I have the last few years found myself pondering a particular phrase in the 33rd psalm: “The earth is full of his unfailing love.” And you are either learning to see this assertion about God or you are not.
Living in the 21st century, with communication technologies and news gathering services that can inform us of every weather-related catastrophe across the globe, I wonder how volcanoes and hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts exemplify God’s unfailing love. It seems mentally more manageable when they are half a world away—typhoons in the South Pacific seem easier to digest for North Americans.
Of course, part of this difficult incongruity—the unfailing love of God and natural disasters on the planet—is that we hear of them every day. Past centuries, essentially anything before the twentieth century, did not have 24-7 access to the torrents of every continent, day by day. For most people, such occurrences happened once or twice within their lifetime.
But in life, whatever the century and whatever the continent, weather catastrophes happen, diseases ravage, and grief can abound and overwhelm.
So what kind of “rose-colored glasses” is the psalmist wearing?
Though we don’t know who wrote the 33rd psalm, their story is contextualized by the story of David individually and the nation of Israel collectively. Both stories are replete with challenges, agonies, ecstasies, and deliverances. Exhilarating highs and exasperating lows. The psalmist knew both stories.
Jesus and his disciples probably sang Psalm 33 and believed the creation demonstrated the unfailing love of his heavenly Father. In John, chapter 5, when our Savior went to the pool called Bethsaida and saw the many blind, lame, and paralyzed, he and his disciples could smell the stench and be overwhelmed by the paralysis. As far as we know, on that day, Jesus healed only one man among the many who spent years waiting for a miracle.
Of course, a gigantic clue in learning to see the unfailing love of God amidst the myriad of paradoxes in life—joys and griefs, sunshine and storms, birth and deaths and re-births—is Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in the third chapter of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (v. 16 NIV). To the Christian, the life, ministry, teaching, and sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the ultimate personification of the deep, unfailing love of God.
Several years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave, his ascension, and the empowering at Pentecost, the Apostle Paul is with his compatriot Barnabas in the city of Lystra. He heals a paralytic and the town is in a rapturous uproar, assuming that Barnabas was the Greek god, Zeus, and Paul the chief spokesman of the gods, Hermes. The crowds are so stunned by this miraculous display that they start to offer sacrifices to the Christian evangelists and worship them as deities. In dramatic protest, Paul and Barnabas tear their robes and plead, “Stop worshipping us, we are men just like you. We have only come here to tell you to leave these worthless idols and follow after the Living God.” The Apostle Paul continues:
“In the past, he let all nations to go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:16, 17 NIV)
The Apostle Paul in his initial contact with the stunned throngs of Lystra emphasized “kindness” as the first characteristic of the Living God that he wanted them to know. And God demonstrated “kindness” to people that didn’t know him as maker of the heavens and the earth—not just the people of Lystra, but all people—in four ways:
First, he sent rain to them. Paul knew that this didn’t mean that there were never droughts and floods. In general, rain from the skies was a demonstration of God’s kindness, shall we say, his “unfailing love.”
Second, Paul asserts that the kindness of God to the world that didn’t worship him was manifest in their taken-for-granted ability to predict the changing of seasons—springtime for planting, autumn for harvest. And, of course, that didn’t mean that there were never aberrations from this pattern.
Third, the Apostle preached to the people of Lystra that God showed his kindness by giving people plenty to eat. And, again, Paul had to have known that there were incidents of families and communities that starved to death. But, in general, and overwhelmingly so, people had access to food.
Fourthly, Paul told the crowd that God demonstrated his kindness by filling hearts with joy. This did not mean that there was no depression and melancholy amongst ancient peoples, nor does it infer that these people automatically knew the “joy of the Lord as their strength” (see Nehemiah 8: 10). However, every grace in their midst, every friend, every family comfort, every good gift was a witness to the kindness and unfailing love of God.
Of course, there are myriads, millions of ways, more than just four, in which we learn to see the kindness of God.
Yet, sometimes we can get weighed down by life’s incongruities—the conundrums of sorrows and joys, celebrations and griefs, victories and losses—and overlook the over-arching glories of God’s graces in which we are drenched.
Seeing the “unfailing love” and kindness of God, through Jesus Christ, is an attitude and orientation we learn over a lifetime. Learning to see the graces in the midst of difficulties is a significant part of our curriculum in Christ. And it is manifest in our commitment to kindness and unfailing love as God’s “image bearers.” For every act of our unkindness is a momentary forgetting of the kindness of God (see Romans 2: 4).
Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.