Because God's Law is Love, we can depend on ...

The Trustworthiness of God

"The Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow cast by turning." James 1:17

A. M. Royden: The saints have believed in the trustworthiness of God, "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow cast by turning"; the world has never believed it. Only now and then have men caught a glimpse of the great truth that God is changeless and that His changelessness is our peace.

For the most part we have both believed and hoped that God might be capricious. We know of no man so good that we should wish him never in any particular to change, and, making God in our own image, we hope that, good though He be, we shall persuade Him - as a sincere and eloquent pleader might persuade one of us - to be a little better, to change His mind. We wish He might be at times more merciful, more full of compassion to us when we think we need it most; or more relentless and less pitiful to our enemies, who, we fear, may be besieging His throne of grace with their impious and unwarrantable petitions at the very hour of our own prayers.

Long ago [at the time of Noah], nevertheless, the caprices of God were seen to be a source of trouble rather than of consolation. It seemed that in a moment of well-justified wrath He had decided to drown us all and have done with it. In fact, He lost patience - a very human thing to do! - but in the end He was sorry and "repented Him of the evil," (e.g., Exodus 32:14) again very like a human being. So a handful of men and women were saved and the trouble began all over again. Then comes man's first glimpse of the great truth that it is not from a capricious, but from a constant God that men may look for assurance and mercy. "The Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake. ... neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. ... And God spake unto Noah and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you. ... This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. ... And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth." (Gen. 8,9)

This is the beginning of a nobler idea of the Divine. The caprice of God had nearly destroyed life: His promise henceforward to be trustworthy was recognized as a condition which made life possible, for without seedtime and harvest in regular succession men cannot support life. When the inspired writer added that the beauty of the rainbow was the pledge of this constancy, he had already perceived that Law was Love, for beauty is always the expression of love.

The idea, however, that Law is Love and the unalterable laws of God absolutely necessary to our development and freedom is one which we still find it very difficult to hold. We accept, and glibly repeat, such texts as the one I have taken for this sermon. We say that in God "there is no variableness, neither shadow cast by turning"; that He is "the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever" (Heb. 13:8); that for the guidance of the universe He has made "laws which never shall be broken" (Psa. 148:6).

We still, however, hope that, notwithstanding, our prayers, sacrifices, or ceremonies may induce God to change His unchanging mind and suspend His immutable laws. Too often we pray not so much that we may understand and fulfil His laws as that He may relent and make them a little less austere. We even contrast the love of God as revealed to us in Christ with the relentlessness of nature, and ask ourselves anxiously whether it is possible to reconcile the two. Nature, we think, is law, and all the universe is governed by law so unchanging and unchangeable as (at least) to save us the trouble of trying to argue with, suspend, or change it.

Christ, we think, revealed to us a very different God - One, who is love, and who will certainly yield to our prayers if we pray earnestly and faithfully enough.

Such ideas as these should already be impossible to us, I think. They would have been so, if theologians had not, by a tragic error, fought against the revelations of natural science. They thought that a world so subject to law as that revealed by the scientists of the last century [ca. 1850 A.D.] must be a world in which human freedom was impossible. They thought that law meant slavery and was the denial of free-will. They even lost their faith in God sometimes and left the unlearned and the orthodox more frightened still by reason of the terrible fate which had overtaken the students of science.

It is difficult now to measure the depth of such fear, for the nightmare has passed away and the truth has made us free. We know now that a constant and lawful universe is one in which we can not only be free, but be masters. We know this, not by arguing about it, but by seeing it happen. We have watched the conquest by scientists of such terrifying forces as water, steam, gas, and electricity. We see men plunging under the sea and returning in safety. We see them soar up into the air and watch them without a tremor. We see great areas of the earth's surface reclaimed from the sea, or from disease and famine, and made into healthy, wealth-producing places. We are so accustomed to these marvels that we marvel no more. We learn with interest, but without astonishment, that our voices can be broadcast round the earth [Marconi] or that someone has flown the Atlantic [Alcock & Brown in 1917]. We are moved to admiration by the courage of the flier, but we are no longer astounded that he should succeed. We have learned to expect success - if not to-day, to-morrow; if not to-morrow, next year.

We should, then, find it easy to believe both that God is unchanging and that His unchangingness is not terrible or relentless, but merciful. We should by now be finding it difficult to believe anything else. How could God, who is One, be changeless in a material universe and capricious elsewhere? Why do we still try by prayer to change the mind of God, and, when we fail, speak of "resigning ourselves to His inscrutable will"?

Christ taught us not to be "resigned" to the will of God, but actively to carry it out. Even in the Old Testament we are called upon to understand God "Come now, let us reason together, said the Lord God" (Isa.1:18); to stand upon our feet - "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee" (Ezek. 2:1). How strange that in the twentieth century people should still be found to sing "Thy will be done" (Matt. 6:10) as a sort of refrain or chorus to verses containing a list of frightful misfortunes, each of which, it is implied, must be "endured" as coming from the hand of God; when the words used ("Thy will be done") were uttered by our Lord Himself as a promise that where the will of God is done, there the kingdom of God is established, so as to make a heaven on earth (Matt. 6:10.

Christ appeals to His disciples continually to understand His teaching - not to be resigned to His inscrutable will. He told His hearers that those who failed to live by His teaching were foolish (Matt. 7:26) - not that they were wicked. His teaching here is in striking contrast to that, for example, of the author of the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, though both are teaching the same truth. If, said the latter, you eat of the fruit of that tree, God will kill you, for it is His tree, and He forbids you to touch it. Or (as he might have said in other words), "If you build on sand, God will smash your house, for sand belongs to Him and He has warned you off it." In other words, the teaching of Christ implies a constant God; the teaching of the other writer an arbitrary one.

The laws of God are not, to Christ, like the laws of men which may be broken: they are like the laws of nature (also God's laws) which cannot be broken. We cannot break God's laws, but we can break ourselves against them or go from strength to strength in their power. And the reason is this: that God, like nature, is unchanging and unchangeable. Because He is so, we can learn to use His powers. "His service is perfect freedom." (Rom. 12:1)

In Him there is no uncertainty or caprice. Having once grasped this truth, we must, and clearly we will, give up trying to change His mind by prayers or sacrifices. We shall instead try to understand His mind and make it ours. We shall in our prayers unite ourselves with His purpose. In doing so we shall find ourselves working mighty works, and our Lord's amazing promise will come true for us: "He that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do." (John 14:12)

This amazing promise (which Christians have rarely believed) is no promise of exceptional powers over natural or spiritual law. There is nothing here of the conjurer or of the conjuring trick; no claim to suspend the laws of nature or of God; no insistence on exceptional powers, either for Himself or for His disciples. "The works that I do shall ye do also," using the same power in obedience to the same laws. This is the attitude of the scientist, who never claims for himself the power either to break or to evade the laws of nature. His assurance to us is in such words as our Lord Himself used, that "he that believeth on us, the works that we do shall he do also" - and ultimately, without doubt, greater works than any scientist who yet has lived has done.

But "law" and "laws" are cold words to living, struggling, suffering men. We may know that there is law and may try to understand and obey it; yet we fail. It is too hard for us. Where is the law written down that we may learn it and obey it? The Ten Commandments? Surely this is not all! They do not satisfy us, neither do they give us that power over life and over ourselves that we so long for and so worship in Christ. These codes of law, lofty though they be, solve nothing for us. They are dead things. They do not help in their own fulfillment; they only condemn our failure. "All these have I obeyed from my youth up: what lack I yet?" (Matt. 19:20)

We lack Christ.

The law is nothing to us until it is lived. The Ten Commandments solve no mystery of life, pain, or perplexity for us. Christ superseded them with a [greater and more demanding] law which is love and of which love is the only fulfillment. He lived this law of Love among men, bore suffering as ourselves; and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Laws are not enough for us. We want a life to show them in action and in power. We want to see the One who proclaims the law live in perfect obedience to that law without once seeking to break, evade, or suspend it; and we want to see that, in fact, what He said was true - that such obedience is power, such service perfect freedom.

We want Christ.

While the scientist, still confessing his ignorance, gropes after knowledge and, even in groping, finds his hands laid on the levers moving the universe, his mind adjusted to astounding powers, Christ, in the perfection of His knowledge of a higher and a deeper world, moves armed with power and seeming to work miracles among men.

In one sense there are no miracles; there is no breaking of any law, spiritual or natural. In another sense all life is miraculous; we cannot explain the miracle of life itself. We do not know by what miracle love creates love, nor why hatred destroys. In our own lives, and supremely in the life of Christ, we see - we see to demonstration - that it is so.

If a code of rules had been enough, the Ten Commandments would have sufficed; or if not, then the Ten Commandments explained and fulfilled by the Sermon on the Mount. But a code of rules is not enough; even the Sermon on the Mount is not enough. A book can tell us something, but not all. Our Lord therefore lived the law for us, and we see that the law is love.

It is noticeable that, so little are words sufficient, if we take Christ's actual words, so far as we know them, and lay them side by side, we find that they often contradict each other. "He that is not with us is against us" (Matt. 12:30 ). "He that is not against us is on our side" (Mark 9:40). Which of these is true? "If any man strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39); but Christ, when struck on the cheek, remonstrated (John 18:22-23). "Resist not evil," (Matt. 5:39) said He who drove the money-changers from the temple. "Judge not," said the unsparing judge of the Pharisee and the Scribe. "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you." ... "I come not to bring peace, but a sword."

I think our Lord used the language of paradox and uttered Himself in seeming contradictions because He had to: the things He spoke of were too great for our human language. Christ therefore chose to speak in parable and paradox, knowing that we could never obey a law into which we had not entered in the spirit.

In order to understand His law, we must mentally and spiritually labor and sweat. We must learn all we can. We must try to enter into Christ's mind. We must seek the meaning behind His words. How could we do this unless we had a life to illustrate the law? How could He trust us to do it if He Himself had written a book? We should have sat down to read the book and get the law by rote! [As many Muslims do with the Koran.]

Now we must both read the books His followers wrote and try to understand the spirit of the Man of whom they were written.

It is difficult to learn from a book of rules how a game should be played or an art acquired; so difficult as to be, in fact, impossible. So it is one thing to know the law of one's country by heart and quite another to be a patriot. We must indeed learn the rules of the game and listen to the great teaching of the master of our chosen art, but we must also watch him play the game or paint the picture. At the least we must see the picture he painted and try to understand how he applied the counsel he gives to us.

Christ, the great Master of life, moved among men as a conqueror. For myself, I believe that He both healed the sick and raised the dead, calmed the storm and rose from the grave; but even for those to whom these are mere fairy-tales there remains the supreme miracle of the life of Christ - the change He made in the hearts of men.

In a short life of from thirty to thirty-three or four years, this man of lowly birth, without wealth or influence or powerful backing, so changed the history of the world that we date now every event in its history by its distance in time from His coming. "Before-or after-Christ "such is the dating of all our records.

Christ cut the history of the world in half. And this He did by no use of force or of wealth, neither the fear of armies nor of magic entered into His appeal. He achieved all by love.

The precepts of conduct which, in cold words, sound either fantastic or unmanly, He made real and glorious by His own life. He gave to all who asked and He lacked nothing. He met hatred with love and unbelief with an authority which owed nothing to astonishing feats of magic. He never defended Himself, and we see in Him the bravest of the brave. He took the sword out of the hand of His friend (John 18:11, metaphorically) and went like a lamb to the slaughter, and we cry in admiration, "Behold the Man!" (John 19:5).

It is useless to argue that Christ's laws can never be carried out, for He carried them out Himself; to protest that they are inconsistent with themselves, for the utter consistency of Christ silences the protest on our lips; useless to complain that they are unmanly, for no man ever was so gloriously and perfectly a Man.

It is only when we see how patience and courtesy and "non-resistance" look in Jesus Christ that we realize how empty is the mere commandment - how powerless without the living Example. This only deepens for us our knowledge and belief in Christ's assurance that God is Love. To turn the other cheek! To endure all things, to believe all things ! How pitiful it sounds in the ears of the noble, sagacious, and courageous pagan! But when he sees all these in Christ, can he despise them any more? They may seem too high for him - they cannot seem too low for him. They may be set aside as too hard - they can never again be utterly despised.

And so it happens that nearly all men have loved Jesus, though not all worship Him. If God is Love, it is more important to love than to believe, for it is only love which has power to create us in its own image. God is Love.

Here, again, life is based on universal, immutable law. Not Eloi [Heb. God] alone, four thousand and four years before Christ [Ussher's chronology], created man in his own image, but Love (which is God) always and everywhere does. We become, by irresistible compelling, like what we love. This is true of the least as of the greatest.

So, loving Christ, we learn to live as He lived and to obey the laws which He obeyed [which included the Ten Commandments!]. Law is no longer a dead and empty thing, serving only to condemn us for our failure to keep it: it is, a living power, enabling us to obey.

Thus Christ was the Word of God, creative and creating in God's image according to His words. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

by Agnes Maude Royden, Guildhouse, London, 1927

Go to Literature Index Page

This URL is