Is God Punishing Us?
Is God punishing us? Is God a vindictive, capricious character in an ancient story? How can the Jesus character of the Gospels, who taught love and peace, be related to the angry God of wrath in the stories of Israel?
Have you ever asked these questions? They surfaced for me again this week through the convergence of a few circumstances. Allow me to highlight each one and then bring them all together.
First, I’ve been publishing a series of videos called Drawing Through Luke. It is a video documentary/personal record of how I am creating a graphic novel depiction of the Gospel of Luke. I make the video, then distribute it on various social media platforms.
This week, I received this Twitter message in response to the project. I’ve blocked the author’s identity, because a) that doesn’t matter, and b) I don’t know this person. It was a random comment.
In case you can’t see the image, it says, “Don’t make available to children, that awful book [the Bible] isn’t suitable for innocent minds. The god character was a megalomaniac genocidal nasty piece of work.”
Second, I’ve been catching up on listening to The Bible Project Podcast. I absolutely love this podcast and everything the Bible Project does. The series I’m listening to right now is called “The Character of God.” They just released the video, this week, called “Slow to Anger.” Check out the video series here.
Third, I’m preaching on Isaiah 6:1-8 this week. The message God sends to Judah, through Isaiah, is a difficult message to hear. The nation is going to be destroyed. Two invading Empires are coming and the nation that God supposedly chose to be the “holy nation” will be destroyed, and God won’t do anything about it. It’s harsh.
Fourth, I’m reading Richard Rohr’s daily meditations this week (I’ve not been reading them for a few months, so it is interesting that I jumped back in this week). The theme is “The Transforming Power of Love.” Rohr is a devout Catholic, a Franciscan monk, and very influential teacher in the field of spiritual formation.
Pulling these things together.
If the seeming tension between the angry God and the loving Jesus interests you, I encourage you to explore the resources above deeply. Here is what I’ve gleaned.
The Bible Project series on the Character of God explores the most repeated verse in the Bible: Exodus 34:6-7. This verse reveals the five main attributes of Yaweh, the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…and Moses. These words are spoken in the context of the story of God dealing with Moses and the newly freed slaves at Mt. Sinai. God is establishing the covenant (see this post for context). God’s attributes are:
“Merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger,
Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
This sounds really good, but then it goes on.
“Keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”
Still really good, right? But, then the clincher…
“Yet, by no means clearing the guilty,
But visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
And the children’s children,
To the third and the fourth generation.”
Whoa! That seems harsh, doesn’t it?
We really like the God who is loving and forgiving, but why would God visit sins on the children and grandchildren?
If you want to do the deep dive, listen to the Bible Project Podcast. Here is my simple synthesis:
God’s love is like a parent’s love for a child and is wrapped up in justice and equity for all people.
I soaked in this passage from Isaiah 1:16–17 this week:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Much of our problem with God’s anger and punishment/wrath has to do with a misunderstanding of anger. (Dive into the topic here).
Anger is not evil.
Anger is not the same as vindictiveness.
There is really only one thing in scripture the evokes God’s anger. It is summarized in Isaiah 1:16-17, but is consistent throughout the story of God’s Covenant relationship with Israel. The only thing that makes God angry is when people abuse the weak. It is especially anger-invoking when people abuse the weak, in God’s name, as if God is a power-hungry tyrant.
One of the main themes in the covenant between God and Israel is to demonstrate that Yahweh is not capricious or vindictive, like most of the ancient gods. Most ancient civilizations lived in fear of the gods because those gods were, indeed, unpredictable, fickle, and blood-thirsty. People made sacrifices to appease the gods and to arouse the gods to insure fertility in the land. Essentially, the ancient gods were simply anthropomorphized versions of the elements of nature and their theology was built upon the unpredictability of how the forces of nature work.
The point of the Hebrew Scripture is to highlight that God is predictable and faithful, because God is motivated by love. God is not the forces of nature. The creative energy of the universe, which brought about the forces of nature, (GOD) is love. God is like a parent who loves all of God’s children, which means EVERYBODY. And, like any good parent, when a child is behaving in a way that is a) self-destructive, and/or b) destructive and harmful to others, then the parent becomes disappointed, frustrated, and, when the condition persists…angry.
Yet, a parent does not want to destroy the child. The parent wants to teach the child what behaviors will bring life and wholeness to the child and will bring life and wholeness to everyone.
The central character quality in the fivefold list is that God is “slow to anger.” God’s longsuffering and forgiveness is abundant for thousands of generations.
AND, God’s love for all people will not allow injustice and the abuse of the weak to go unchecked. God will deal justly with as many generations as need it because they are being unjust (that’s what “to the third and fourth generation” means.)
Here’s a really important point that was drawn out by the Bible Project. God’s wrath is not vindictiveness. God’s wrath is manifest when God turns people over to their own desires. Some might call this karma. What goes around comes around. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Each time God sent a message of destruction through a prophet, it was shrouded in two things: 1) a deep grief over the pain that was coming upon God’s children because of their own foolish, selfish, destructive decisions, and 2) a continual opportunity to make things right and start fresh.
Love Made Flesh
Jesus is the embodiment of this. Jesus came to show us what God’s love looks like in human form. He loved the unloved and outcast. He spoke truth to power. He got angry when people used their power to abuse the weak. He loved his enemies. He gave up his life for those he loved. He forgave his executioners as he died. He rose from the dead to show us that there is more to this life than the petty things we get caught up in again and again.
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the fullest.”
He showed us that the full life is a life filled with other-oriented love motivated by the good of ALL people, not our own selfish desires.
His beloved friend and disciple, John, put it this way,
1 John 4:7–12 (NRSV)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Is God punishing us?
I don’t know, maybe. I do know that much of our history is fraught with injustice and that a system like that will eventually implode on itself. If that inevitable consequence is God’s punishment, then, I suppose it is God’s wrath.
AND, God’s mercy is new every morning. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
I am a child of God, full of every kind of selfish, destructive thought and behavior that I share with all my human siblings. I am a child of God, loved by my creator and invited, each day, to grow in love.
Listen to how Valerie Kaur describes love,
“Love” is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving—a choice we make over and over again. If love is sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.
“Revolutionary love” is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. It is not a formal code or prescription but an orientation to life that is personal and political and rooted in joy. Loving only ourselves is escapism; loving only our opponents is self-loathing; loving only others is ineffective. All three practices together make love revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community. (from Rohr’s Daily Meditation).
So, I think I will keep working on Drawing Through Luke. This is my attempt to more deeply understand God’s love made clear through Jesus, and to share that important story with others.
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