God is loving. God is patient. God is kind. But is God also severe? Can we say that? Any perceptive Bible reader who believes in God’s absolute sovereignty is eventually going to ask this question, like a listener named Tyneeka.
“Hi, Pastor John. I’m wondering if it’s wrong to say that God is severe. Recently in prayer, in a train of thought, I was led to use that exact word — ‘severe’ — although it seemed to me to be sacrilegious. After looking it up in the dictionary, it appeared to me that some definitions of the word ‘severe’ are negative.
“In the prayer, I was thinking about God’s character, that he is loving, kind, patient — and I added ‘severe’ to the list. Like I said, it didn’t sound right. I wondered if ‘serious’ or ‘sober’ are better words. A few examples of ‘severe’ that I found in the dictionary would be ‘harsh,’ ‘unnecessarily extreme,’ ‘grave.’ I’d love your thoughts on this. Is God severe?”
Not Always Severe
I think maybe the reason why listing severity as one of God’s attributes or as a definition of his character sounds awkward to us is mainly because we generally expect the attributes of God or the marks of his character to be carried through continuously in all his actions.
“Severity marks God’s behavior only occasionally, in response to particular attitudes and behaviors.”
For example, if we call him wise, we don’t mean sometimes he’s wise and sometimes he’s foolish. When we call him good, we don’t mean sometimes he’s good and sometimes he’s bad. When we call him just, we don’t mean sometimes he’s just and sometimes he’s unjust. If we call him severe, that pattern won’t work. That’s why I think it sticks in her throat. What we would mean if we called God severe is that sometimes, in some circumstances, in response to some things, he is, indeed, severe. Other times, that severity is replaced by gentleness.
I would switch the question from “Is God severe?” to “Does God ever act in a severe way? Are there particular circumstances where his wisdom, his justice, his goodness is severe? Are there circumstances where he’s not severe?”
Let me give you a couple of examples from Scripture, and then you can decide how to say it in the situation you find yourself in. What we find is that whenever God is called severe in a particular circumstance, it’s described with whatever it is that called forth the severity.
Take, for example, Luke 12. Jesus told a story of several servants who knew their master’s will and some who didn’t know it. The master responds differently to different servants.
Let me read Luke 12:47 to you: “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.” This is a picture of the final judgment. Jesus continues, “But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).
Yes, there will be a severity of judgment, and the severity is in proportion to the rebelliousness of the sin. Severity does not mark God’s behavior pervasively, but only occasionally in response to particular attitudes and behaviors.
Severity and Kindness
Here is, I think, the most important illustration of God’s severity in the Bible, because it is embedded in a context that gives us a sense of how relevant it is for us today. This is Romans 11:19–22: “Then you will say, ‘Branches [Jewish branches] were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’” The picture is being grafted in to the Abrahamic covenant of promise. “That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.” That is, fear falling into unbelief; fear unbelief. “For if God did not spare the natural branches [the Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus], neither will he spare you. Note then” — note is a strong word: look, behold, watch, hear — “the kindness and the severity of God.”
“Fear the failure to rest in God. Fear the failure to enjoy God. Fear not being changed by God’s kindness.“
There’s the word severity (apotomia). He’s saying to those Gentile Christians, “Hey, wake up. I want you to look at his kindness, and I want you to look at his severity.”
Now Paul continues in Romans 11:22–23: “Severity toward those who have fallen [that is, the broken-off branches of unbelief], but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.” That is, provided you keep trusting him, keep having faith in him, keep treasuring his kindness. “Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.”
The reason this text is so important is because of two things. One, severity is contrasted with kindness so that we can see clearly that sometimes God acts with one, and other times he acts with the other. In other words, severity is not an overarching quality of all God’s action like justice or wisdom or goodness. Severity is one expression of his justice and wisdom and goodness. It’s the counterpoint of kindness. Sometimes one is appropriate, sometimes the other.
Here’s the second thing that’s so important about this text. It tells us directly as Christians that we should think about God’s severity. It says, “Note well.” That is, look well. In other words, severity really matters. We should think about it. It should be part of our thinking about God.
“We should fear the kind of unbelief that God treats so severely, and then fly to the kindness that he promises to all who trust him.”
Romans 11:22 is a command: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God.” He says this right after he gives the command “Don’t become proud, but fear.” Fear there is fearing unbelief. Fear the failure to rest in God. Fear the failure to enjoy God. Fear not being changed by God’s kindness.
This is so important, and contrary to the way most people think about living the Christian life. Lots of people think there’s no place for fear in the Christian life, but Paul, in Romans 11:20, explicitly commands Christians to fear unbelief. To make it really paradoxical, we could say he commands us to fear the failure to be fearless by trusting Jesus.
Let me say that again. He commands us to fear what? The short answer is unbelief, but let’s say it like this: He commands us to fear the failure to be fearless by trusting Jesus. Fear basing your fearlessness on pride. Base your fearlessness on faith in Jesus, and fear every other kind of fearlessness.
I would conclude with Tyneeka that when we are giving a list of God’s overarching attributes, including severity would probably be misleading. In other words, don’t include severity in that list. But we should say it’s one of the ways that God acts in some circumstances, and it underlines the need for Christians to fear unbelief. One of the main reasons for us to know his severity is so that we should fear the kind of unbelief that God treats so severely, and then fly to the kindness that he promises to all who trust him.