Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It"...... Sort Of.

"God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" 

I'm sure you've heard that before. I've heard it since I was very small, and from some very well meaning, sincere Christians. This phrase is usually tossed about when we read difficult passages in the Bible, and have trouble discerning the context and meaning of those passages. Instead of struggling for discernment, we sometimes toss up our hands and say "that's what the words on the page say, so that must be exactly what it means. God said, I believe it, that settles it"!

But I disagree that we have to simply accept everything the way it is written in scripture just because the author wrote it a certain way.  I believe scripture is true and correct in what it teaches, but that our understanding is sometimes limited.  I'll never deny the words in scripture - the words on the page - , but in practice we "deny" the obvious meaning of what is plainly stated in scripture all the time, because what is plainly stated is not always what is plainly meant.

I do not subscribe to "God said it, I believe it, that settles it".

For me, an example of those difficult passages are when the Bible talks about God's hatred, or wrath, or jealousy.  For my own thinking, with all that I know about God and His love, I have difficulty believing that the authors intended for God's "hatred" to be interpreted as the same thing as my "hatred". I've struggled with this concept long and hard and have come to the conclusion that, although the Bible authors do say what they say, our understanding sometimes falls short if "that settles it" is all the investigation we do.

"God loved Jacob, but hated Esau" (Mal 1:2-3, Rom 9:1) does not mean what it plainly says. We know God didn't hate Esau, based on the continued blessings God gave Esau throughout his life. We don't teach that God "hated" Esau, even though the Bible plainly says so. This is an example of extreme hyperbole common to ancient writing to emphasize a point - God chose Jacob instead of Esau to be the continuation of the promise to Abraham. Choosing one over the other to fulfill God's particular role doesn't mean God loved one more than the other. Scripture does say "hated", but based on the Biblical context of Jacob and Esau's story, the verse doesn't mean what it "plainly" says. 

When Jesus says unless His followers "hate father and mother.... yes even their own life - such person cannot be my disciple" (:Luke 14:26),  He wasn't telling us to actually "hate" our parents.  That would violate the commandment to honor our parents.  Ephesians 5 says no one really hates their body but cares for it, which Paul implies is evidence of love for one's life. Paul is writing in a different context, but that is what the Bible says. If we take the "that settles it" approach, then we wind up asking, who is right, Paul or Jesus? We know, though, from context, that Paul affirms Jesus' teachings in every way.  Still, Jesus plainly says hate your parents and your life.  Again, its hyperbole to make a point. Jesus does not mean for us to actually hate our parents or our life, but to love Him and commit to Him far more than to our parents or even our own desires for our life, and be willing to lose both, should it come to that, for the greater call of following Jesus. ( I have had teachers who stressed that Jesus did exactly mean that we need to hate our parents, to turn our backs on them and follow only Jesus. Twisted, to be sure, but more common than you may think.)

Many Christians, when asked about how they reconcile this idea of God's love with God's hatred, will quote the phrase "hate the sin, but love the sinner" (which is found nowhere in the Bible). Most people will say that God really doesn't hate anyone, but that He hates the sin that besets us and separates us from God. But not all agree. There are some who think like Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill, who preached a well received sermon about how God actually hates some of us personally. There are those who believe that God, at times, truly hates some people. Literally. And they point to scripture for their reasoning.

Where I would say that God does not actually hate anyone personally, others point to the passages of scripture that say God does indeed hate people, sometimes.  Ps 11:5, and Ps 5:5 both say that God hates people who do evil. In Hosea 9, God says because of Israel's evil and wickedness, He actually began to hate the Israelites. God goes even further to say, because of their wickedness, he will "love them no more".  

Now, although the Bible clearly says that God at one point hated Israel, do we teach that God really hated Israel, and withdrew his love for them? Of course not. We know, based on Jesus own words in John 3:16-17 for example, and the love displayed by Jesus' death on the cross, that God never actually hated or withdrew his love from Israel, or anyone for that matter. God is not condemning the world, or Israel, but saving it. So, although the scripture clearly says one thing, it must mean something else, when taken in context. Something else is meant by "hated" and "loved them no more". Its hyperbole. God is making his point about how deeply Israel's wickedness grieved Him.

The Bible says that Jehovah is a jealous God, but God's jealousy is demonstrably not our "green monster of envy", which is motivated by resentment, or a fear of rivalry or unfaithfulness. God is the only God there is, so He's not threatened or insecure. His jealousy is infinite love always vigilantly guarding and maintaining and nurturing a relationship with the object of His love - us. His discipline may appear as wrath, anger, or hatred, but its never what we humans understand as wrath, anger, or hatred. 

God's love is always expressed in His way that is so much higher than ours (love in its purest and best form), that we have difficulty seeing it as such. God's jealousy in wanting what is best for humanity and all of creation is what motivated Jesus to go to the cross. God did what only God could do, and gave everything possible to give, to redeem us. That's love's true jealousy.

As a human father's love in disciplining his little child may appear to the little child as his big, powerful, angry father's wrath - so it is with God and us.

God's eternal, unchanging disposition towards us, his cherished image bearers, His little children, is, was, and always shall be, love.

For me, I cannot say that "because the Bible says wrath, or jealousy, or hatred, so it must mean (what a reasonable human may understand as) wrath or jealousy or hatred". Scripture is so much more nuanced than that. Wrath, anger, judgement.... all are loaded human terms that, when viewed through the lens of Jesus suffering for his beloved people to redeem us and free us from bondage, can take very different meanings.

Anger, wrath, judgement, jealousy - all are very difficult to define, and hard to understand when attributed to God. We struggle with them, and do our best.

But love..... love is God's theme throughout the Bible.  The Bible goes to great lengths to tell us about God and love. God's love is well defined, from Adam to Abraham to David to the cross.

St. Paul describes love this way:

"Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." (1 Cor 13 NLT)

This, to me, is a perfect description of the God that I love.  God is love, and this is Paul's description of love; therefore I think this is one of Paul's descriptions of God.

Since God is love, I'd paraphrase the passage in 1 Cor. 13 this way:

"God is patient and kind. God is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. God does not demand His own way.  God is not irritable, and He keeps no record of being wronged.  God does not rejoice with injustice, but He rejoices whenever the truth wins out. God never gives up, God never loses faith, God is always hopeful, and God endures through every circumstance." 

This God - the God that loves - this God I can trust.

No matter what "wrath" means, or what "hate" or "judgement" means -  a God who loves like this is a God I can love, because I can trust His love. This is the God who gave Himself for me, for you, and all of creation, at Calvary. This is the God I can join Paul in declaring:

"Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.” No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us!

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Instead of chasing after the meaning of "hate" and "wrath",  I think we are better for chasing after the meaning of  "love".

When we wonder about God and his attributes, and the lens through which we should read and think about God, Pastor Brian Zanhd puts it this way, and I think this makes sense: 

God looks like Jesus. 
God has always looked like Jesus. 
There has never been a time when God did not look like Jesus. 
We didn't always know this, but now we do. 

(That's my opinion anyway.)

Grace and Peace