We can be thankful that God "is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."
But we should also thank God if we're not among those God lets go their own ways.
God disciplines those with whom He is in relationship, His task being--as it is for any good parent--to shape our wills without breaking our spirits. That's what the preacher in Hebrews was talking about when he said:
...the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” 7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:6-11)Almost daily, I ask God to give me the faith and the strength of character to pray not just, "Lord, reign over me," but also, "Lord, rein in all about me that is displeasing to You or destructive of your ends or my good."
Some times, I almost mean it when I pray that prayer.
One day, I know that I will mean it completely. In eternity with Christ, I'll see things more clearly. Along the way, I will even catch glimpses of how desperately important it is to pray that the God revealed in Christ will both reign over me and rein me in.
As I do, my loving God will keep disciplining me in countless ways. I won't always understand or like that discipline. But as I look back on the paths I've taken in my life, I can see with painful clarity the things I couldn't see back then--things like the sinful potholes into which I'd fallen (from which God forcefully extricated me), the bad decisions I almost made, and the depths of God's love for me.
One thing I always try to convey to new parents is that there are two sides to loving a child. Side one is what the psychologists refer to as "unconditional positive regard." That's the unshakable love every child needs to know that she or he has from parents.
The other is discipline: caring enough about a child to structure their lives, to guide them in the right directions, and to force them to face consequences for going in the wrong direction. (Forcing children to face consequences for the minor ways in which they may hurt themselves, others, and God is a great way of helping them to avoid larger and far more consequential breaches of God's loving plan for all of us later in their lives.)
If both sides of love aren't apparent to children, their lives will inevitably veer off into hurtful and self-destructive behavior. Children who receive psuedo-love dealt predominantly from one side of the coin rather than the other, can become real monsters.
God may be slow to anger. But God does discipline His children. God is too good a parent to do otherwise.
God's patience with us when we sin shouldn't be interpreted as weakness on God's part or as proof that God isn't there. Think about Paul's words in the New Testament book of Romans,
...do you despise the riches of [God's] kindness and forebearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed...(Romans 2:4-5)Individuals, nations, and even church bodies may presume to ignore God's will. When we do, we may interpret the lack of immediate consequences as an indication of God's indifference, absence, or even approval. But even Paul, the apostle of grace and love, reminds us:
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:7-11)I pray that I will take these words to heart and live in authentic love toward all people.
I pray that my country will take these words to heart and turn in faith to Jesus Christ and so begin to treat all people--at home and abroad--justly.*
I pray that my denomination will take these words to heart and repent for its twenty-year rebellion against God and the authority of Scripture.
We mustn't interpret God's patience for anything other than patience. We must all turn to God while we can.
*This is not a political statement, although I pray that love for God and love for others can be openly embraced as a value in our society and in our governments.