On God’s Natural and Strange Work

I have recently finished reading Dane Ortlund’s phenomenal book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. The book is a beautiful depiction of the compassion, mercy, and grace of God, particular the person in the person of the Son. I was moved to tears at times as I read through the book and cannot recommend it enough (see my forthcoming review of the book). One theme in the book that struck me as deeply profound, however, was this notion of God’s natural and God’s strange work. This concept presents Biblical counselors and pastors with a tremendous tool for helping those who struggle with the assurance of God’s love.

The concept of God’s natural work and God’s strange work relate to the exercise of God’s mercy and God’s compassion. Christian theologians affirm the doctrine of Divine Simplicity, which means that all of God’s attributes are essential to His nature. In order for God to be God he must be compassionate, wise, eternal, just, etc. In other words, God is not a collection of characteristics, he is, in his very nature, all things at all times. He is not sometimes just and at other times merciful, He is always both just and merciful. And yet, Ortlund points out, there is something unique, according to Scripture about God’s exercise of exercise of His justice in the practice of condemnation and punishment.

The Bible reveals repeatedly, shows Ortulnd, this notion that “Mercy is natural to [God]. Punishment is unnatural” (140). So, the Bible tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8). When Moses asks to see God’s glory, the Lord makes his “goodness” to pass before Moses. He then reveals himself by speaking of his mercy and grace. This is what defines God’s glory according to the Lord himself (Ex. 33:19-34:7). Jesus tells us, in only one passage in the whole New Testament, what his heart is: gentle and lowly (Matt. 11:29). God’s natural tendency is towards mercy and grace. God is “trigger happy with mercy,” as Pastor Bob likes to say.

At the same time, however, the Bible does obviously speak of God’s wrath and judgment. Yet, when the Bible speaks of such things it does so with different language. Ortlund suggests that punishment, condemnation, and wrath represent God’s “strange” work. So, in Lamentations 3:33 we read that “he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” God does afflict, to be sure, but he does not do so, we are told, from His heart. It’s a different work. In Jeremiah 32:41 God shows mercy “with his whole heart,” but it is not so with affliction. Ortlund says:

The one who rules and ordains all things brings affliction into our lives with a certain divine reluctance. He is not reluctant about the ultimate good that is going to be brought about through that pain; that indeed is why he is doing it. But something recoils within him in sending that affliction. The paint itself does not reflect his heart. (138)

Punishment is something unnatural to the “Father of mercies” (2 Cor. 1:3). His desire is not punishment and affliction; He desires that all should be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). Consider, even that God’s anger is said to be “provoked,” for he is called “long-suffering.” His mercy, however, never has to be provoked. It is always primed and ready to burst forth. God’s natural response towards sinners and sufferers is mercy. His wrath and condemnation must be provoked, it is his strange work.

This makes sense, of course, when we consider that sin is a part of the fall. It is not natural to the world that God designed and not the way it is supposed to be. God is always just and yet the exercise of that justice in condemnation, wrath, and punishment comes only because the world is fallen. It is strange to God’s essence and character.

Ortlund makes a very compelling case from the Scriptures for this insight. I highly recommend everyone to read it first hand, but I believe that the development of this concept offers counselors and pastors great help in caring for those who struggling to believe God’s love.

The reasons people struggle with the assurance of God’s love are as diverse as individuals themselves. Often, however, they find it difficult to be comforted by the many Scriptures that speak of God’s grace and mercy, and this is because their interpretive grid assumes that wrath and anger are the natural disposition of God and that he must be persuaded to show mercy. They often have the exact opposite view of God that the Bible gives us. As Ortlund states it:

Left to our own natural intuitions about God, we will conclude that mercy is his strange work and judgment his natural work. (144)

…We tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says. (155)

The Bible flips our interpretive grid upside down. God’s natural disposition is towards mercy, he must be provoked towards anger and it takes a lot to for him to reach that point. When he does discipline he does it from love (this is his natural starting place; Heb. 12:6), and he does so reluctantly. God’s nature is loving and merciful. The heart of Christ is gentle and lowly. The Lord, the Lord is compassionate and merciful! This is who our God is.

Giving individuals a robust look at how the Scriptures develop the natural and strange work of God may be an helpful resource in overturning their interpretive grid. They will need, of course, to work through their own insecurities, past experiences, and anxieties in order to fully embrace God’s love, but challenging their interpretive paradigm can go a long way to helping them wrestle rightly with God’s Word.

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