God’s goodness will always come to aid believers

Published 12:00 pm Friday, October 25, 2013

Column: Across the Pastor’s Desk, by the Rev. Nancy Overgaard

When I first saw the bison in Yellowstone National Park, they struck me as big, mangy beasts. I could hardly have imagined there to be an ounce of goodness in their half-ton bodies. It was spring and the herd made a strange sight with their mud-caked fur, half on and half rubbed off on trees. Gaunt from the winter they looked shoddier, still, ribs protruding.

Sleek and filled out in the late summer and fall, I have to admit, some had rather buff summer coats and possessed a kind of outer beauty. Yet, even so, during mating season the bulls, at least, were more beastly still, pawing the ground, grunting, strutting and butting heads in an effort to defeat their competition and win the cows of their choice. An online article posted by “American Bison” on Feb. 20, 2009, confirms the beastliness of the bulls during mating season, noting, “With one flip of the head, they can run their horns through your body, crush your chest, or toss you around.” Even so, it is reported that every year tourists insist on taunting bison, failing to respect their boundaries and learning the hard way how deftly these massive beasts can pivot and charge after them.

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Given the beastly appearance and conduct of the massive bison, I was astonished by a tender scene described by a seasoned park goer, and as I, myself, watched the cows tenderly care for their young. Female bison, this local told me, habitually stand up-river from their young when crossing to prevent them from being swept away by the current. That, in itself, is a kind of benevolence I would least have expected from these brute beasts. Yet, my guide had once witnessed an even greater act of compassion by a cow on behalf of her calf. Despite her best efforts to protect the calf from the current of the river, her calf was suddenly swept down river. Just as swiftly, the mammoth creature pivoted and raced down river to save her calf. Regaining the downstream advantage, she lovingly nudged her calf back to its feet and to safety.

It struck me then, as it strikes me now, that if these mangy beasts exhibit such tenderness and compassion toward their young, how much more so the Lord for his people? In Psalm 27, the Psalmist wrote that, in the worst times of his life, what encouraged him most and enabled him to go on was the sure and certain hope that God, in his goodness, would ultimately come to his aid. Without that assurance, the Psalmist admitted, there were times he would have despaired. In the words of the New King James Version, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (27:13) In Psalm 23:6 the Psalmist expresses such confidence in this aspect of God’s character that he can face all of life assured that God, in his goodness and mercy, will see him through every season and situation of his life, including bereavement and death. More poetically, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (23:6, KJV)

In his classic reflections “The Attributes of God,” A.W. Tozer affirms, as does all of scripture that goodness is one of God’s core qualities. That goodness, the Apostle Paul reminds us, is demonstrated in ways we can easily take for granted. “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:17b, NIV) In the book named after him, Nehemiah recounts the many ways God had particularly blessed and favored his nation, even as God has so richly blessed and favored ours. “They ate to the full and were well nourished; they reveled in your great goodness,” Nehemiah says to the Lord. (Nehemiah 9:25, NIV) (Yet, ironically, tragically, in the next verse Nehemiah reports how the same nation inexplicably responded by disobeying and rebelling against God, defying and disregarding his laws.)

In, “Christian Theology,” Millard J. Erickson notes that God’s benevolence, one of many dimensions of His goodness, is most poignantly demonstrated by the giving of his son to die on a cross for our sins. As Jesus, himself, summarized the gospel message, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV) As Jesus also said, there is no greater love than that. (John 15:13)

Why, then, as the recipients of such munificence, are some in our nation so bent on, not only spurning God’s goodness, but taunting him to pivot and turn on us like an angry bull? In the news, this month, were continual provocations. Asked to write on someone she admired most, a child wrote about God, only to be told that was not an option. Elsewhere, a child was told that anything that so much as mentions God cannot touch school property. In the adult world during a U.S. Army training session Catholic and Protestant Christians alike were labeled extremists, lumped together with terrorist organizations guilty of the most heinous crimes. Yet, in view of the fact that God’s most extreme act of benevolence towards humankind was the giving of his son to die on a cross for our sins, perhaps the most belligerent deed in recent news was that the U.S. military had ordered crosses removed from chapels. A military officer was told to take a Bible off his desk. In the mail this week I received a 128-page report documenting 1,200 such incidents in the past year, double the number recorded the previous year.

For one who spent four years living in Eastern Europe, these incidents are hauntingly similar to those described by Romanian students as taking place in their country leading up to the rule of one of the most brutally repressive regimes in the region. Just when they thought it could not get any worse, it did, with Christians beaten, jailed and killed for their faith. But, I digress.

In our nation, incomparably blessed by God, have we so come to presume on his goodness that we have forgotten the warning summed up in Romans 11:22? “Therefore consider [both] the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in his goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.” (NKJV) For just as bison are awesome in tenderness, awful in power, so scripture warns that God, extreme in his goodness, will be severe in his judgment on those who foolishly insist on provoking him.