"... I did not come to judge the world, but to save it." (John 12:47)
Today's report card day. I'm a little nervous.
It's report card day at Josh's school. His first one. Today the verdict comes in on the first couple of months of his school career. Truth be told, I'm not even sure what a kindergarten report card looks like. I'm not sure what to expect. Oh, I don't anticipate any big problems. But whenever evaluation is the subject, there's a little bit of apprehension involved. And depending on how important the evaluation is, there might very well be more than a little bit of apprehension!
Here's the thing, though. I know Josh's teacher. More importantly, his teacher knows him. She knows what he's capable of accomplishing. She's taught kindergarten for twenty-five years; she knows what she can expect and what she shouldn't expect. She has his best interests at heart. She isn't looking to find fault with Josh. Criticism isn't on her agenda.
I imagine she could find a few failures if she wanted to be critical. (Yes, even in MY kid!) She could have been keeping records of times when Josh talked out of turn, was out of his seat, or wasn't paying attention. She could criticize his writing for not being perfect and come down hard on his interpersonal skills. I imagine she could have a 3-inch-thick file on him by now, but I'm not really worried about that. Her evaluation will be colored by her understanding of Josh's strengths and weaknesses. If there is criticism, I'm confident it will be mild and helpful — motivated by her interest in helping Josh improve.
Unfortunately, I don't think a lot of us have the same confidence in God. I know people who live in constant fear of his judgment. I know people who have borne the weight of his imagined disapproval all their lives. Some finally turn their backs on him completely, convinced that they can't measure up and are no longer willing to try. Others simply slog through their lives without joy, confidence, or hope for the future. They become bitter, angry, and tired, usually reflecting on those around them the disapproval they're sure God has for them. Christianity becomes a treadmill. Even if they manage to keep the pace for now, they picture God turning the speed up to the next level to push them to be better.
Is that the image you have of God? A frowning, disapproving deity who loves to find fault, to take issue with your every choice, word, thought, action, or belief? I know where we get that image. We get it from preachers who, alarmed by the state of morality found even in God's children, use God's disapproval to scare people into doing right. We also get it from popular culture, where God is pictured as the puritanical prude who quashes everyone's fun. We even get it from Scripture, which certainly does have a lot to say about God's judgment.
But, listen to Jesus!
"I did not come to judge the world, but to save it." That sentence is right there in the same Bible with fire and brimstone, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Hophni and Phinehas. When God chose to come to human beings in Jesus Christ, when he encountered us in the most intimate and personal way he ever could, he did not come in judgment. That should tell you something about God's priorities. Oh, he had certainly rained judgment upon the world. Fire had fallen to consume the wicked. But when Jesus came, he came as a Savior, not a judge. He came bearing gifts of love, not weapons of war. He came to pour out grace, not wrath. He came bringing forgiveness, not punishment.
Why a cross and not a throne?
The Old Testament writers used a stock phrase to describe God: "The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love." That phrase appears at least nine times in the Old Testament. Whatever else it might be correct to say about God, we have to start here. Does he get angry? Yes — he is furious with the disastrous results that sin and rebellion cause. Does he judge? When necessary, yes he does judge. Does he punish? Yes, he does. But, according to the Bible, we must begin by understanding God as "compassionate ... gracious ... slow to anger, abounding in love." Whatever else we might want to say about God, and we might want to say a lot, we have to see him through this reality, this revelation, of himself. He is the loving, compassionate, merciful God who sometimes judges; not a judgmental, wrathful, stern, disconnected God, who sometimes shows a little mercy. And that distinction makes all the difference.
There is judgment for those who won't listen to God and honor him as God. Even so, their judgment is not what he wants. There is judgment for those who choose not to believe in Jesus, but judgment is not why he came. There is a day coming when he will come again, a day of evaluation ... a day of judgment. In some way, we will be held accountable to God for our lives. Could he find fault with you? Sure! With me? Absolutely. He has plenty of justification, even on our best days, for tossing us into the fire. But, if we've made Jesus our Lord, and if our consistently-chosen lifestyle bears witness that he is indeed our Lord, then that day will not be a day of anxiety. We will stand before the God who so wants to bless us and pull us close to him throughout eternity — look at all he did to make it happen for us.
So let's serve him out of gratitude, not fear. Let's give him our best and trust that it makes him smile in appreciation. Let's confess our sins, repent of them, struggle against them, and resist them, knowing that he doesn't hold them against us. And when the time comes, we can stand before him confidently — not confident in our own worthiness, but confident in the compassion, grace, and love of the One who came to save us, not to judge us.