Along I-95 in South Carolina there’s a billboard that features a gigantic striped bass I reckon to be about 40 feet long and 15 feet wide, with the caption, “Not quite actual size.” It reminded me of the 1955 Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma, when young cowboy Curly McLain tries to coax the comely Laurey to the box social dance by bragging on his wheels, like all teenage boys have done ever since. In the jaunty “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” Curly sings in reply to Laurey’s skeptical quizzing as to whether his carriage has “really got a team of snow white horses”: “One’s like snow, the other’s more like milk.”
As a kid listening to the record, I didn’t get the humor. Snow is slightly whiter than milk, I supposed. But the color of milk, for a horse, is nothing to sneeze at, either. When I got older I realized that was the point, of course. This dude had one smart-looking pair of equestrian escorts. The self-deprecating milk comment, far from indicating a deficiency, was just another way of letting the girl he was wooing know how excellent his steeds were.
It’s the same way with God. If He wanted to, anytime He wanted to, He could pull out all the stops and show us all He’s got, all His divine grandeur. But we already know that wouldn’t be a good idea, because He told Moses that no one could withstand the full display of God:
“‘But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’” (Exodus 33:20).
So the Lord placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and let him see His back and not His front (verses 21-23).
God is so great—so beyond our ability to tolerate His greatness—that He is like a 200-pound father who gets on the floor to wrestle with his 2-year-old and has to exercise extreme care to restrain himself in his roughhousing, lest he injure the boy. To the tyke, the dad is really giving it all he’s got in the dramatic match. He doesn’t see that what Daddy is dishing out is not the hundredth part of his actual strength and glory. He would feel rather foolish if he only knew that his 2-year-old blows and kicks were as easily deflected as a buzzing mosquito by a grizzly bear.
I like the time when the no-neck tax collectors came down on Peter about whether his master pays the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). The apostle was probably shaking in his sandals when he ran into the house to tell Jesus. But Jesus spoke first, and He wasn’t sweating. He gave Peter an elementary lesson in kingdom business: The king’s sons don’t pay taxes; just the servants do. Nevertheless (I picture Jesus yawning or sighing here), the Lord sent Peter to the lake and told him to throw out his line and pull up the first fish he found, open its mouth, take out the four-drachma coin, and go pay the tax with it.
It’s one of my favorite stories of the studied self-restraint of the Deity, both in temperament and in flamboyance. And it’s probably as good a fish story as any they got anywhere down in Santee, S.C.