Of Spiders and Sheep

The Psalmist asks the question: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”  Psalm 8:4
One suggestion could be drawn from the imagery of Jonathan Edwards in his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In it, mankind is likened unto spiders.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Another image can be drawn from an illustration from a sermon by Jesus– that of a lost sheep.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.     Luke 15:4-7

One might be curious at the startling differences in imagery. The differences themselves would not be so striking if not for the fact that the general thrust of the passages are similar. Both describe the relationship of a spiritual lost individual in need of repentance to have a relationship with God. One uses the imagery of a spider or loathsome insect abhorred by God, while the other a lost sheep… valued and even loved by God.

Since humans are humans are humans… the diametrically different images of humans imply very different images of God— or more correctly, very different perceptions of God by the two preachers.

Jonathan Edward’s God, within the context of this specific sermon at least, was a God of anger and judgment. Jesus’ God was a God of love and mercy. Which one is accurate? Well, Jesus has to be seen as authoritative. But it is also true that there are passages of Scripture that emphasize God’s wrath and judgment. Some feel that God as portrayed in the Old Testament can be accurately seen this way. That being said, the judgment of Jonah, appears to summarize the weight of the evidence.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”  Jonah 4:2b

Now, it is true that Jonathan Edwards was a hugely successful evangelist in the early 1700s. It is also certainly true that this one sermon did not give a full picture of Edward’s understanding of the nature of God (students of his teachings and impact can speak better on this). It could even be true that the imagery was more for cultural impact than for theological instruction. Edwards was known for his vivid imagery in sermons.

But I would argue that his methodology/imagery is not correct for today. In his time, God was often viewed in terms of king or lord, and these individuals were often fickle tyrants who need to be appeased. The power of God was related to the power of kings… and royal power was viewed in terms of control (even abusive control). So the people were prepared to respond positively to images of God that today would appear fairly repulsive. In the early 1500s, people would respond to Johann Tetzel’s presentation of indulgences that appear to make salvation as something that God literally sells through the church (selling reduction of suffering in purgatory or even release from hell). Today, despite the unspoken belief of many that the rich are closer to God, either because their wealth is evidence of God’s favor or because they can buy God’s favor, most would find the idea that heavenly mansions can be purchased to be a hideous thing that would come from an unmerciful and unjust God.

Today, we prefer to see images of God in terms of father or friend. or loving shepherd. It is entirely possible that our culture embraces too tame a version of God. Still, that image does appear to be closer to the image in the Bible than that of a tyrannical autocrat. We like to say that God is both merciful and just, but the Bible does seem to indicate that, when all is added up, they are not balanced. God is more merciful than He is just.

Does this matter? Does it matter how we look at God and how we look at ourselves. I would argue that it does matter:

  1.  A picture of God that has more basis in medieval European governance than in His own self-revelation tends to make God seem more incredible (as in not credible) causing (spiritually) young ones to stumble due to a misrepresentation of who God truly is. This is unconscionable.
  2. When a religion portrays God in a manner that is incompatible with Biblical revelation, it is correct I believe for Christians to say that that religion serves and worships a different (and false) God. But when we are careless and lopsided Biblically with our own portrayal of God, who are we truly worshiping–  The God who Is  or the God we have Created?
  3. The most common methods of evangelism starts from emphasizing our basic unworthiness and deserving hell in God’s sight. This is essentially Jonathan Edward’s method. But in the Bible, often salvation is related in a more positive way. Not always, of course. But when someone describes God’s salvation in positive terms rather than in negative terms— her or she is not necessarily being “soft on sin” or being unbiblical. In fact, the three stories of salvation in Luke 15, emphasize God’s role… and particularly His motivation of love.

Titus 2:10 speaks about decorating the Gospel.  I Peter 3:15-16 emphasize that our actions and words should put our faith in a positive light to those outside of the faith.

We are lost sheep. We are lost coins. We are lost children. We are NOT abhorrent spiders. This is not because of who we are or are not… but because of who God is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s