As I mentioned before, I have been loving the book of Zephaniah. So far, it has challenged my concept of a Sunday school story I grew up with, it has opened up my concept of discerning God’s will, and it is expanding my concept of God’s grace. I love this, because grace can be hard to see in the Old Testament sometimes; it is much easier to hang out in the New Testament where there are plenty of feel-good verses about being saved and way less prophets of doom spelling out God’s impending judgment. Isn’t it nice to live in an age where we’ve realized God isn’t so mean after all?
There is a downside to the perspective we have, however, this age where beautiful promises of Scripture can be plucked up and planted on sweet backgrounds with a cute font and posted on facebook for tough times.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Zephaniah 3:17. This is one of my friends’ favourite verses in the whole Bible, and it is a beautiful statement of God’s strength and love. In fact, the whole second half of Zephaniah 3 is a beautiful portrait of grace, forgiveness and redemption. God doesn’t say “at that time you will get your act together and I will love you again.” No, he promises to “change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech,” “remove the proudly exultant ones,” and “take away the judgments against you,” all actions of God to make his people holy. My problem with cutesy Bible verses out of context is that it takes God’s grace out of context and makes it cutesy too.
All the beauty in the final verses of Zephaniah follow on harsh words. Judah is rotton with arrogance and sin, and the surrounding nations are no better; God is fed up. Through his prophet he warns,
I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.
This is not a verse you’re likely to paste on a pretty background and post to facebook. No manner of swirls in a font can soften this message, and you wouldn’t dream of dotting those i’s with hearts. Sin is serious, and it is only when we look it in the face, in the mirror, that we can appreciate the true beauty of grace that reaches out to us in this state. This video of Brene Brown has inspired me in a number of ways recently, and one big thing I have taken away from it is that she talks about shame and grief being the two emotions people do their best to avoid. This totally makes sense, because they are horrible feelings to have, but I wonder if avoiding them makes our understanding of grace (and therefore God’s love for us) shallow. When we skip over Zephaniah 1:17 and jump straight to the back half of chapter 3 we do a disservice to the God who redeems our mess, who reaches into the dirt and blood to rescue us and make us new.
Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing the encouragement of God’s promises and Bible verses that speak of love and redemption. I just don’t want that to be the extent of my relationship with God or of my witness about him. Reflecting on the book of Zephaniah as a whole has challenged me to reflect on my attitude toward harsh passages of scripture and harsh circumstances in life – do I have a courageous enough faith to face them and trust that God is present there just as much as the verses I highlight and the moments that fill my heart with joy? God’s grace is many things, but cute is not one of them.
If you had to give three words for grace, what would they be?