Coherence at the Core – Some Thoughts on “Love” and “Wrath”

Sunday evenings can sometimes be a difficult time for me to sleep.  My head’s often spinning and processing after an evening at Bloom, and so after the fam crashes, dad is often up.

This past Sunday night, I wound up on Facebook, and a friend of mine posted this already much-critiqued video by Mark Driscoll –

I commented that that was easily the most painful 7 minutes of preaching I’d ever seen; not simply because it was a clearly disorganized rant but because of the atrocious lack of biblical and theological reasoning – a lack, I should add, that resulted in a deeply warped, incoherent, and ultimately depraved view of God (I’ll get to that in a minute).

Then I noticed in the comments thread, someone had posted this video from David Platt –

I then commented that the Platt video was worse.  I couldn’t stomach it.  (Admittedly, I had only watched half of it, and when I went back later and watched the rest, I thought it was better than the Driscoll video, but not by a lot.)  So yesterday I put together this little comment on Facebook, which drew some comments (mostly positive) and also raised some questions about what I was reacting to:

Positing “love” and “wrath” as equal and therefore competing “attributes” in God is just downright bad theology. There is either a basic unity at the core of God’s character, or God is a multiple-personality maniac, worthy perhaps of fear but in no conceivable sense reverence and honor, much less worship and adoration.

The immense tragedy that there are many who preach this is only matched and then finally outpaced by the still greater tragedy that countless numbers of goodhearted people feel compelled (by these preachers and teachers) to believe in such a god, and then have to twist and contort their souls to match this hideously contorted and hopelessly confused deity.

That’s a harsh statement to make, but I mean it.  The sad thing is that preaching (and writing, and teaching) like this is really not exceptional.  Lots of people think and believe like this, which I think is sad and unnecessary.  Let me unpack my Facebook statement above in the hopes of showing that the Bible is a better book than many make it out to be, and even more that God is a better God than many make him out to be:

1) When it comes to Scripture, we must see the parts in the whole.  When Driscoll and Platt airlift Psalms like Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:4-5 out of context to argue simpliciter that God “hates” even “abhors” not just sin but sinners, I think that they’re handling Scripture in a way that’s not just overly simplistic but foolish and reckless.  Surely they know (or perhaps they don’t) that genre matters.  Psalm 5 is clearly belongs in many ways to the imprecatory Psalms, in which the Psalmist, in crying out to God for mercy and deliverance will also lift up his cry for justice–i.e., something like “pay back my enemies what they deserve.”  The Psalmist believes that there is a Justice that governs the universe and that one day the wicked will get what’s coming to them, and that this Justice opposes evil and those who do it, and so he expresses it as “the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”  We’re seeing something of God there that is crucial to understand–namely, that the goodness and righteousness of God, the goodness and righteousness that by the way he intends to flood the world with–will not abide that which is opposed to it.  There is a sense in which God actively resists those who are set against him.  Yes, yes, yes.  There’s a reason why the Psalms have constituted the backbone of Christian piety for centuries–they form our moral and spiritual imagination.  There is an orderliness, a justice, a coherence at the heart of the universe, and that orderliness will one day make itself manifest in space and time.

But to simply airlift those verses as a way of justifying, again, simpliciter, that God “hates” sinners is to fail to read the part in terms of the whole.  If all you had were those verses, you’d be justified in thinking that there is an “out group” over there that God hates, and an “in group” over here that God loves, and that one day God will pummel the former and deliver the latter.  And then we start reading Scripture, and we find throughout the whole sweep of it (let’s just stay with the Old Testament for now) that the picture is a lot more subtle than that.  We find that there is a God who made the world, and human beings, and called it (and them) “good.”  Who stamped his image on them, endowing them with dignity and splendor far beyond their deserving or even reckoning.  Who when they rebelled and defected from his purposes put a plan in place (out of the superabundance of his commitment to them) to rescue them from their own devices.  Who did this by calling a people (Abraham and family) to bring his world-renewing blessing to them, so that all nations might believe and obey him, despite the fact that Israel, which so often and so easily called down judgment on her enemies, would turn out to be part of the problem (uh-oh).  He did this out of his hesedhis unfailing love, not just for Israel, but for Egypt and Babylon and every bloodthirsty and deceitful image-bearer running around on this crazy planet.  Read the Prophets–guys like Isaiah and Jeremiah perceived at the edges of their imagination that when YHWH their God stood up with his reign, that Israel and her enemies together would fall down at his feet in worship.

If the picture of God were as simple as preachers like these made it out to be, none–read me, none–of the actual energy of the biblical narrative would be there at all.  It would be a simple equation: Sin = defection = hatred = wipe them out.  There is more to the story than Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:4-5.  Responsible preachers will recognize and interpret accordingly.  Which leads me to my second critique.

2) We must insist on a Christological reading of Scripture.  This flows directly out of point 1.  “No one has ever seen God” John declares, “but God the One and Only, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (John 1).  Or later in John, one of the most brilliant interactions in all of Scripture:

“I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him–in fact, you have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus answered, “Have I been with you so great a time and you do not know me, Philip?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14)

Christians believe that Jesus is where the narrative of Scripture was heading all along.  That everything that happened before Christ was a shadow–revealing God, yes, but dimly, provisionally, awaiting further elucidation.  In Christ, God gets specific.  We come to the “hard core” of who God is and what he’s like.  And what is God like, revealed in Jesus?  He loves “sinners”, dines with them, and makes himself comfortable with them.  He heals the lame and the disfigured, extends mercy to the oppressors of Israel, and calls everyone within earshot of his voice into the range of his Father’s redeeming love.  Jew and Gentile, Israel and Rome… it matters not to him – the whole world is the focus of his work, for the whole world has been the focus of his Father’s work from the beginning.

And when despite his relentless kindness we flung him up on a cross, rather than (like the Psalmist) calling down judgment, he called out “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  This is what God is like – reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  He will take the judgment that was hanging over the head of the world upon himself, in order to deliver wayward humanity safely over to God.

Does he hate evil?  Of course.  Does he hate what we do to mar and deface his good world?  Of course.  Is he set against us when we so mar and deface?  Of course… but his being “set against” is only one level of the story.  He is “God against” us in our rebellion first and foremost because he is Immanuel, “God with us” and “God for us” in creation and redemption.

It will not simply do to take Psalm 5:5 and do a word study and say, “But see here, God hates sinners!”  We have to see that as one moment in the story–a story that culminates in God the Son taking on human flesh and being torn asunder to lift the curse from us.  The love that hung the sun and the stars, that wove us together in our mothers’ wombs, spilled holy blood to save us.  “For God so LOVED the world that he gave…” (John 3:16).

Admittedly, Platt does a better job of this than Driscoll, but still I think his language leaves something to be desired.  And it’s this:

3) We must find ways to articulate God’s “love” and “wrath” that do justice to the radical unity of intent that must lie at the core of God’s being if God is to be morally trustworthy.  This goes directly to the point that I was making in the Facebook comment – namely, that we have this habit in Christianity of setting out “love” and “wrath” or “merciful” and “holy” as though they were in opposition to each other, as though there was some kind of eternal tug-of-war in the heart of God.  Driscoll calls them “attributes” (wrongly saying that the Bible talks about God “in terms of attributes”, when it uses no such language), and says,

God is love, sure, but love is not God and God is not only love… when the Bible speaks of God it speaks of him in terms of attributes: he is loving and just, he is merciful and holy, he is forgiving and righteous, and what people like to do is take one of God’s attributes and elevate it above the rest and ignore the totality of what the Bible says about God.

But surely “ignoring the totality of what the Bible says about God” is exactly what Driscoll is doing.  One does not simply do theology by reading bits of text that describe God and then setting them next to each other, calling them “attributes” and then treating them as peers.  What this does (whether Driscoll intends it or not) is it gives the impression that something called “love” is one facet of what God is and something called “wrath” is yet another.  That God is a composite being comprised of a whole bunch of free-standing, independently acting, and therefore often competing “attributes.”

If this confusion of mind weren’t bad enough, what’s worse is that in Christianity, this is sometimes lauded as a sort of beautiful, holy “mystery.”  I’m all for mystery.  Anyone who’s listened to my preaching knows that.  But we should not cry “mystery” simply because we haven’t done the hard work of thinking.  The sort of god depicted by preachers who set out “attributes” in competition with each other is one who is never fully at rest within himself in terms of his intent or attitude of the heart towards humanity.  At best he is deeply conflicted.  At worst he is a multiple personality maniac with unlimited power.

Such a being, I contend, is worthy of fear, but not reverence and honor, much less worship and adoration.  He cannot be the God who dwells in the “beauty of holiness” that the Psalmist describes, the God who evokes awe and wonder and delight, whose love is better than life itself.  This god is a tormented monster.  He cannot and should not be trusted.

I understand that that is harsh language, but please – can it be otherwise?  If a woman came to me with her three children and described how she lived with a man who was divided at the center of his being on how he felt about the four of them, sometimes lavishing love and adoration on them and sometimes “abhorring” them, I’d counsel her to leave his ass high and dry without giving it a second thought.  I’d further be looking for evidence of his abuse and I’d try to find a way to involve the authorities.  He cannot and should not be trusted, and should probably be restrained.

To give the benefit of the doubt, it’s likely that Driscoll and Platt and others like them don’t necessarily intend to paint a picture of God as a moral monster, but from where I stand, I don’t know how one can see that god as otherwise.  When John declares that “God is love”, he doesn’t feel the need to give us a caveat–“yes, yes, yes, but you should also understand that God is righteous wrath too!”  He simply says it.  And he’s a sophisticated enough theologian (as the rest of the Bible writers are) to understand that God’s righteous wrath emerges out of a basic coherence of character and intent that lies at the core of his being: the Good God of Scripture is love, and anything in God’s world that doesn’t line up with his Good Love he will one day exorcise from his Good World–and if we human beings choose to cling with all our might to the sin, evil, and rebellion we’ve been working, then (this is my reading of Scripture) we’ll be exorcised too.  That’s wrath.  Emerging out of love.  Love is what he is and does.  Wrath does not “trump” love.  Neither does love trump wrath.  There is no competition.  Wrath is what happens when love pursues the beloved into the outer darkness to drive the demon of depravity out of her and bring her back.

This God is love.  He is good.  His love and goodness are often severe, but goodness and love they are no less.  And he can be trusted.  Which leads me to the last thing.

4) We must recognize that we will become like what we worship, so we’d better make sure we’re not worshiping something less than the Good God revealed in Christ Jesus.  The prohibitions against idolatry are ultimately extremely pragmatic.  Our worship becomes the form of our humanness in the world.

Worship a fertility goddess… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a belligerent tribal deity who favors one people over another… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a god that demands child sacrifice… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a deity that hates gay people and Muslims… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a deity that at bottom can’t decide whether he loves or hates you… and well, again, you can guess what will happen…

The Psalmist puts it perfectly when he says (Psalm 115):

2 Why do the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
4 But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
6 They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
7 They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

Hence the 1st commandment – “You shall have no other gods before me”, and the 2nd – “You shall not make any graven images…” To worship something less than the God of Scripture is to ultimately unravel our humanness.

My own assessment is that part of the reason that many Christians struggle so mightily with feelings of worthlessness, confusion of soul, distance from God, etc etc, is because they’ve been given the morally and spiritually confusing god I’ve described above.  And the reason they have a hard time loving their neighbors as themselves (say nothing of their enemies) is because (a) there is a deep contempt for themselves lying at the core of their being, a contempt that emerges from a sense that perhaps God has contempt for them, which destroys the foundation of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and (b) there is some ambivalence in them as to whether or not GOD actually loves their neighbors (say nothing of their enemies).  If God hates gays and Muslims, maybe I should too.

Belief, spirituality, life… it’s all an ecosystem.  Pull one bit of the ecosystem out of balance, and it will have a catalytic effect on the rest.  Kill a bird population on one side of the Amazon, and watch monkeys start dying on the other side.  Split the personality of God into two, paint a picture of him in which he cannot ultimately be trusted, and watch darkness start seeping in elsewhere.  That creeping, gnawing sense that God is displeased with you “at your core” (as Platt says), that “fearfully and wonderfully made” doesn’t apply to you, that your life is as bad as it is because that’s what you deserve (being as worthless a person as you are)… that global tragedies and pandemics are specific judgment on specific people groups for sin… that certain people are more heinous sinners than others and thus worthy of our abhorrence… watch your humanness begin to unravel, and watch the radioactive waste of that fallout begin to touch everything around you…

It will happen, and if it doesn’t, it’s because there is a Voice at your core that restrains the image of the multiple-personality god from having full effect.  When you listen to that Voice… the voice of the One who keeps saying, “I am love… I have made you in love, and for love, and given myself to you and for you in love, and as hard as you try to deny it and cover it up and run from it… as often as you hurl your insults and threats at me… deeper than your rebellion, greater and more firm than your failure… I’ll never stop whispering my love at you… just, please, respond… I can be trusted…”

…then the most beautiful and mysterious and wonderful things start happening.  Life seems alive, neighbors are seen as friends, enemies are loved and longed for as God does… a new humility and wonder and joy steals in.

And how could it not?  Worship the joyful God… the superabundant God of infinitely completed love, who is all goodness and light, and in whom there is no shadow of turning, no darkness at all…

…and watch what you become.

Theology matters.

Grace and peace,

Andrew

Monday Morning – For Preachers

Typically (since our gatherings at Bloom are in the evenings) on Sunday afternoon, after all my preaching preparation is done, I’ll try to grab one final hour alone to process through what’s about to happen, wrestle with the text a bit more, pray, etc etc.  Those are good, centering hours.

Yesterday I found myself journaling as I prepared my heart to preach.  It is good, I think, sometimes to step back and ask all the questions all over again.  I find that in the midst of the weekly pressure of “Sunday’s comin”, it is easy to lose touch with one’s deepest passion and ideals.  We humans depend on remembrance for our very lives.

So I journaled through what I think are some primary questions for the spiritual formation of preachers.  After writing them, I thought they may be useful reflections for others who labor in the “ministry of the word” as it is called.  So I offer them to you who weekly serve God’s people with your speech.  Be blessed, and encouraged.  What you do matters.

Why do I preach?  Why am I a preacher?

One doesn’t, I think, choose this so much as one is chosen by it.  I preach because I cannot do otherwise.  I preach because this God has grabbed me by the heart and yanked me–continually yanks me, sometimes against my will–into it.  I preach because I feel, right or wrong, that to walk away from this would be to walk away from God.  He burns in me.  It burns in me–“it” being God’s speech, his word, his heart, for his people.  I feel, I really feel, his pain and passion.  I have to speak.  I cannot do otherwise.

What is preaching?

To preach is to open a window to a new world.  Modern life presents to us a very narrow range of possibilities for being a human.  The text on the other hand invites us into a vast and variegated range of potentialities for living life in deep, profound, beautiful, life-giving ways.  It beckons us to imagine that death is not the final word (in spite of much evidence to the contrary), that justice will win the day (in spite of much evidence to the contrary), and that there is a Holy Presence at the center of life that lights all things up with love (in spite of much evidence to the contrary).  Preaching is standing between the people and the text, allowing it to be such a window, and saying to them, “Have a look.”

What are the critical elements of preaching?

Attentiveness.  Imagination.  Patience.  Love.

Attentiveness because I cannot preach without first having attended to the text, and to the God the text points to, well.  Preparation for preaching is largely and perhaps singularly an act of attentiveness.  What is happening in this text?  When I set it against other portions of what is written, what sorts of resonances go off?  What is happening in this congregation?  In modern life?  What is God doing in me, right now?  What is he saying?  Our singular attentiveness at the intersection of all of these questions (and more) is where the Qol Adonai, the voice of God, is heard.

Imagination because I cannot preach without a lively curiosity, a mind and heart capable of seeing the manifold connections between this text and this moment and these lives, right here, right now.  Imagination is not simply something that some are given and others aren’t.  The imagination can be kindled, stoked.  We train ourselves to see our lives through the lens of the text, to imagine our lives anciently, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, to hear the prophet Amos bellowing at us now, to see modern life under the critique of the Sermon on the Mount.  Without imagination, I cannot preach.

Patience because insight and imagination may come in a flash, but they are not quick, cheap, or easy.  I will have to bleed over this coming moment.  I will have to sometimes study and pray and still find myself empty on inspiration, desperate for that “aha” moment that puts it all together–a moment that I cannot manipulate, manage, or wave a magic wand over.  I will have to be disciplined enough to wait… and wait… and wait… and when I thought I’ve done enough waiting, to wait some more.

And I absolutely cannot preach without great love because this is not a performance (even if it has “performative” aspects) and I am not doing this to make a name for myself and because preaching is always about THIS word for THIS people at THIS precise moment, and I cannot speak to them as I ought without a certain “affect” in my heart for them.

What do I fear most in preaching?

Feeling that I spoke, but God was absent.  That is the feeling that strikes fear in my heart more than any other, for the critical thing in any message is this: did God pick up my speech and do more with it than it would have done on its own?  The longing for transcendence, connection, for Fire, for the Breath… that longing is the thing that drives the preacher to his or her knees, for the preacher knows that YHWH’s unique presence and voice in a sermon is not reducible to formulae or strategies; He will not bow to our systems or to the so-called “tricks of the trade”; he resists subjection and pigeonholing.  He is no jester, no dancing monkey.  He will not be mocked.  He is Holy God…

…and yet, He is so kind.  “Oh don’t leave me!” I cry out from the center of myself each Sunday.  “Stay with me; speak through me; elevate my stammerings to the level of your gentle guidance for your people, and may they through it be blessed and helped.”

And I find that He does.  Often in spite of me as much as anything else.  He craves encounter with His people, knowing that they depend on His speech for their very lives.  So He will do his talking, one way or another.

But that feeling… “Oh don’t leave me!”… and the joy that comes when we find that our speech really has been so elevated… there, right there, is the pain and passion of the preacher.  And they, I think, if they’re really called… they simply cannot do otherwise.