Do we make God suffer? Does God really care about us?...

For God's Sake

"I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for my own sake." - Isaiah 43:25

Edwin H. Hughes: The prophet represents that God is the speaker. His wayward people is the audience. The language, crowded with personal pronouns, is the language of great yearning and suggests a beseeching Lord. We feel at once that the words would be quite at home in the New Testament; and we can even imagine them on the lips of Christ himself - they make us understand why some have called Isaiah, whether first or second, the "evangelical" prophet; for there is here a piercing insight into the heart of a redeeming God.

That insight is in no way more revealed than in the location of the forgiving motive. Often the scriptures reverse our expectations. The signal illustrations may be the instances where a statement is made that is apparently contradictory and yet deeply and everlastingly true - as, for example, that dying is living, weakness is strength, and having nothing is possessing all things. Yet the minor illustrations are seen in cases where the emphasis is different from our own. Considering the text as showing an evangelistic Lord, we are interested in the fact that the motive for the forgiveness of human transgression is placed in the divine heart. He blots out sins for his own sake. There is a reason for forgiveness in himself.

I

The usual presentation puts the motive on the human side. We ask men to receive forgiveness for their own sakes. We tell them well and truly that they carry in their own natures insistent needs for pardoning grace. Nor do we lack for outer symbols of those inner needs. We say to the drunkard that if he will come to God for forgiveness and redemption, the cleansing power will remove the bloat from his body, the blear from his eye, the blotch from his face. Where the offense is less coarse, but not less terrible, we still plead with people for themselves, saying that the divine grace in the cure of jealousy or envy will bring to the freed soul the generous mood that in itself is peace.

In other words, we have a right to put a reverent change into the speech of God and to declare that he says to each person, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for thine own sake." The witnesses of that motive are almost as many as are the redeemed. Paul, and Origen, and Augustine, and Luther, and Francis of Assisi, and Wesley, and Moody would all bring testimony that their own sakes called for the plenteous redemption of God. To him they came because their hearts cried out for the living One, and because they knew that their rest was in him alone.

Yet it is good and persuasive to discover the mutuality of the transaction - to find that the pardon conferred by the wondrous God is for his sake as well as for our own. With reference to a longed-for companionship Christ stated much the same kindly law: "Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am."

It is really quite dreadful to be where you are not wanted. When we discovered in childhood that we were "taggers on," the revelation brought a hurt to the heart; and when later we had occasion to feel that we were unwelcome guests, the experience became a bitter one, and no outward entertainment could ever compensate for the lack of the inner hospitality. In all satisfying relationships there is that element of mutuality. There is, therefore, a sober joy in the assurance that when we draw nigh to God, God draws nigh to us; and that, even as we seek to receive pardon, so God seeks to give pardon.

In forgiveness it is not an unwilling man seeking a willing God; nor yet a willing man seeking an unwilling God; it is rather the willing man met by the willing God. Going to him for our own sakes, we find that he comes to us for his own sake.

II

All of this gives the surety that, since there is restlessness in the divine heart when God cannot forgive, so there is peacefulness in the divine heart when God can forgive. With him, then, there remains always the double possibility of sorrow and joy. Speaking philosophically, we may shrink from the thought of a God who knows sorrow, but we still find no refuge for our thinking in a God who is so limited that he cannot suffer.

If we are made in the divine image, then our double capacity for sorrow and joy must stand for something in the eternal nature. When we follow the Bible through with this twofold test, we find abundant evidences of a sorrowing God and of a rejoicing God. Or, if we care to fall back upon the text's phrase, we find that there are things that God did for his own sake.

Creation, by whatever form it came, must have met a desire of the eternal Spirit. Especially the creation of human beings must mean that the everlasting fatherhood expressed itself in the lives of countless children. The Incarnation must have been the highest effort of an anxious God to enter into the experiences of men. There must be partial truth, if not total truth, in the statement that God made the world, and peopled it, and came into its life for his own sake; and that the denied fellowship with his people brings him pain while the granted fellowship brings him gladness.

Speaking experimentally [=practically], we note that as rank goes up, capacity for sorrow and capacity for joy both increase. One cannot excite much sympathy with the story of a pained or delighted polyp! Though the oyster be far higher in its vital organization, its pains and pleasures do not greatly move us. But when we reach the grade of higher life, we find that the birds have their songs of joy and their shrill notes of anxiety, and that they mourn over the broken nest and are glad over the restored young. When those two possibilities reach our human lives, both become fairly exquisite.

How we can suffer physically! If a thousand needles be pressed into the quivering arm, we shrink in agony. Yet it is far worse to have an arm that would not quiver - because pain is surely better than paralysis! How we can suffer in the deeper ways! Waves of anxiety, and ofttimes of anguish, sweep over our spirits until we seem overwhelmed. And then again, how good and joyous life is! This enlarged double capacity always goes with the growing rank of being.

We cannot conceive that it stops short when it comes to the nature of God. Some one wrote these words:

Can it be, O Christ Eternal,
That the wisest suffer most?
That the mark of rank in nature
Is capacity for pain?
That the anguish of the singer
Makes the sweetness of the strain?

If, then, God be the wisest and the best, the laws of sorrow and joy come to their highest in him; and within the life of God himself sorrow and joy reach their climax in the rebellion or reconciliation of his children.

III

If we return once more to the suggestion of our likeness to God, we shall observe that we do many things for our own sakes. We pay our bills, even when our creditor is worth far more than we are - partly because self-respect demands payment. We strive to keep our gallantry and our consideration for others in places where the etiquette is an unknown book - because the true gentleman is such even when all the lower pressures are removed. We deliberately vote a losing ticket, sometimes year after year, and we heed not the superficial cry about "throwing your vote away" - because we dare not throw our consciences away and lose even a fragment of our own souls.

These inner compulsions of spirit, how they do rule us, almost as if there were a kingdom of self presided over by a king who must keep his dignity and character and not soil the purple of his own soul. If we were to make a list of the things that we do, or do not do, simply because certain persuasions abide in our innermost natures, we should find that large areas of life are affected, and that we are constantly doing things for our own sakes.

When we pass into the realm of forgiveness and reconciliation, the law and likeness do not fail us. Two biblical figures of speech about God are based upon human relations, and in those relations we are evermore finding lessons concerning him. One of these is represented by friendship, and the other by the family.

The figure of speech based on friendship appears early in the Bible. Abraham, the father of the faithful multitude, gained the consciousness that he was "the friend of God" (James 2:23), while in Chronicles there is a strong word of address to the Lord in which Abraham is called "thy friend forever" (2 Chron. 20:7). But in friendship there must always be the mark of mutuality and reciprocity.

God and Abraham are in the friendly covenant. The mood is not an abstraction; neither is it something hung in the social midair. Rather it is the joining of two lives in dear relations - with an interplay of love and help that must have meaning for each party in the spiritual transaction. Alice, in Wonderland, speculates on whether a cat's smile is possible without a cat's face, and reaches the conclusion that such a smile is not abstract. Neither is friendship abstract; it is doubly concrete. It unites God's heart with a man's heart; and the friendship has meaning for both. If man desires the divine friendship for man's own sake, God desires the human friendship for God's own sake. Two sakes are involved in the hallowed association.

IV

Yet there remains a tendency to regard God as an infinite iceberg, unmoved by our attitudes toward himself. The correction of that tendency must come in part from any proper definition of friendship. With all of us, advancing years lead to the feeling that the loss of a friend is an unspeakable tragedy. The narrowing circle on the earth makes us cling more closely to those who remain and dream more fondly of those who vanish from our immediate companionship; while the loss of any of them by misunderstanding and estrangement becomes a poignant sorrow.

We seek reconciliation; and when we so do, we do not affirm egotistically that we do it solely for the old friends' sake. Our own hearts are disturbed; and we cannot easily erase their names from the keepsake books. We go to them with a plea for restored friendship: and, as we go, each of us could say, "I, even I, am he that seeketh reconciliation for mine own sake."

All this must be a feeble commentary on the life of the friendly God. Is he less of a feeling friend than man? Do our betrayals of him bring no sorrow to the infinite Spirit, and do our loyalties bring no joy? Were the prophets right when they described a grieving God? And was the apostle speaking truth in the exhortation, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God?" (Eph. 4:30)

If we have a friend that sticketh closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24), and if that wondrous Friend is denied by our conduct and wounded by our indifference, have we not a motive in him for our renewed friendship? And does he not have in his heart a holy eagerness that expresses itself in a constant pressure upon our hearts, as if He said, "Behold I stand, and knock, and wait - for the open door?" (Rev. 3:20) Who can fail to believe that the even partial realization of this truth would bring to our land and to all lands the most piercing evangelism and the mightiest revival in all the history of the kingdom of God? And who can fail to believe, also, that the indifference of men cannot be overcome until men are made aware that with God there is no indifference: and that the prophet's picture of him is forever true - as of one bending out of infinite and tender yearning to give the assurance that is itself an invitation, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake?" (Isa. 43:25)

V

The conception only gains in power when we carry it forward into the New Testament and find the pages of the later covenant sprinkled with the parental name of God. If a friend cannot be indifferent over a friend's relation to himself, how much less can a father be indifferent to a son's relation to himself? Perhaps we need a changed emphasis in interpreting the parable of the prodigal son. Surely the wayward boy, though recovered from villainy, is not the hero of the story. On the contrary, the father is the pathetic and glorious principal in the account.

If he is the final rejoicer, he is also the long sufferer. In the background we catch the sense of wakeful nights, and of lights trimmed with a pitiful care, and of eager lookings down the road that sloped toward the far country: and, at last, of the rewarded love of patient fatherhood. Without possible question in the theology of Jesus the prodigal's father stands for God, and the more so because in welcoming his returning son, he could have used without change Isaiah's great words, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake."

All homes that know not the grief of childlessness will offer the commentaries on this high doctrine. Good parents do not feel peace when their children are estranged or rebellious. Here is an intimate experience that has had its million counterparts: The tiny mutiny of the child goes so far that, for his sake, something must be done. Punishment that is vigorous, but not brutal, is given, and the wee rebel is carried to his early bed and is left there weeping and unreconciled. We go to sit by the hearthstone and to read the evening paper, only to find that the tragedy of the home has for our spirits larger headlines than the tragic tales of the daily press! We wonder if we went too far with penalty; directly we think, "What a terrible thing it would be if he died tonight!" So we go quietly up the stairway, hearken at the bedroom door, enter on tiptoe, listen over the cradle to see whether the "breathing is all right," note the farewell sob in the little sleeper's throat, and bend to kiss the slumberer's face.

Why that drama? Is it all for the child? Perhaps he may never know that he had a caller when he was unconscious! Nay, nay! Not for the child alone do we go. We are soothing our own hearts, driving away our own insomnia, searching for our own peace, and entering into such partnership with the prophet's God, and Jesus' God, that we could adopt his very words and whisper them to our own beloved, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake."

VI

The truth has its terrible side, of warning and preventing. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks about those who "crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame" (Heb. 6:6). He is not speaking of an ancient event, of a Calvary in a distant land and a distant century. It is rather the Golgotha of today, the cross of this hour, the thorns and nails and spears of this moment. The crucifixion is not merely historic: it may be in the present calendar of our own souls, in an indifference and disobedience that just now send Christ out to the Place of the Skull. The Lamb, "slain from the foundation of the world," (Rev. 13:8) is likewise slain in the ongoing of the world. The Passion is not an episode in the divine heart: it is rather its eternal mood.

John Masefield gives us a vivid illustration of all this in "The Everlasting Mercy." Saul Kane, with the money won in the prize fight, is in the place of debauchery with his lewd companions. The knock is on the door, and a little Quaker woman, who is ever trying to bring God's lost children back to him, steps into the room. Ere Kane can say coarse things to her, she says an amazing thing to him:

"Saul Kane," she said, "when next you drink
Do me the gentleness to think,
That every drop of drink accurst
Makes Christ within you die of thirst:
That every dirty word you say
Is one more flint upon his way,
One more mock by where he tread,
One more thorn upon his head,
One more nail, and one more cross,
All that you are is that Christ's loss."

Grammar, or no grammar, it is a true theology. The sorrowing God, revealed in the Lord Jesus, is not the one-day sufferer without one City's walls [i.e., crucified for one day outside Jerusalem]; he is the perpetual companion in the sin and sorrow of his people, seeking them for their sakes, and for his own.

VII

The truth has likewise its glorious side, being a savor of life unto life, and offering the chance of sowing to the spirit unto life everlasting. One song came to us out of the Moody and Sankey period and bore a lesson so scriptural and true that it deserves a place in the Christian hymnody. "The Ninety and Nine" gives us the picture of the Good Shepherd seeking for the lost sheep - the Shepherd with the troubled heart until he finds his own; the Shepherd of the long and atoning search; the Shepherd whose spirit is not at rest until the drama of salvation comes to its finale -

And all through the mountains thunder-riven,
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a cry to the gates of heaven,
"Rejoice, I have found my sheep."
And the angels echoed around the throne,
"Rejoice, for the Lord brings back his own!"

Who is the Good Shepherd? None other than the yearning God of whom Jesus told us! The emphasis in the parable is not on the wayward sheep; it is on the seeking Shepherd. And the description tells us not at all of the peaceful security of the lost when laid on the kindly shoulders or placed within the protection of the fold; but it does tell us of the Shepherd's glad heart, and crowds the words of joy into the story of the divine search. The Shepherd goes out for the lost sheep's sake, and for his own; and the Shepherd is God.

Here do we gain a new and reverent meaning for a phrase so often used flippantly - "For God's sake!" We toss it from our lips with a carelessness that approaches profanity. How readily may that profanity be turned into prayer! "For God's sake" - what a slogan for all souls! What a prohibition of wickedness! What a persuasion to righteousness! Tell the world that the Friend and Father, revealed in Jesus Christ, is not a frigid being scarcely deserving the personal name. Tell it that we deal ever with a sensitive God who broods over his children and waits for the sorrow or the joy that they bring to him. This truth about God will work like a veritable regeneration, putting the upper pressure upon our lives and adding the infinite motive to all our finite motives until all are gathered up unto him who is God over all, blessed forevermore.

Especially shall we proclaim to the sinning everywhere that the God of the prophet is still fully revealed in his Son, our Savior, and that in Jesus Christ we catch the message with still more heavenly accent, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake."

Sermon preached by Bishop Edwin H. Hughes, Chicago, 1925.