Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Is God Loving or Punitive? (4)

How can the God of the universe be loving but also a punisher? The question makes for challenging teaching and preaching. Yet, both themes are there as clearly as Exodus states: 20:5-6: "... for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."

This passage incapsulates a paradox of Scripture. God is faithful to those who are faithful to God. God blesses those who bless God and God curses those who are unfaithful to God. God loves those who love God. Lest we relegate this theology to the Old Testament, the theme continues through much of the New Testament, and, to us, the church. 

Is God's patience really exhausted like ours? Is it our job to placate God so that God won't lose his temper? This is hard to teach and preach, and very difficult to hear among those who see the paradox. Those for whom love is a stranger or the word "love" is used as a cover for guilt, shame, or control. For example, God surely knows about those who are children of family violence, those of dysfunctional or alcoholic families, and victims sexual abuse. God knows about those with the stored trauma of life-threatening circumstances. Given this, how can people  really trust God, a Higher Power, who has an angry streak? 

It matters how we frame it. Really. The Lord's discipline is mentioned throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament, several times in Hebrews: My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ (1) God reproves those whom God loves. (2) 

One of the sharp critiques of this view is in Job. Job's so-called friends enter the scene of Job's losses of house, business, home, family, health, etc. They all spout their views of why God is allowing Job, a faithful servant of God, to suffer such loss and grief. In the end, they repent of speaking wrongly for God, and are commanded to make sacrifices to ask for Job's prayers to forgive their folly. (3)

In Luke 11, Jesus makes the most direct and sharpest contrast between the love of human fathers and the love of the heavenly Father: "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:9-13)

It is a matter of emphasis, framed by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and his story. The good news of the incarnation is not that God is thinking up new ways to to harden and hurt us, but that God is with us, taking the blows that life dishes up. God is with us in the hell and heaven of human existence. God's living and loving presence- the Holy Spirit is given to us.  God chooses to dwell among us, literally, God pitches tent with us. (4) 

Life is really hard enough. The life of Jesus Christ invites me to transformation, which is a shop-worn term, often used without real content. The loss of ego, the false self, the non-enduring, changes me. That's inevitable the longer I live. I will lose my place, my status, career, health, friendships and family. All will happen, sometimes sooner than I expect. 

The question is, how can I reframe and relocate myself in the incarnation of God's love in Jesus Christ?  

1) Proverbs 3:11.

(2) Revelation 3:19

(3) See Job 42.

(4) John 1:14

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