Is That Really Fair?

Do you recall how Moses ended? It is a sad story, really. Moses was born in Egypt, taken by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised like a prince. At age 40, he tried to be a help to his people and found himself running for his life in the desert. He spent 40 years as a shepherd, returned to Egypt at the prompting of God, and began to lead the people. For 40 years afterward, he led a stubborn and rebellious people through a harsh wilderness.

And Moses made one mistake. He lost it one time. God told Moses to speak to a rock and bring water out of it. Moses was at the end of his rope. The people were on his nerves. Moses struck the rock instead of speaking. And that was enough for God to say to Moses that he would not be allowed to cross the Jordan into the promised land. One gaff, and Moses dies in the wilderness like the rest.

My question: Is that really fair?

Deuteronomy 32:48-52 – 48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.”

Is God’s judgment on Moses fair here? Or is this a little too harsh?

Can you sense that I’m asking a trick question? Perhaps you can. And perhaps you expect me to follow it up with a defense of the judgment of God on Moses. But here is the actual point: Asking that question is wrong.

Yes, asking if God did something rightly is a wrong question. In order to ask that question, you must set yourself in a position to somehow evaluate the actions, choices, and values of the Lord. You must set yourself up in a position to be able to examine evidence, compare it to a standard, and measure justly. But, dear friend and human being, you cannot do so.

God is the standard of holiness. There is nothing outside of God that measures right and wrong. God is always right by definition. And the moment I try to examine his actions, I must immediately ask myself by what standard I will judge right. I cannot judge by my own measure, as God is greater than me, holy in every way. I cannot measure by another person’s standard, as all are infinitely lesser than the Lord. The only perfect measure of righteousness we have is, get this, God and God’s holy word. God is perfection. Thus, his actions, whether we like or understand them in our limited capacity, are always, absolutely, completely, infinitely perfect.

Do I like Moses’ end? That does not matter. God is holy. God is right. God therefore always judges rightly. And if I am uncomfortable with a judgment of God, I am the one who must come to grips with righteousness, God is already there.

O, and if Moses’ end really bothers you, remember that it is an infinite, a hell-worthy offense, to treat God as anything less than utterly holy. That God would forgive Moses of his sin and save his soul is well beyond fair. God owes Moses nothing more. And I assure you, when Jesus spoke with Moses on the mount of transfiguration, Moses was not complaining.

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An Example of Fearing God Rightly

In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the nation of Israel of her history and the covenant between the Lord and the people. Of course, early in that reminder is the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments. And right along with the story of the commandments being given is the reminder of how the people responded to the whole event.

If you recall, God spoke in the hearing of the people. He made the mountain smoke and quake. And the people of God who saw it were utterly terrified. They were rightly afraid of the holiness and power of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 5:23-27 – 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’

The people came to Moses and acknowledged they had heard the voice of God and seen a glimpse of his power. They then asked Moses to serve as a go-between to tell them what God had to say. Why? They were afraid of that might and that purity. They could not imagine that any nation could really see the glory of God and his holiness and his power and still live to tell the tale.

Now, here is the point that makes me write. These people saw the spectacular and heard the voice of God. They rightly assessed the situation by being amazed that they could catch a glimpse of the one true God and live. They understood that God’s holiness is deadly. So they trembled. And in a respectful awe, they asked Moses to represent them to the Lord and to communicate to them for the Lord.

Today, I wonder how many who claim to know the Lord have any concept of this fear. I wonder how many who attend church on a weekly basis can even begin to grasp the holy fear that made the people of God ask Moses to listen in their stead. I wonder how many believe that any person should even think twice before approaching the Lord.

I believe wholeheartedly that Christians have been given the right to approach God in freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:12). I believe that God has adopted believers as his own children (John 1:12-13). I understand that we are made righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). And yet I also know that there is something very right about thinking about how one approaches the Lord. Our God is holy, holy, holy (Rev. 4:8). From his throne come flashes of lightning and rumblings and thunders (Rev. 4:5).

It would be a good thing, I think, if we remembered the holiness of God that caused such trembling in the nation of Israel. It would be good if we were in awe of the concept of a people being allowed in the presence of God. It would be good to shake our heads in wonder at the concept of hearing the words of God and yet living. And then it would be good to enter that presence of God, humbly, under the grace of Jesus, with proper gratitude. I think relearning a little of the fear of God in this way would honor him well even as it helps us to be truly grateful for grace.

Holiness and Anthropology

What you believe about God determines what you will understand to be true of man. What you believe to be true of God and man will determine a great deal of how you think about every issue of life. Thus, if you get the issue of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man wrong, you will have a warped view of all the rest of the world.

As I was working through my daily Bible reading, I found myself in the book of Numbers. I think, for many of us, a read through the early chapters of Numbers is, admittedly, not the easiest thing to do. Our eyes glaze over as we hear details about how many were in each tribe or whose job it is to carry what part of the tent. But if we will let ourselves listen to the significance of the details, we will learn something about theology and anthropology that will impact our world.

In Numbers 4, God was doling out the responsibilities of the Levites regarding the carrying of the tabernacle. Different groups would carry the items from inside the tent. Other groups would carry the poles and coverings of the tent itself. But it was the job of Aaron, the high priest, and his sons to pack up all the sacred things inside the tent. Aaron and his sons would be sent in to wrap every holy item up in the tent coverings so that they could not be touched or seen by those who would carry them.

Numbers 4:15–19 – 15 And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry.
16 “And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall have charge of the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the regular grain offering, and the anointing oil, with the oversight of the whole tabernacle and all that is in it, of the sanctuary and its vessels.”
17 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden,

Notice that God tells us why it is so important that the Kohathites not see or touch the holy things. If they do, they will die. Touching the ark of the covenant would mean instant death. And even looking upon the holy things would kill.

Stop. Think about that. Let it sink in. Seeing the holy, even for a Levite who would carry the holy thing, would bring death. You have to let the weight of that thought sink in if you are going to have a proper, biblical view of mankind in comparison to God.

Every human being, even those of the priestly Levitical tribe, is a sinner. Thus, every human being falls short of the holiness of God (Rom. 3:23). Because we swim in a sea of humanity, surrounded by one another in our weaknesses, we assume that this is a problem, but not an ultimate problem. Of course we are appalled by the evils of some who would hurt children or start unjust wars, but in general, we assume that the average human being who lives an average life with an average family in an average town is on average good. WE assume that person to be at worst neutral and thus deserving of the favor of God.

But stop again and think about this. God’s holy ark—a gold covered box—was so sacred simply as a representation of something holy that for an unauthorized priest to look at it would cost him his life. The holiness of God is consuming and deadly to a sinful man.

A proper, biblical anthropology will tell you that every human being under Adam is by nature and choice a rebel against God. We are tainted by that rebellion so that we fall infinitely short of the holiness and perfection of God. For us to be brought into the presence of God without God actively shielding us from his holiness would be to bring about our immediate destruction. And that destruction is perfect just and right, because God is holy, perfect, pure, and the ultimate standard by which we are judged. We have no excuse for our sin. WE have no demand that we can make on God. We are hopeless and helpless, deserving of wrath. That is not because we are worse than other people who are good—none are good. IT is because we are less than the perfection God’s holiness demands.

And this, of course, makes us love the gospel. God sent his Son who lived the only holy human life ever lived. And Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. And Jesus rose from the grave. And Jesus tells us that all who come to him in faith are both forgiven of their sins and sanctified, set apart, made holy by God. Thus, all who come to Jesus in faith and repentance are covered by his grace and his perfection so that we can be made children of God.

But, Christians, understand that the Bible is clear that this grace is a gift we do not deserve. WE are not holy. The holiness of God is deadly. If God does not cover us, we die, and rightly so. These facts must shape your understanding of humanity, otherwise you will misunderstand the gospel and be deeply confused regarding issues of life, faith, and justice.

Shepherds Conference 2019 Session 2 Notes

Session 2

Sinclair Ferguson

Faithfulness and Holiness in the Life of the Minister

Hebrews 12

There is a stress on holiness in this book.

It seems that holiness has lost its position in the vocabulary of the life of gospel ministers.

Success and satisfaction are more often used.

Hebrews emphasizes faithfulness.

Hebrews emphasizes holding fast and being faithful.

Those to whom God is faithful become faithful.

Jesus is the revelation of the radiant glory of

God.

HE is the Creator and the heir of the cosmos

HE is also the one who made purification for sins.

Holiness is written all over Jesus’ ministry.

Moses wished all of the people could have God’s Spirit. HE saw that the Old Covenant could not accomplish all that he wanted.

Christ’s priestly ministry effects holiness.

Christ brings us an imputed holiness.

Imputed holiness is inseparable from an imparted holiness.

Paul says we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And yet we are being sanctified.

Sanctification is an accomplished reality in our lives.

We do not aspire to be saints or holy ones; this is what we are.

But there is also an ongoing sanctifying of believers.

There is a progressive sanctification.

Eventually, all who have looked to Jesus for salvation will come to look like Jesus in sanctification and ultimate glorification.

The therefore in Hebrews 12:1 is great.

It is true in you and your ministry.

You should desire to be holy.

You should desire to be as holy as it is possible for a saved sinner to be.

It is a rare thing to hear a gospel minister described as holy.

  1. The absolute necessity of holiness in gospel ministers

Hebrews 12:10, Disciplines are for our good that we may share in holiness.

12:14, holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Lack of holiness indicates that one has not received the grace of God.

We live in strange times when we see unusually gifted people falling horribly.

They have confused natural gifts with saving grace.

What do we substitute for real sanctification?

Do we substitute effectiveness in our gifts for actual sanctification?

If it is true that, without holiness, no one will see the Lord, then it is true that no minister of the gospel, without holiness, will ever see the Lord.

  1. Six Areas of Battle that are Vital in Gospel Ministers

Where do we stand strong under pressure?

Where do we battle?

  • Practices that may not be sinful, but which will not advance gospel in our lives

What might distract us?

Be careful with approving activities that you only say of them, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Watch out for things that do you no gospel good.

Is there something that enslaves you?

Things that may be legitimate can actually become things that ensnare us in gospel ministry.

  • Sin that clings to us
  • Compromises to which the stresses of ministry may tempt us

The devil loves to exhaust our resources to resist.

He will tell you 99 things that re true to set you up for the 100th.

He will let you win the first set in order to wear you out in the match.

2 Cor. 4, Paul twice points out that we do not lose heart.

HE knows that is tempting.

The evil one is out to destroy our pursuit of faithfulness and holiness.

  • We find ourselves struggling with or even against divine providences

Might gospel ministers experience more painful providences than the generality of Christians?

Why do we experience these?

We are sore.

These humble us.

Laziness and pride are two great sins in the ministry.

If God is going to deal with men through you, he wants to deal with you so he can get through you to them.

You are the one who is most under your ministry of the word.

The congregation has no idea this is going on.

They do not understand how unclean you feel as you study the word and try to communicate it.

Often, we fight against this.

We forget that God has given us all that we need.

  • The danger of a root of bitterness

One of the most alarming danger signs in a minister of the gospel is, especially when he speaks of a person in a bigger ministry, the first thing to emerge is always negative.

I must come to the sweetness of Jesus Christ to dilute and cleanse my bitterness.

  • Sexual immorality

We need the expulsive power of a new affection.

Be careful compromising for short term gratification.

  1. The encouragements to holiness in gospel ministers

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Not the point that they are watching you.

But their story of their faithfulness should encourage you toward holiness.

What God did in them he can do in you.

Keep on running and enduring as they did.

The Old Testament is for this.

It is there to say keep going.

OT saints say that you got what they never saw.

I have a heavenly Father who is training me as a son so that I may share his holiness.

He is remaking us in his image.

God wants to enable us to say Abba, Father.

What a risk.

People often think that God is somehow like the person through whom his word comes.

Therefore, we must pursue holiness.

There needs to be real integrity between the word that we preach and the atmosphere and spirit and love and devotion with which we communicate.

We now enjoy what the saints of old did not have access to.

We have the Spirit.

We have come to a heavenly city.

We have New Covenant access to Christ.

Paul believed, in 1 Cor 11, that angels were present at that church and Jesus was leading the people in worship and speaking through the preacher.

How amazing that we can go into the presence of God with his people and worship him.

We want Jesus to preach his word to his people through our lips.

That must make you want to be as holy as you could possibly be for sake of the people of God.

We want the people to see pastors who are more and more like the Lord Jesus.

IF what we do is really important, then let’s give ourselves entirely to holiness.

Terrifying and Welcoming

How do we know what God is like? We do not know from our personal experience and observation, at least not infallibly. Your experiences and mine are all questionable. We miss things and misinterpret things. But God has revealed himself perfectly in Scripture. And, of course, God revealed himself through the incarnation, life, and teaching of the Lord Jesus. This may well be one reason why Jesus is known as the “word” who is with God and who is God in John 1:1.

When you think of Jesus, what do you think of? In general, we immediately go to the gracious scenes. We think of children flocking to the Savior to sit on his knee and hug his neck. We think of Jesus smiling and turning water to wine to save a wedding from disaster. We think of Jesus walking on the sea and beckoning Peter to join him. We think of the disciples sharing a meal, reclining at table near to one another in fellowship. We think of Jesus healing and feeding and doing kindness.

And all of these are right thoughts about Jesus. All of these are right thoughts about who God is. God is love and loving. God is gracious and compassionate. God is faithful. God invites his people to come to him for soul satisfaction.

But let us not only see one part of the revelation of who God is.

Revelation 4:5a – From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…

In Revelation 4, John gets a glimpse of God the Father on the throne of the universe, and that vision is literally awesome. He sees colors and beauty of such brilliance he can only describe the scene as similar to the beauty of the most precious stones he knew. He sees a scene of such authority that crowned elders fall on their faces as angels declare God to be “Holy, holy, holy.” And he sees a throne that sends forth thunder and lightning.

Just think of the lightning and rumblings of the throne in Revelation 4:5. What do they tell us? They show us that God is mighty. They show us that God’s power and judgments are terrifying. They show us that God is one we approach with caution.

The beauty is, the Father on the throne and the Son holding children are the same God. When Phillip asked Jesus to show the disciples the Father, Jesus’ response was, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). The same Jesus who gently healed the sick and who had dinner with sinners is also the same Jesus whose eyes flashed with lightning as he stormed through the temple courts, overturning tables and driving out criminals.

As we think about the birth of the Savior and the celebration of Christmas, I think it would be wise for us to try to remember all that God is, as that will help us to be faithful as we celebrate the Savior. Jesus is loving and gentle. Jesus is holy and awesome. Jesus is one we can approach in humble surrender and know he will receive us by grace through faith. Jesus is the God whose throne flashes lightning and rumblings and peals of thunder. The one who became flesh is still the God who created the universe. So let us rejoice in him. Let us feel that warm joy of Christmas. And let us bow down and cry, “Holy!”

Repentance for Questions

As the book of Job comes to a close, we watch the dramatic confrontation take place, but it is not the one we expect at the beginning. From the third chapter of the book onward, we are expecting to see Job confront the Lord with his questions as to why all this bad stuff is happening to him. But, in the end, it is the Lord confronting Job, and rightly so.

By chapter 40, we have already had a couple of chapters in which God has shown Job that Job is unqualified to even ask the questions that he is demanding that God answer. Job was not there when God set the universe in place. Job was not there when God set the stars in order. Job does not know how God keeps the snow and the hailstones. Job is finite, and there is no way that he is ready to question God.

And as chapter 40 begins, God checks with Job to see if Job has gotten the point.

Job 40:1-8

1 And the Lord said to Job:
2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
3 Then Job answered the Lord and said:
4 “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”
6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
7 “Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
8 Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?

In verses 1-2, God asks Job if he really wants to fight this battle. And Job, in 3-5, says that he will remain silent. Job has almost gotten there, but he is not quite there yet.

Thus, with the beginning of verse 6, we get another couple of chapters of questions in which the Lord again declares his infinite might and infinite wisdom in comparison to Job’s finitude.

All this to get to verse 8, the question that God asks that should ring in our ears like a gong. In verse 8, God asks, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” And you should be able to feel what the answer to this question should be. It is a rhetorical question, and it’s obvious teaching point is this: No human being has the right to attempt to declare God to be in the wrong.

Stop and consider this truth more clearly. What would be required for a human being to have the right to declare God to be in the wrong? There are only two possibilities that I can think of, and each of them is horrific. One possibility would be that a human being could declare God to be in the wrong if there is an external measure of right and wrong to appeal to that is outside of, beyond, and over God. But if such a standard existed, a thing above God to measure him and find him right or wrong, that standard would be the ultimate, not the deity it claims to measure. Thus, to declare that God is measured by an external standard would declare God to be less than God. The second alternative, one even more blasphemous if possible, would be to declare that the human himself is in a superior position to the Lord and thus has the right to measure and judge God.

But all of theology teaches us that God is the ultimate. God is holy, a cut above us in his perfections, and is measured by no external standard. God gives us the standard of right, not the other way around.

Job 42:1-6

1 Then Job answered the Lord and said:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

In chapter 42, Job repents. He even laughs at his own foolishness for how he darkened counsel by words without knowledge. Job knows that his words added nothing to the discussion. Job knows that his questions came from an entirely wrong place and lacked wisdom. And so, unlike chapter 40 when Job merely said he would be silent, now Job repents. He was wrong in his questions and attitude. He was wrong in believing that he could declare God to be wrong. And so Job turns. And the book ends with God showing Job grace and favor.

I do not, in this little post, desire to be unsympathetic to Job. He messed up—otherwise repenting would not be the proper response—but he messed up far less than many a human would have done in his setting. Remember his wife telling him in 2:9 just to curse God and die? No, I do not want to put Job down in any way. But this is a significant point that we must grab hold of. God is God and we are not. We are in no position to judge the morality of God, because we lack the wisdom and purity to even begin to measure his perfections.

I have had conversations with many people who do not understand the ways of the Lord. They may even say, at the end of the day, that they disagree with laws God made or things God calls sin. They may disagree with the existence of hell or that Christ is the only way. And all of these are questions of the actual morality, the moral goodness, of God.

We must, if we are not to be taken down a very dangerous path, begin with a proper understanding of the infinite wisdom and unending holiness of god. We must remember that, if God really is God, he cannot be measured by a morality that is external to him. He must be the standard of perfection, for no other being in the universe matches his glory. God is right. And when we think that we can judge his choices, we are acting, to follow Scripture’s own description, like fools.

Forgetting Holiness is Deadly

One pattern I see in conversations about the Lord is that people expect God to meet their approval. Whether a person claims to be a Christian or not, it seems that most expect that God will do things the way that they would do things. And so it feels terribly uncomfortable when we see in Scripture the Lord having ways that are different from ours.

Consider the story of Uzzah. This man, in an attempt to protect the ark of the covenant, reached out and steadied the sacred box. And when he touched the ark, he died.

1 Chronicles 13:9-11 – 9 And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. 10 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God. 11 And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzza to this day.

Notice two things, the two angers in that passage. God was angry because of what Uzzah did, presuming to touch the ark. David was angry because of what God did, striking Uzzah down for his actions.

What is missing that caused both angers? What is missing is a human reverence for and fear of the holiness of God. When we do not get holiness right, we bring the anger of God on ourselves. When we do not get holiness right, we get angry with God and his ways. And only when we get holiness right do we avoid these angers.

God was angry with Uzzah for not treating him as holy. God had given a clear command that would not allow Uzzah, under any circumstances, to touch the ark. Uzzah violated that command. Yes, he may have had good motives, but he still violated the command of God.

The ark of the covenant was a physical representation of the holiness of God. For sinful man to touch such a thing is deadly. Why? God cannot allow sin to touch him. God is holy. God is so totally pure that he must properly and perfectly judge sin. Uzzah, as a sinner, could not touch the ark and live. That is not because God thinks sin is icky so he hides from it. Instead, it is because God’s holiness is infinite and unchanging, and thus his holiness will destroy sin like the blazing sun would destroy a piece of tissue paper put on its surface.

Was God wrong for doing this? Was God unloving, cruel, nasty, not worthy of worship? For a moment, David thought so. For a moment David set the ark aside and wend home mad at God.

But David was wrong. David, at that moment, lost perspective on holiness. You see, holiness is not just the purity of God that is a consuming fire against sin. Holiness is also the difference between God and mankind. David, for a moment, thought that he could measure God by David’s own standards. But human beings cannot do so. God is infinitely above us. God’s ways are perfect, even when we cannot understand them.

The only way Uzzah would have been right would have been to respect the holiness of God enough to know that Uzzah, without God’s protection, cannot touch holiness. The only way for David to be right before God would be for David to submit to the holiness of God, recognizing that the ways of God are perfect no matter what any human being feels about them.

And we need the same. If we are to be right before God, we must grasp that we cannot touch holiness in our sinful state. The only way we will not be consumed by God is if we are given, by God, a protective covering, a transforming grace, to make us able to stand in his presence. We need the grace of Jesus, or we simply cannot approach God at all.

And we must grasp that God’s ways are right by definition, as the holiness of God is a declaration of God’s absolute perfection. We are fools to think that we can measure the rightness of the actions of God from our perspective. God is perfect while we are sinners. God has all knowledge while our knowledge is limited and imperfect. God sees eternity while we see only a tiny glimpse of time. God is Creator while we are creation. We must yield to his perfection and know that his ways are perfect because he is holy.