We’re all going to die. We’re all sinners. Apart from God’s grace, we all deserve hell.
But Lent also gives us a chance to consider God’s extravagant grace It’s free, but it costs us everything. In this post, I’d like to pay special attention to God’s extravagance. And what it can cost.
Extravagance can seem like wastefulness. Consider, for example, the life of William Borden, heir to the Borden dairy fortune. Instead of inheriting the family business and living a life of ease, he decided to become a missionary. As a student at Yale University, he started a revival that touched the entire campus.
When he was ready to start his missionary career, he flew to Cairo, contracted spinal meningitis, and died within a week. He was 25.
Did God waste Borden’s life?
William Borden never made it to the mission field, if by mission field we mean his intended destination of China. But Yale was a mission field, and not the only one where he served fruitfully. More than a hundred years after his death, his story still inspires people.
God’s extravagance in nature
Spring is coming, which means pollen season is coming. Male plants put out pollen so that it will find a female plant of the same species and make seeds, which in turn will make new plants. Most pollen never makes it. Most seeds never germinate. If they do, most don’t survive.
In the same way, think of all the humans and other animals that could have existed, but never did. A woman’s menstrual cycle marks the end of an egg cell that could have become a person. When a woman becomes pregnant, one sperm cell out of a vast multitude fertilized her egg. Any other sperm cell would have made a different person than the one eventually born.
We need not consider all the unrealized possibilities of living beings to see God’s extravagance. Look around at plants. Are all those shades of green really necessary? If no more colors existed than Crayola puts in its smallest box, couldn’t human life function quite well? We already do quite nicely without all the colors at the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the light spectrum. Other animals can see them and we can’t.
God’s name El Shaddai means, among other things, the God who is more than enough.
God’s extravagant grace in the Bible
God made two humans, male and female. He planted a garden for them. He could have provided one or two kinds of food, but the garden had trees of many kinds. God reserved one tree for himself but allowed them to eat from every other.
They chose to regard the one exception as a sign of God’s stinginess and ate from it anyway.
That act of rebellion brought sin and death into the world. Instead of destroying the man and woman, God immediately promised to redeem them from the ultimate consequence of their choice.
The immediate consequence includes violence, oppression, and inequality. Soon, some people became rich and powerful enough to prevent other people from sharing in God’s bounty.
God always takes the part of the poor and oppressed.
When a creditor came to take the children of a young widow as slaves, God’s prophet Elisha asked her what she had. Just a little oil. So he told her to collect as many containers as she could and pour oil into them. That little bit of oil filled them all and gave her a commodity to sell and pay off the creditor. (See 2 Kings 4:1-7.)
On two occasions, Jesus had compassion on hungry crowds of thousands of people. Did he see that they got just enough to tide them over? No. The disciples needed multiple baskets to collect all the leftovers. Oh, and he provided wine for a wedding when the hosts ran out—about 180 gallons of it to save his mother’s friends from embarrassment.
The special case of God’s extravagance with human life
God not only provides for people extravagantly, he kills them extravagantly. And why not? We’re all his. We rebelled against him. Yet people read parts of the Old Testament and recoil. They reject the picture of God they think they see there.
For example, when Israel finally invaded the land of Canaan, God commanded capital punishment for Canaanites and their society. Driving the Canaanites out of the land would have entailed the slaughter of an untold number of men, women, and children.
Is the Old Testament God simply bloodthirsty? If Israel had fully obeyed, would that have been a waste?
Not compared to the cost of not doing so. Instead, Israel adopted such wicked Canaanite practices as child sacrifice. And Canaanites had no prohibition of murder.
Over the next 800 years, before the final extermination of Canaanites at the hands of the Babylonians, many more people died as a result of Canaanite practices than would have been killed if Israel had executed one generation.
That’s only one example of God’s severe justice.
In an uncharacteristic lapse of faith, David ordered a census that even his ungodly military commander recognized as wrong (1 Chronicles 21:1-14). God gave David a choice of punishments, and David chose the one that God would handle personally; 70,000 people died of pestilence.
From then to the end of the kingdom, kings sinned and many people died as a result. God even allowed destruction of the temple he had chosen as his earthly dwelling.
Are these cases of innocent people dying for someone else’s sin? Hardly. All have sinned. That means there are no innocent people. The choice of who died and who didn’t might seem random, but as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Israelites finally abandoned their Canaanite idolatry.
What, then, of all the heroes of the faith who have died not for doing wrong, but for living for God?
. . . Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword . . . (Hebrews 11:35-37 ESV)
The early church suffered tremendous persecution. The Bible records the martyrdom of Stephen and James. God gave the best he had for the sake of growing his church.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15 ESV). That word “precious” primarily means valuable. It also has the sense of costly. God gets value from martyrdom, but it costs him something.
To this day, Christians are slaughtered by the dozens when they refuse to renounce their faith. And the more Christians Islamic and other terrorists kill, the more the church grows. People in the vicinity see the contrast between the nobility of the martyrs and the thuggishness of their killers and accept Christ for themselves.
William Borden didn’t suffer martyrdom, but he represents a multitude of people over the generations who have given their all for the faith and not lived to accomplish the work they set out to do. Their example has bolstered the faith of dozens, hundreds, or even millions of other people over time. The church grows––in strength and commitment more than in numbers.
Some perspectives on God’s extravagance
And why should God not expend the lives of humans as he does?
Jesus gave up untold riches and authority in heaven to become the son of poor peasants, live without any social or economic advantages, and die of judicial murder.
And that’s the only reason why there can be any saints in the first place. Jesus won back what Satan stole in Eden.
God’s ways are not our ways. We take his extravagant grace for granted when it comes to the sheer number of different species, of stars, of grains of sand. We mourn what seems like the waste of life at God’s hands. But we don’t consider seriously enough our own wars, murders, and the holocaust of unborn life in abortion clinics.
When humans kill humans, nothing results but dead humans and pain and suffering among survivors. Pure waste. When God “wastes” humans, he brings about glory and redemption. Let’s not criticize God for his extravagant grace and mercy, even if it involves death and suffering. None of us can ever suffer as much as he did.
Gift wrap. Some rights reserved by torbakhopper
Garden. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Wedding at Cana. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Joshua burns Ai. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Stoning of Stephen. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Crucifixion. Some rights reserved by Cea.