Most of our mistakes, when it comes to thinking about God, are the result of the detrimentally false assumption that God must be something like us.
Here’s a question to ponder: When you pray, how do you imagine God feels toward you? After you’ve messed up and you turn to him to confess—assuming your sin doesn’t lead you to avoid him altogether—how do you perceive his response?
My wife and I have been enjoying the hit Apple TV show, Ted Lasso, which hilariously tracks an American football coach’s takeover of an English Premier League soccer team. In the latest episode, Roy Kent, legendary retired player now serving as assistant coach, has a conflict with Jamie Tartt, current best player. Roy is dating Jamie’s ex-girlfriend, and Jamie has recently told her that he’s still in love with her.
Upon finding out, Roy surprisingly decides to forgive him but is clearly having trouble getting over it. Then, as the team celebrates a huge victory on the field, Roy smacks Jamie in the face. Only then is he able emotionally to embrace him in celebration of the win.
In our human calculus, forgiveness can’t be free; it requires some form of punishment. If we don’t make them feel it, we reason, they may never learn their lesson. It’s up to us to make them understand the extent of their wrong.
But God isn’t like us, and the sooner we come to this realization, the better off we’ll be.
Consider Hosea 11:8-9, a prophecy from God spoken to his people after innumerable offenses and idolatry: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
This passage communicates tension in the heart of God. He knows that his people deserve judgment, but something within him recoils at the thought. When his people return to him for forgiveness, his first impulse is not to turn away in anger; instead, compassion takes over. Mercy is closer to the heart of God than anger. As the passage makes clear, God is not like you and me.
When someone offends us, we automatically, reflexively even, want to get them back. We zero in on the injustice and feel an urgency to make the offender feel their wrong. The wife decides to give her husband the silent treatment or withholds sex. The husband leaves and immerses himself in work. The parent lashes out in exasperated frustration. The friend’s warm kindness turns cold. The driver lays on the horn or rides a little too close to the bumper of the car in front of him. Punishment is our default.
But God is not like us. When we mess up and, in repentance, turn to God for forgiveness, his default is mercy. He reflexively turns to us with compassion. He is not exasperated. He does not feel an impulse to punish us or withdraw from us. At his very core, he is merciful, meaning that he takes great delight in offering mercy to sinners. Forgiving us brings him joy.
In short, your sin is not enough to exhaust his mercy. Scripture seems to suggest that, instead of being hesitant and irritated, our God is eagerly waiting for us to turn to him so that he can experience the delight of showering us with undeserved mercy.
The cross of Christ is the greatest proof of this mercy. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Christ did not come to die for blameless and attractive people. Christ came to save sinners.
Such mercy is hard for us to grasp because our only reference point is ourselves. Contemporary author Dane Ortlund reminds us, “That is why we need a Bible. Our natural intuition can only give us a God like us.” Be grateful that God is not like us.