Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
Theodore Roosevelt was a brilliant and courageous man, eager to change this nation and the entire world. As president from 1901-1909, he was a major player on the international scene. On Sept. 2, 1901, while still Vice-President, Roosevelt gave a speech at the Minnesota State Fair. He was speaking about the need for a strong military, and with that in place, he said, our approach to foreign policy should be to “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Speak softly, he said. People like that. People don’t like to be hollered at and bullied. However, he said, we do live in the real world, so be ready then to have the power and the might and the will to back up your words. But still, speak softly whenever you can.
Oftentimes our prayers begin by addressing the ‘Almighty’ or ‘All-powerful’ God. This is a good way to begin a prayer, by reminding ourselves who it is we are praying to. Prayer is a humble request from somebody very small– you and me, to someone who is very big– the Almighty God. The Bible reveals this almighty God as Creator of everything; one who is able to divide seas, stop rivers from flowing, make the sun stand still in the sky, destroy armies, save nations, raise the dead, heal the sick, lift up the lowly, and bring down the mighty. This God does threaten and does punish, or to put it another way, this God has the power and the will to use ‘a big stick’ whenever needed to humble the arrogant, to bring the wicked to ruin, to destroy the oppressors, and to bring sinners to obedience.
In the old days, preachers loved to talk about this side of God. They would hammer away at those poor souls who were pious enough to come out for church on a Sunday morning, going on and on about God’s wrath and punishment and the fires of hell. Any theologian or historian will tell you that the most famous sermon ever given by an American preacher was by Jonathan Edwards in 1741. The title of the sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The sermon described our lives as dangling by a thread over the eternal fires of hell, and without the grace of God, we might, at any time, be dropped into that hell, when in death, the frail thread of life is severed. And it is all true. There is a hell and we could die anytime.
But many of those old sermons gave an unbalanced view of God, stressing only God’s wrath and judgment. When I say unbalanced, I do not mean false. There are plenty of verses in the Bible that do indeed describe that side of God. God is all mighty and all powerful, and may sometimes use that might and power in ways we find quite unpleasant. You don’t have to read very far into the Bible to find that. There is much in the world and in ourselves that deserves God’s judgment, that harsh word of warning is in God’s Word for us to read, and we had best pay attention.
Sermons today are friendlier than in the old days of Jonathan Edwards and those like him. Sermons now are more upbeat, more affirming, and more cheerful, with much more emphasis on the love and grace of God. That’s good. This more positive message is also not hard to find in the Bible. There is the story of the loving father in the parable of the prodigal son, there are the writings of the Apostle Paul with his strong emphasis on grace, there is the freeing of the slaves in Egypt, and then, of course, there is the life and witness of Jesus himself, reaching out to everyone with God’s love and mercy. But if that is all that our sermons ever consisted of, we would then be just as unbalanced as those in the old days. Certainly, all of these more positive images are also in the Bible. But again, there is still in the Bible, that other side of the message.
So what are we to think of this? Can God not make up his mind? With such conflicting messages coming at us, how can we know where we are at with God? To use the words of Teddy Roosevelt, God indeed ‘speaks softly, and, carries a big stick,’ but how can we know what we are in for, the soft words or the big stick? (continued…)
Psalm 89:8 — Who is like you, Lord God Almighty? You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.
Amos 4:13 — He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the Lord God Almighty is his name.
Psalm 103:13-14 — As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
You, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Turn to me and have mercy on me; show your strength in behalf of your servant.