Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Self-Thwarting God

Sometimes we speak of God as though he is strangely self-thwarting. We talk and sing about how we deserve God’s wrath, how we ought to die because of our sins, and how God rages against our transgressions. We speak about God loving the sinner but hating the sin, which doesn’t make good theological sense in the first place. If God is only mad about sin, then his wrath is only directed at something that is separate from us. But that’s not how we speak. We speak of God’s anger being directly and specifically toward us.

God is strange, indeed. It seems that he is self-thwarting—he stops himself from doing what he is inclined to do, which is to wipe us out. He sends Jesus to us because someone has got to die or God is going to lose control. Fortunately, Jesus pulls it off and God doesn’t kill everyone. He’s still mad, of course, but Jesus runs interference for us and keeps God at bay.

Sometimes we speak that way. We need better ways to speak of God.

Dallas Willard, who passed away yesterday, had some helpful words in this regard (thanks to Rachel Held Evans for posting this quotation from The Divine Conspiracy):

“We must understand that God does not 'love' us without liking us - through gritted teeth - as 'Christian' love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core - which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word 'love'.”

There are a number of instances in the Bible where God’s wrath is the equivalent of allowing people to suffer the consequences of their actions. For example:

Adam and Eve crash, and the consequences are dire and irreversible. But God meets them in their hiddenness and shame, fashioning new garments for them.

The people of Israel want a king other than God, and God lets them have what they want. As a result, the nation fractures and then collapses, and the people are exiled. But God still brings them home again.

Young Saul (soon to be Paul) persecutes Christians, becoming guilty, in effect, of persecuting Jesus. But Jesus comes to him and conscripts him into friendship, launching him into his famous missional/theological life. But Paul would always carry the memory of his past offenses.

We should not speak of a bi-polar God who is shifts eternally between rage and love. The Bible does not teach us that the core of God’s being is anger. God’s essence is love. That does not mean that God does not react negatively toward the power and effects of sin. But we dare not caricature him so that he looks to us like a petty despot who needs suffering and death in order to be appeased.

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