Standing against the wiles of the devil is a never-ending battle, it seems. No wonder the Apostle Paul tells us to suit up for war against that prowling lion seeking to devour us with an exhausting inventory of devious and cunning strategies aimed at weakening and perhaps even destroying faith. Over the years, I’ve encountered quite a few of the devil’s shenanigans sown among God’s people. Some of it is easy to spot, some not so much. A particularly slippery tactic is cultivating a desire for “God in general.” Such a scheme plays well in our contemporary society that is so easily offended. Better to say too little than too much about most anything, especially God! Of course, this scheme of the devil isn’t confined to a faceless society. In truth, we all welcome “God in general.” For those of us who are like “hogs of the Epicurean sty,” to use Luther’s words, fond of luxury and indulgence in sensual pleasures, “God in general” who leaves us to our extravagance is just fine. For those of us more pious and working feverishly to cultivate virtue and avoid vice, “God in general,” who leaves us to impress him with our great spiritual prowess, works well too.
What both groups desire is wiggle room and the longing for God to not interfere much, if at all. Consequently, blathering on endlessly about the generic love of a generic God is common. Still, such drivel reeks of the evil one who knows that “God in general” is of little use to all of us suffering the ravages of sin, the fear of death, and satanic prosecution.
Martin Luther helps us here with his distinction between God preached and God unpreached. Luther argues that God unpreached, “God in general,” is hiding. By hiding, he means God will not allow his grace and mercy to be confidently known apart from the gospel. Said another way, “God in general” is confusing at best and more likely to be capricious and terrifying. For example, a peaceful sunset and a violent tornado both spring from the word of the one Creator. Therefore, founding his benevolence on an opportunity to enjoy fading colors in the western sky, having avoided a house blown to rubble and spread over three counties, reduces the certainty of God’s kindness to fate or chance. The degree of his love for us is discerned by our proximity to the disaster!
Such a reality prompted Luther’s shocking assertion that God is indistinguishable from the devil apart from the gospel. He should know. Holding her in his arms, Luther mourned the lifeless body of his teenage daughter, the same little girl he held in his arms, giving thanks to God and celebrating her birth just a few years earlier. For both Luther and us, when God is hiding, all that is known for certain is that someone or something above us is messing with us. What is needed is not “God in general,” leaving us to ferret out if he is for us or against us, if we even care to do so.
Instead, “God in particular” is what is needed in response to sin, death, and the devil.
Specifically, what is needed is God in a manger suckling the breast of his mother Mary, God numbered among sinners held underwater by a wild man named John in a river called Jordan, God walking the shores of Galilee preaching, healing, and casting out demons, God sitting in Jerusalem teaching and wrangling with the self-righteous, God hanging wasted on a cross bearing the sins of the world, God dead occupying a cold tomb, and God very much alive and well sitting in the place of authority eternally. This is the God we need. Yet, we need even more.
We need Jesus Christ to speak a word of promise that is for each of us, specifically. We need him to hand over the goods he won for us. Thanks be to God that is exactly what he does using the least likely of all candidates—the sinful preacher.
“I will be with you always” is the promise given when hands pour water and a mouth preaches the Trinitarian name over the head of a sinner when a mouth preaches and hands feed the promise to Christ’s betrayers that the bread and wine seen and tasted is his body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of their sin, when a mouth preaches with the authority of Jesus Christ forgiving the entirety of sin, my sin and yours, yet again. When the preacher preaches, God comes out of hiding, holding nothing back, giving all that he promised, specifically for you.
Perhaps now you can see why the evil one works so hard to keep us chasing “God in general.” The devil knows he is defeated because when the preacher preaches the good news of Jesus Christ through the specific means of words, water, bread and wine, you are “apocalypsed” and the promise of God’s eternal mercy for you is certain, sure. So, when it comes to God, be specific, please!