The famous atheist Richard Dawkins once said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
God isn’t faring very well these days. Dawkins is only one of many outspoken atheists who are doing all they can to destroy belief in God. He directs his ire especially at the God of the Old Testament, and for many today, the God of the New Testament isn’t a whole lot better. Truth be told, when it comes to God, many of us have reservations. Whether or not we believe in His existence, thoughts of Him raise our anxieties.
Just recently, I sat at a small table in a café in a quaint New England town with six or seven young people who are graduate students at an Ivy League school. We get together weekly to discuss a book of choice— and God. On this occasion, a young woman in the group turned red and profanities flew out of her mouth. She complained, “You Christians think you have all the answers. But this God you serve is messed up!”
To say that this woman is angry at God would be an understatement. She’s especially upset about the pain and suffering that goes on in the world while this allegedly loving God stands back and does nothing. Of course, we don’t have to have such a drastic attitude toward this God to be mistaken about Him. Perhaps we’re simply lukewarm about Him. Maybe “playing church” has burned us out. Maybe we’re tired of trying to pursue Someone who may or may not be worth the effort. And pursuing Him does take a lot of effort: going to church every week; praying every day; reading the Bible; trying to be good. All worthy activities, to be sure.
But perhaps we’re mistaken. Maybe this God is actually anything but vindictive, bloodthirsty, or sadomasochistic. Maybe this God is worth pursuing after all. No, more than that—maybe He’s pursuing us!
Christian author Ravi Zacharias shares a story about Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. It seems that when Smith and a few friends were on a fishing trip to New England, Smith woke up early one morning to go to church along with a few others in his group. As they tried to sneak past the others, they heard one half-awake fellow whisper, “Wouldn’t it be awful if it turned out they were right!”
Giving up or rejecting or saying “No thanks” to this God would be a huge mistake, all right—not because He’s some kind of exacting being who will unleash all His fury on those who refuse to acknowledge Him, but because that choice would separate us from Someone who wants nothing more than to have intimacy with His creatures.
A funny thing happens when one picks up a Bible and turns to the Old Testament. Rather than finding an angry God, one discovers quite the opposite. True, this Testament pictures God acting from His displeasure—which is something that all responsible and loving parents do when their children do things that harm themselves and others. But the heart of this part of Scripture reveals a God who loves. A God who cares. A God who pursues.
Take, for instance, Psalm 23. In six short verses, David testifies that God cares and provides for His people much like shepherds do for their flocks. This is why David can boldly proclaim that even in the “shadow of death,” he will “fear no evil.” With the Lord as his Shepherd, he will always find comfort. The climax of the psalm moves beyond mere creaturely comforts and shepherd like care. There, David beautifully proclaims that “goodness and mercy”—the very essence of God’s character—will “follow” him all the days of his life (verse 6, NKJV).1
Such a thought is overwhelming— to know that God’s grace will forever accompany us. David later testified to this beautiful reality in another psalm, where he proclaimed, “I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me” (Psalm 139:7–10, NLT).2
So, it seemed that no matter what David did or where he went, God never turned His back on him. In fact, for all the successes David’s story contains, it’s also fraught with incredible tragedy and shame. The man who is known for his commitment to defending God’s cause and His people against the giant Goliath is same man who committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband, one of David’s best soldiers, killed. David’s story does contain many a sad page.
Yet through it all, David could confidently write that God stuck by his side. He could insist that God’s goodness and mercy—indeed, His grace— would follow him his entire life.
What Psalm 23 really means
But there’s more to it than that. Unfortunately, when those who translated this psalm into English came to this verse, they robbed it of some of its beauty. The Hebrew word David used is radaph, which is used more than 140 times in the Old Testament. Time and time again, English versions translate that word in a particular, meaningful way. But, curiously, in Psalm 23, where the beauty of this word should be on full display, they take a very unfortunate turn. Radaph literally means to “chase” or to “pursue.” Thus, the translation of Psalm 23:6 should tell us that God’s grace doesn’t merely “follow” us. No, He “pursues” us!
Many people have the mistaken idea that God expects us to pursue Him. In fact, most religious systems are based on this idea—which, to a large degree, is a reflection of the fact that they serve their gods out of fear, believing that they must appease their divine master.
Think about it. Some religions maintain that to attain their version of paradise, a person needs to carry out certain practices. In order to improve their standing in their next incarnation, their karmic account balance must be favorable in this one. People’s karma determines whether they will be reincarnated in their next cycle of life as a human being, an animal, an insect, or some other organism. Thus, people’s spiritual lives are all about trying to make up for the bad things they’ve done so that in their next reincarnation they can be human beings rather than, for instance, cows.
All these systems of religion are based on the idea that somehow, some way, we as human beings must pursue God, enlightenment, paradise, or whatever our goal is. They propose that by following certain steps or abiding by particular rules, they can climb the ladder toward eternal peace.
The truth is that the various religions of the world—whether Islam, Buddhism, atheism, or any of the others— place the responsibility for humankind’s survival and growth directly upon human beings. They must pursue God, knowledge, or whatever is essential to obtaining their salvation.
Wrong Christian thinking
Unfortunately, many Christians have fallen for such thinking too. They apparently believe that they must pursue God to obtain His favor and His blessings.
A woman who attends one of my churches informed me that she wanted to wear a head covering to church because she thought that if she did, God would bless her. She then went on to tell me about all the things she needed to change in her life, using the personal pronoun I over and over again. Eventually, I was able to cut her off, and when I did, I challenged her apparent belief that it was her job to pursue God by cleaning up her life (which doesn’t mean we can ignore overcoming our character defects). I pointed out that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, pictures a God who doesn’t expect us to pursue Him—He pursues us.
Interestingly, there are numerous places in the Bible in addition to Psalm 23 that use this imagery of a searching Shepherd. In Ezekiel, for instance, God announces, “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day” (Ezekiel 34:11, 12, NKJV).
We see this same idea in the New Testament, where Jesus announces His ministry in terms that remind us of this psalm. When some of the religious elite of the day complained that Jesus was partying with prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors, Jesus turned to them and said, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4, NLT).
Scripture portrays a pursuing God—a God who will do everything He can to win the affections of those He created in His image, much as a young man pursues a young woman who has stolen his heart. God isn’t angry. He isn’t malevolent. He doesn’t stand back with His arms folded across His chest, waiting for us to find Him, waiting for us to climb up to heaven. Instead, He brings heaven down to earth, constantly pursuing His sheep, which have gone astray. Indeed, He has pursued us so far that He even took on our flesh and blood so He could be with us as one of us!
Such is the truth about the God of the Old Testament, the God of the New Testament—indeed, the God of eternity.