is most notable for His restraint, and this is the same restraint that makes it possible for you and I to have our sins forgiven and for us to receive the gift of eternal life.