Thursday, August 28, 2008

A 'Punishing God'?

Why do we have such difficulty believing God could love those we perceive as good and those we perceive as bad with the same unfailing love? Because we relentlessly insist on trying to humanize God. We tend to love people according to how they act, and we keep trying to re-create God in our image.
-- Beth Moore

First I must confess that it may be too soon for me to post on such a subject because I myself am in the process (for about 2 1/2 years now) of rediscovering the character and nature of God. I had some misconceptions about God that He thankfully revealed to me to be false, and I have since repented (Repenting in the original sense of the word; μετάνοια or metanoia - to change ones mind). Second, I would like to warn you that continuing further might be akin to something like taking the 'red pill' and could bring to the surface some issues you may have never considered before, and it could be at times disorienting. Because of this, I will probably use quite a few quotes for no other reason than to show that my view on the subject is not 'new' or 'unique'. If you are satisfied with your beliefs about God and punishment; if there is no 'splinter in your mind', then you may want to go read something else. Here I am simply sharing with my friend what I've come to believe regarding the idea of a 'punishing God'.

I believe that, over the centuries, Christianity has picked up some baggage along the way that we need get rid of. To demonstrate this let me quote two Theologians. The first is Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian who is considered to be one of America's the most influential theologians. His beliefs and legacy have greatly shaped beliefs and practices of churches in America.

The bow of God's wrath is bent, and His arrows made ready upon the string. Justice points the arrow at your heart and strings the bow. It is nothing but the mere pleasure of God (and that of an angry God without any promise or obligation at all) that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.

Compare this to the 4th century theologian Athanasius of Alexandria, who was much closer to Christ and apostles than Edwards.
It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

Do you notice the difference in tone, and the difference in how each perceives God's attitude towards creation? In Jonathan Edwards' words we see a god who is ready and willing to punish us for our sins, and in Athanasius' words we see the Trinitarian God of Scripture who rescues us from our sins. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:1-2 "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."(emphasis mine) I believe this as well as anything demonstrates that there was a marked shift in our understanding of God's nature, the meaning of the terms judge and justice, and our understanding of the Cross.

Think about this for a moment, if Jesus suffers God's 'punishment' for our sins, where does forgiveness fit in? As Baxter Kruger says:

There is no forgiveness in that model. God doesn't forgive you, Jesus suffers your punishment. That's not forgiveness is it? It's justice; there's not any forgiveness there. Now, I know that rocks your world; I hope it does.
-- Baxter Kruger, Perichoresis 101 (audio)

And if Jesus suffers God's 'punishment' for our sins, who does that change or who does that 'fix'? It would change God wouldn't it? God's 'need' for 'justice' (in the western legal since of the word) would be 'satisfied', but we would be unchanged.

Why did God need the cross to save us? How does it make anything better? These were the questions I asked myself.

For many with a hurtful understanding of Christianity this is vitally important. For them the cross is something terrible. It shows them a cruel God who accuses and condemns us for something we cannot help and then murders his own son to appease this bloodlust. They do not see love in the cross; they see something cruel, they see a God who frightens them. How can they open their hearts to the one who is Life, who is Love, with this hurtful and false image of God blocking them? Understanding how the cross shows us the radical love of God is crucial here because it affects how we can trust and open our lives to God's love.
-- Derek Flood, Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor

Since Adam’s fall we have come to picture God not as a loving Father inviting us to trust him, but an exacting sovereign who must be appeased. When we start from that vantage point we miss God’s purpose on the cross. For his plan was not to satisfy some need in himself at his Son’s expense, but rather to satisfy a need in us at his own expense.
-- Wayne Jacobsen, He Loves Me!, p. 104

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! --Revelation 1:5b-6(emphasis mine)

When we begin to peel off the religious lenses that we've inherited we begin to see that God's purpose is all about restoration and healing. When we start to understand this, we can begin to truly believe John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (emphasis mine)

Today when we think about a Judge and justice, our minds immediately think about the black-robed cold and detached man whose job is to hand out punishments to wrongdoers. But the Hebrews thought of something different, they thought about the old testament Judges. "When the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them."(Judges 2:18) Hebrew Judges were delivers, their active goal was to deliver Israel from suffering at the hands of it's enemies. So God as Judge, means that he is our deliverer, and when he brings justice he will finally once and for all restore right relations, or as N.T. Wright says, he will 'put the world to rights'.

I know I said that I would address my friends concern it two posts, but this one is turning quite lengthy. I still need to address the idea that god excludes people from the offer of salvation among other things. I'll get to that next.

For more a in depth treatment of the Cross as cure, you can listen to the free 'Transition' audios by Wayne Jacobsen.

Also check out the podcast: Can we make God too nice?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Romans 9 (to 11)

I have a friend who currently considers himself to be a "non-theist". One of his complaints against Christianity in general and Calvinism in particular is the view that God makes us a certain way, then arbitrarily decides who he is going to punish and who he is going to let off the hook. He quoted Romans 9 as a sort of proof that this is the way the 'god of the bible' is -- an unjust, punishing god. I'm thinking that he has recently had a conversation with a Calvinist and they pulled out their 'Ace of Spades' (Romans 9) to support their beliefs. I can say this because I myself used to be a Calvinist and frequently used Romans 9 in this manner. Life, however, can sometimes break apart your 'Theology'; at least that is what happened to me. But that is a story for another time. I wanted to address his objection from two different angles and in two different posts. First I want to deal directly with the text of Romans 9, and then in the second post I want to address the concept of a 'punishing god'.

When I was a Calvinist and used Romans 9 as a proof-text to support my beliefs, but there was something that always didn't seem quite right. Romans 9 as I understood it at the time seemed out of place in the middle of a book that invited all people to make a real choice to trust God. As I said before, life experiences broke my theology and I walked away from Romans 9, and the rest of Scripture made more sense. To be honest I stayed away from this passage for about 2 years, and when I finally was able to read this passage without bringing my preconceptions to it, I was blown away by what I found.

Because of our western mind, and evangelical preconceptions we can sometimes read a text too myopically or even inverted. First is the fact that Paul in Romans 9-11 is talking about the nation of Israel, not about individuals.
For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.
Rom. 9:3-4

In the modern west, we tend to be very individually focused and always default to this way of thinking. But Paul is not talking about individuals, rather he is talking about the nation of Israel -- the political/religious system and it's rules and regulations that served as a buffer between God and his people. Ironically, in Romans 9 Paul is addressing the objection that God is being unfair by being more inclusive than under the old covenant, not less so. And Paul is basically saying that God's promise did not fail, in reality he was fulfilling his plan and that he has to right to bring and end to the old covenant and be more inclusive, him being God and all.

Quickly, I also want to point out that calling/election (vocation) is not necessarily synonymous with salvation. Israel was called to be a light to the nations, and according to Paul Israel was called to be a bearer, more on that in a moment.

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Rom. 9:22-24

Sounds pretty harsh doesn't it? But don't be too quick to make assumptions about who or what he is talking about. The traditional view basically translates 'objects of his wrath' as the world, and 'objects of his mercy' as the privileged few. But once you say it out loud that way it doesn't take long for you to realize that this interpretation contradicts the rest of scripture. In fact we must stick with Paul's subject at hand - Israel. Only then can we begin to make sense of what he is talking about. And when you do that, it turns everything I previously understood on it's head. In it's proper context, it becomes clear that the objects of God's wrath is Israel; the old covenant system and it's regulations, not the people. And the objects of God's mercy is the world. I also want to define God's wrath in this way -- his fierce determination to destroy sin because of the destruction is causes to his creation. I'll address this more in depth in my second post. So the thing that God bore with great patience was Israel, that old covenant religious system. During the time of the old covenant, God was patiently waiting for the day when he could finally be united with his people. And when it was finally brought to an end, God tore the veil in the Temple in half as if to say, "I'm outta here! No longer will there be a barrier between me any my beloved."

If you aren't convinced that the object of God's wrath was Israel, then read Paul's own words in Chapter 11.

Again I ask: Did they (Israel) stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!

For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

Rom 11:11-12,15

As I final thought. I want to point out that while 'destruction' is the final state of the old covenant system, Paul makes it perfectly clear that this isn't necessarily the eternal state of the people that were under that system. They too are invited to be included -- to make a real choice.

I haven't begun to do justice to this passage, but for further reading check out:
N.T. Wright - Romans and the Theology of Paul
Baxter Kruger - Why I left Calvinism

Monday, August 25, 2008

Freedom: An incremental Process

"I don't understand," replied Mack. "I don't even understand what you just told me."
She turned back and smiled. "I know. I didn't tell you so that you would understand right now. I told you for later. At this point, you don't even comprehend that freedom is an incremental process." Gently reaching out, she took Mack's hands in hers, flour covered and all, and looking him straight in the eyes she continued, "Mackenzie, the Truth shall set you free and the Truth has a name; he's over in the woodshop right now covered in sawdust. Everything is about him. And freedom is a process that happens inside a relationship with him. Then all that stuff you feel churnin' around inside will start to work its way out."
-- The Shack, William P. Young

This weekend the Holy Spirit and I got the opportunity to travel a bit further along the road of freedom from my own expectations. Though I wish I could just be totally free with a wave of a wand, this isn't how these things work and this is where I'm at right now.

This weekend, I felt some disappointment as a result of an expectation I had with a friend. The details aren't important, especially since it was really an unspoken expectation that wasn't fair on my part. The reality was that my expectation led me to feel hurt by the lack of action of another. And that of an action they weren't aware I was expecting. How lame is that! But it did provide a moment for the Holy Spirit to help me see what was going on here. I was able to acknowledge my feelings and rather than let them turn to resentment, I began to ask Father why, in this instance, was I looking for affirmation in another person rather than from Him? That is when this quote from 'The Shack' came to mind, "freedom is a process that happens inside a relationship with [Jesus]." The Holy Spirit helped to remind me where I really draw my identity from. And that is from who God says I am. In that alone, will I be able to find true freedom from the tyrrany of my own expections and allow others the freedom to be who they are.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Truefaced (Do you believe?)

Do you believe

  • That the Father loves you unconditionally, and is crazy about you?
  • That the Father has done everything to restore the relationship he desires to have with you?
  • That the Father will faithfully transform you into what he originally intended for you?
  • That the Fathers very essence is Love?

Or do you believe

  • That God really only loves you as long as you are performing well?
  • That it's up to you to get things right in your 'relationship' with God?
  • That you are on your own and need lots of discipline and accountability to keep 'God's commands'?
  • That God chooses to love, or in some cases chooses not to love?

Which do you believe, deep down? Really?

My friend Kent posted a link to an excellent message given by John Lynch called "TrueFaced". If you believe the the second list more that the first, this message is for you. If you are tired of faking it and long to be real, this message is for you. Believe in God's Grace and Love for you, it's real, and really true. Hop off the performance treadmill that's going nowhere, and know that all that needed to be done has already been done in Christ. Come and be real with your Heavenly Papa, his arms are open wide, and his Love is beyond description.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Random (or not?) thoughts for today.

Here are a couple of things that I read off my blog roll today. The all point to a similar idea in my mind, though I'm not sure I can quite explain why. First is a great quote from William P Young, author of 'The Shack':

Expectations are one of the dominant ways that we attempt to control our lives, our relationships and God. Largely, they are disappointments waiting to happen. When one has a system of expectations, then ‘I’ become the center of the universe and everything and everyone is subject to my judgment and punishment depending on how they are ‘currently’ meeting up to those expectations (whether my expectations have been communicated or not).

Expectations are all about ‘doing’ … about performance. There is little room for ‘being’ within the web of expectations and ‘being’ has little to offer the one trying to control through expectations. "Who cares about who you are as long as you are doing what I think I need and expect." Expectations are largely a substitute for God, or in some sense, the need we have to play God ourselves.

And remember, ‘control’ is all about ‘fear’.

Letting go of ‘expectations’ is soooo risky; it feels like a free fall since our world was held together by that web, but it is in that ‘risk’ that you find a God who does not meet your expectations (thankfully), but loves you and is involved, and in that ‘risk’ is where ‘faith’ grows. Then we begin to live more in the environment of ‘expectancy’, the edgy, free flowing realm of wonder and surprise.

Then I read Baxter Kruger's blog entry about the 'Keys to Marriage', and Kent commenting on Baxter's post. These got me thinking about 'where I'm at' currently in my relationship with Father and with others. There a still a great many things that I'm learning to let go of, but I also see Father's progress in my life. I'm finding that I am much more free from the expectations of others than I used to be, and that is good. The opinion of others used to dominate my life, and I would run myself ragged to meet their expectations. This isn't the case any more, and I'm much happier for it.

Today I finally finished 'Families where Grace is in Place' by Jeff Vanvonderen and it was challenging in a good way. I still struggle with how to be a graceful parent of 4 and sometimes I fall back on my old methods when I get frazzled. This book certainly helped me to see what grace-full parenting can look like. I may want to read this one 3 or 4 more times, just to help get the concepts through my thick head :-). As I read the last 2 paragraphs of the book, the same themes of freedom, expectations and letting go of control appeared again:

I have offered the principles in this book, not as standards to measure up to, but as new ways for you to think about God, His grace, and how it can become real and life-changing for you and your family. If you are a believer, your value and identity is settled because of Jesus. It is not up to your family members to validate you with their performance. You are free to let go of controlling; you can learn what it means to server without becoming everyone's slave. You can learn more and more to act toward others out of a new spiritual fullness.
With God's grace, you can become a more effective, more grace-full husband, wife, parent. As these truths sink deep into your heart, yours will be more and more a family where grace is in place.

Random? or not?