The All Our Minds project | On God’s Wrath & Love

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The All Our Minds project | On God’s Wrath & Love

In the Christian faith, we talk a lot about God being just. He balances the scales of justice. He exacts justice. He is just in all His ways. He is the ultimate Judge.

Sooner or later, these phrases just start rolling off our tongues like trite cliches or rehearsed lines. We know they’re true. We’ve accepted them as God’s truth. We’ve committed them to memory—yet, we’ve never really put them under the microscope. And even if we have, we’ve probably never focused our microscope past the blur. We’ve never really, truly, fully understood the implications of worshiping a just God.

Well friends, dust off your microscopes because question #8 has arrived. Here it is:

How do we reconcile God’s good & loving nature with His violent wrath in the Old Testament?

As far as I can tell, God’s justice lives at the corner of His love and His wrath. Let’s take a closer look at how the two work together to make Him the just God we’re always talking about.

God created the world & therefore defines the parameters of justice within it

A helpful reminder, right? Whenever the thought “but why would God allow X to happen?” enter my mind, I have to remember that this is my Father’s world. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”—they’re literally the very first words in the Bible (Genesis 1:1). And if God created the heavens and the earth, that means He has full veto power over everything that happens on it.

Justin Taylor, SVP and Publisher at Crossway, put it this way in a Gospel Coalition article: “As Deuteronomy 32:4 says, ‘all God’s ways are justice’—by definition. If God does it, it is just. And since the triune God is inherently relational, the Bible says that God is love—and therefore all of his justice is ultimately born from and aiming toward love” (Taylor par. 5). Basically, if we believe what the Bible says is true—that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that “all God’s ways are justice”—than it stands to reason that everything He does is rooted in love.

After establishing this, Taylor continues: “While it is ultimately illegitimate to ask if God’s ways are just in securing the Promised Land, it is perfectly appropriate and edifying to seek understanding on how God’s ways are just—whether in commissioning the destruction of the Canaanites or in any other action. This is the task of theology—seeing how various aspects of God’s truth and revelation cohere” (Taylor par. 6). Once we’ve accepted the biblical truth that God’s ways—all of them—are in fact just, we can earnest approach His throne with hearts that ask “but how?”

Love & wrath are not mutually exclusive

There are certain passages in the Old Testament that, on their surface, seem to present us with the image of a less-than-loving God. From “blotting out every living thing” with the flood to taking vengeance on the Midianites in Numbers 31, we see Him go to some pretty extreme lengths to make His glory known.

When we read these passages, it’s hard not to wonder how our God of love orders the death of mothers and children or allows the destruction of entire nations. As we think through this, I think it’s helpful to look at a specific passage. Let’s head to Deuteronomy 4:25-28:

“After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and arousing his anger, I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.”

In this passage, Moses is warning the Israelites that choosing to worship other gods will ultimately drive them out of the promised land and into great suffering. He says that they will be scattered among many nations where few will survive.

With this warning, Moses reminds the people of Israel that turning away from God has serious consequences. Consequences that some may find drastic, violent or even un-loving. But notice how Moses’ words in the next three verses reveal the heart behind these consequences:

“But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deut. 4:29-31).

Man’s forgetfulness is a major theme throughout God’s Word. God reveals His faithfulness. Then, He is praised. His faithfulness is forgotten. Man sins. God punishes. Man repents. God forgives. And the cycle continues. The Israelites are the best example of this in the Old Testament. Over and over, God makes a way for them. Over and over, they forget His faithfulness and turn to other gods. It’s only through the consequences of turning away that they are humbled and reminded of God’s faithfulness to provide.

Later in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to ”Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years...He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna... to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:2-3).

When we’re confronted by instances of God’s wrath in the Old Testament, it’s easy for us to question His loving nature. How could a loving God be so full of wrath? But this passage helps us see that His love and His wrath are far from mutually exclusive, as it is often His wrath which guides the Israelites back to Him after a season of forgetfulness.

God’s love & wrath intersect at the cross—where our hope is born

A few weeks ago, I shared a response to a question about suffering. In it, I talked about how I don’t believe that the suffering we experience today is a consequence of personal sin—which may seem like a contradiction of what I’ve just said. Here’s why it’s not.

For starters, I want to call out the distinction that’s often made between “Old Testament God” and “New Testament God.” A lot of people talk about the “Old Testament God” being the God of wrath and the “New Testament God” being the God of love and forgiveness. But Christians worship one God whose narrative and attributes are consistent throughout all of Scripture. The New Testament doesn’t introduce us to a new god. Rather, it invites us into a new relationship with the same God. A relationship that’s made possible through Christ’s work on the cross.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17-18). He does this through the ultimate act of unconditional love: enduring the totality of God’s wrath on our behalf. Because Christ has paid the price of sin in full, our relationship with God has changed drastically. Rather, it’s been restored.

Certain of our inability to perfectly fulfill the law on our own accord, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). Instead of allowing the sin of mankind to forever remain unaccounted for—which would have made Him an unjust God—He did this “to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t eliminate the presence of suffering in our lives. It does however eliminate our need to suffer as a consequence of sin. Instead of desperately grasping at straws to make ourselves worthy according to the law, we’re now justified by faith in Jesus. This is the hope we find when God’s love and wrath intersect at the cross.

So now what?

In thinking through this question, it’s worth remembering that the character of our almighty God cannot be limited to the confines of our finite logic. As citizens, we accept that the president has the authority to do things that we don’t. As children, we accept that our parents have the authority to do things that we don’t. And as children of God, we must accept the same.

I say these things not to discourage us from probing to understand the ways of God. In fact, I believe that bringing our questions before God is an act of worship. It reveals our deepest desire to be in true relationship with Him. But in the hidden crevices and darkest corners of our searching, let us remember to savor the mystery of His unsearchable ways.

Donald Miller captures this idea perfectly in his novel, Blue Like Jazz. I’ll leave you with his words:

“At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don't think there is any better worship than wonder” (Miller 206).

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the All Our Minds project | On Turning the Other Cheek

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the All Our Minds project | On Turning the Other Cheek

“But he hit me first!”

Anybody who grew up with siblings has tried this line before. I’m not sure where we all get it from, but this idea of “You hurt me so I can hurt you” seems to be one that every kid needs to unlearn at some point. Some catch on quicker than others.

Today’s question focuses on boundaries, retaliation and turning the other cheek: When Jesus says Christians are called to turn the other cheek, how is that reconciled with setting healthy boundaries in relationships? (i.e. not staying in an abusive relationship)

For starters, context is everything

As with any part of the Bible, it’s important for us to look at these verses with an awareness of what’s going on around them. When we look at all the topics covered in Matthew 5, we see that most of them have to with either love or the lack of it. Anger. Lust. Retaliation. Loving your enemies. They all fall under that umbrella. Noticing that theme helps us interpret the bigger picture of each section.

With that framework, we can get at the heart of verses 38-42:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Simply put, this passage challenges us not to retaliate against the people who wrong us. The verses that follow challenge us to love and pray for our enemies. In Jesus’ day, slapping somebody was viewed as more of an insult than a physical attack. And so, the call to turn the other cheek is ultimately a call to choose love over our own pride. This kind of humility surprises your enemy with a glimpse into Christ’s mercy. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

While forming my response to this question, I came across several articles that touched on the provided example about turning the other cheek to an abuser. There are many people who choose to isolate this verse and point to it as a commandment to stay in an abusive relationship. That’s a very harmful and narrow misinterpretation of this passage. The aim in turning the other cheek is to effect change and repentance in the person committing violence against you. Silently and repeatedly allowing yourself to be abused won’t break the cycle of evil. In that situation, turning the other cheek might look like choosing not to hurt the person back or seek revenge once you’ve escaped to safety.

Jesus Himself spoke out when the high priest struck Him while He was being questioned (John 18:23). He wasn’t silent to abuse in the name of turning the other cheek—and you shouldn’t be either.

Laying your life down is not the same as somebody taking it from you

When I came across this point in my research, I heard the light switch flip in my head. It showed up in a Gospel Coalition article (link in “Resources”) written by Bay area pastor Chris Nye. Here’s what he had to say on this point about turning the other cheek(Nye, pars. 4-5):

Scripture instructs us to “lay down our lives” for Christ’s sake and to take up our cross (1 John 3:16; Matt. 16:24). But notice the active agent in that sentence: you. There is a difference between voluntarily laying down your life and someone taking your life from you. Jesus said he laid down his life so that he “may take it up again.” He went on: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).

There were many times Jesus could have allowed his life to be taken, but he escaped because “his time had not come yet” (John 7:30, 44; 10:39). We need not pity Jesus for his death—he was accomplishing his mission, on his terms. And we need not pity ourselves, out of a false martyrdom complex, when we allow dangerous or unhealthy people to dictate our lives. We must be certain that we, like Jesus, are laying our lives down on our own accord and not having them taken from us by life-sucking individuals

Thoughts?

To me, this was a much-needed reminder of Jesus’ intentionality in staying true to His mission. Every decision He made during His earthly ministry was made with Calvary and resurrection in mind. Whenever we see Jesus turning the other cheek (Matt. 26:49-50, 63, 27:24), we know He’s not doing it in a spirit of passivity. It’s an active sacrifice and surrendering of Himself with the goal of accomplishing the greater mission of reconciling us to God. He was always acting out of His known purpose, which included actively giving of Himself to others rather than passively being taken from by other.

We need to draw healthy boundaries...just like Jesus did

As we think through how to reconcile turning the other cheek with setting healthy boundaries, Jesus’ example gives us a great benchmark. After being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was silent in His pain, knowing that the suffering to come was the fulfillment of His mission on earth. But whenever Jesus was faced with a task outside of the scope His known purpose, He drew boundaries in service to His ultimate mission.

One example of this can be found in Luke 12, when a person in the crowd calls upon Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother. He says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (12:13). First off, bold move telling Jesus what to do—just sayin’. But He responds by saying, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (12:14). Nye comments on this moment as well, saying that, “Jesus understood when he was being asked to do things outside of the focus of his ministry. He knew his calling, he knew his ministry, and he protected these things while remaining remarkably compassionate” (Nye, par 8).

Jesus pushed back when confronted with distractions from His mission. I believe that we as Christians need to do the same. We know the callings that He has given us (Matt. 28:19-20; Matt. 22:37-40) and if there are people or commitments that are preventing us from fulfilling them, we honor Him by drawing healthy boundaries.

So now what?

We focused a lot on extremes in this response. Abuse. “Life-sucking individuals.” Drawing boundaries. We’ve acknowledged that turning the other cheek is not synonymous with allowing manipulative people to rule your life. All of that is true and biblical and important.

Now, after addressing the extremes, I want to challenge you to turn the other cheek more often than you want to. More often than your pride tells you to. I promise you this: You do not need to be right all the time. You don’t need to have the final word and win every argument. You don’t need to take revenge or enact justice when you’ve been wronged. And you don’t need to make your enemies “pay” because Jesus has already paid for them—and for you. 

Call me a broken record, but every question that we’ve explored so far has boiled down to one action: love. This question is no different. The love of Christ has fully reconciled us to God, which compels us to love one another in selfless and uncomfortable ways that often defy our hunger for justice. And so, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

Resources:
https://www.biblegateway.com

https://christianity.net.au/questions/draw-the-line

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/turn-cheek-mean-well-get-walked/

https://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2012/june/did-karen-klein-do-right-thing-bullying-and-limits-of-turn.html

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematictheology/2016/01/turn-the-other-cheek-explained-in-context/

https://odb.org/1994/02/24/a-misunderstood-command/

https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2012/03/31/does-turn-the-other-cheek-mean-we-must-submit-to-abuse-by-jeff-crippen/

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the All Our Minds project | On Suffering

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the All Our Minds project | On Suffering

Every morning, I wake up next to the man I love in a home I love. 

I drag my feet over to a closet full of clothes and spend too much time debating over what to wear. I take a hot shower and whine if the water gets too cold before I’m done. I grab my lunch from the fridge, snag my keys, kiss my husband goodbye and drive my car to work. I ride the elevator up to the sixth floor of an office building in my favorite city in LA—and then I spend the day reading and writing stories about people around the world who are suffering.

As a writer for non-profit organizations, I’m often overwhelmed by the amount of suffering that is being endured around the world at any given moment. Just this last week, I did four interviews with four different people across the US who had all struggled to stay alive while living on the streets. Then, there are the stories of children around the world who have lost their parents to riots or violence in their villages. Or maybe they’ve lost siblings to malnutrition or malaria. 

The stories are overwhelming. Every day, children suffer. Loved ones battle cancer. Parents lose their jobs. Families sleep in their cars. And the cycle continues. 

More often than not, I find myself wondering how I ended up on this side of suffering. Why am I sitting in an air-conditioned office drinking a soy hazelnut latte while the person in the story I’m working on is sitting in a refugee camp with her four hungry children, wondering if her husband is still alive?

Today’s question hits home for me. Here it is...

Some people’s lives are very easy and others’ are very difficult and painful. Where is God in all this? Why is it that some suffer while others don’t?

I’m just going to call this out from the very start: as somebody who has had a relatively easy life, I feel pretty uncomfortable responding to this question. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of struggles, challenges, doubts and letdowns. I’ve gone through seasons of feeling far from God. But I’ve also written enough of these stories and heard enough news reports to know that I’ve got it pretty good. 

So this is me getting a conversation started on a topic that makes me uncomfortable. I hope we can work together to discover God’s Truth on the matter. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. 

1. God is our Comforter in suffering, not our enemy

This seems like an important starting point. Questions like “Does God cause suffering?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” come up often in both Christian and non-Christian circles alike. When bad fortune falls upon us or the people we love, our knee jerk reaction is to find someone to pin it on. Someone to blame. Someone to throw all of our anger and sadness at. And when we can’t find that person, we shake our fists at the heavens and convince ourselves that God is the cause of it all. 

Then, we remember that sickness, sorrow and pain have never been part of God’s ultimate plan for us. That they’re the by-products of a fallen world that exists outside of the perfection that He desires and intends for us. The perfection that Adam and Eve traded for a sweet piece of fruit. The perfection that God sent Jesus Christ to restore. By sacrificing His only son for our sake, God makes it clear that He is for us, not against us. He’s the reconciler, not the divider. “In this world you will have trouble,” says Jesus,  “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In the depths of any suffering, remember this: Your pain is real AND God is not your enemy. My mind goes straight to Psalm 23, where David talks about God being with him in the green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness, valley of death, and presence of his enemies. When we look at the different verbs that David uses to describe what God is doing in each of these places, we see only verbs of comfort and peace. We see Him “lead,” “restore,” “comfort,” “prepare,” “anoint.” Through the green pastures and the valley of the shadow of death, He will be our good shepherd.

When we choose to make God our enemy because nobody else fits the bill, we miss out on the peace, comfort and strength that can only be found in Him. 

2. Suffering isn’t something we earn or don’t earn. It just is

In trying to understand why some people experience more suffering than others, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that suffering is not a consequence of personal sin. What better example is there of this than Jesus? Jesus led a sinless and blameless life and yet He suffered more than anybody else ever will. Along with Jesus, many of the most righteous people in the Bible are the people who experienced the most extreme suffering. God Himself described Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil,” and yet Job lost everything. All twelve of Christ’s disciples faced many trials and were ultimately martyred for their faith. 

On the flip side, we live in a cut-throat world filled with a fair share of people who lie, steal and cheat their way to the top. Many of these people seem to avoid suffering and find “success” by the world’s standards. With that being the case, thinking of suffering as something that is either deserved or not deserved just doesn’t add up. 

During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Whether you are evil or good, righteous or unrighteous, we all experience some form of suffering. It just is

3. Your experience of suffering is shaped by your cultural context

My dad has been a pastor for over thirty years, so sometimes I call him to talk through the questions I receive for this project. This is one thing he mentioned on this topic that really stuck out to me. The idea that suffering is interpreted differently in different parts of the world. For instance, many of us who were born and raised in the states have the mentality that nothing bad should happen to us. The tiniest inconvenience will be photographed, instagrammed, and captioned with angry face emojis. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of this response. Why do I complain about having too many clothes or whine when my shower water gets cold too fast? Because culture has given me a superficial understanding of what suffering is. 

I have a vivid memory of a pastor from the Middle East speaking at my church years ago. He was giving the congregation an update on the state of his church, his community and the many trials his country was facing. Towards the end of his message, he said something that gave me pause. He said “I often receive word that churches in the states are praying that our suffering will end, and I want you all to know that we pray for your faith to remain strong and vibrant in the absence of suffering.” Wow. If that’s not a punch to the gut, I don’t know what is. 

This pastor’s view of suffering has been shaped by his circumstances, but more importantly, it has been shaped by God’s Word. In his first letter to Christians in the Roman Empire, Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).

4. God doesn’t cause our suffering, but He sanctifies us through it

Some people experience more suffering than others, yes. There’s no denying that. And even if God is not the cause of that suffering, it can be difficult at times to understand why a loving God would even allow that suffering to exist. This is why. It’s because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5). 

Instead of quoting C.S. Lewis this time, I’m going to quote a scene from the movie Shadowlands… which is about the life of C.S. Lewis. Here’s a monologue about suffering that screenwriter William Nicholson wrote and Anthony Hopkins performed for the on-screen character of C.S. Lewis:

Does God want us to suffer? What if the answer to that question is ‘yes’? You see, I don’t think that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up.

You see, we are like children who think that our toys bring us all the happiness there is, and that our nursery is the whole wide world. But something has to drive us out into the world of others, and that thing is suffering. Put simply, pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

We're like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering in the world is not the failure of God's love for us; it is that love in action. For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial, is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.

Once we finally strip away all of these false perceptions that we have about suffering—that it’s caused by God, that it’s somehow deserved or undeserved—we can begin to see His redemptive plan for it. We can begin to see that neither suffering nor comfort are ever the end in themselves. That the pain of the chisel is what forms us into works of art. 

It’s only in the light of that realization that we can live out the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, knowing that, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” 

So now what?
As a living, breathing human being in this fallen world, there’s probably something in your life that’s not going your way right now. Regardless of how big or small you think your suffering is, look to God for comfort, guidance and peace. Let Him be the hope you find in the messy middle of your refining fire. 

Writing this response has made me realize that there’s really no sense in wondering why I have the life that I have. All I know is that God has a purpose for me here and that His love implores me to live whatever life I have for Him and Him alone. 

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). If you’ve been given much, consider how you can bring light and hope into the suffering of others. Pray that God would break your heart for what breaks His—and that He would fill you with the conviction and strength to do something about it. 

When your cup is full, turn to your neighbor and pour into his. Commit to stewarding all that you have and are for the glory of God the Father, for He “will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).

References:
https://www.biblegateway.com/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSxp30wExEs

 

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