Monthly Archives: February 2011

God of Justice, God of Mercy

Image credit: Barbara Lane

I was so refreshed and encouraged by the comments you left on the last post about my struggle to understand God’s violence. Not only did it become abundantly clear that I’m not the only one wrestling with this question, but also that there are many resources and perspectives to help us along. I look forward to continuing to wrestle aloud and pursue this question with you. It’s helpful to know we’re not alone in it, isn’t it?

Earlier this week, I encountered a meaningful reminder about my journey into nonviolence that I think can contribute to our ongoing consideration of this question. It began with my reading a passage in Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love that talks about our need for both a God of justice and a God of mercy. Specifically, he wrote:

At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the Greek herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man.

But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance.

Strength to Love, page 9

I’ll admit that at the time I read this passage, it didn’t hit me at my core. However, I could identify with what he said. I thought of the little girls sold into brothels and the families owned by slavemasters around the world and IJM’s staunch fight to overcome these realities of injustice. I know the God of justice cares for these oppressed and forgotten ones. I know that he is coming for them and does not tolerate the evil done against them. I know it breaks his heart and angers him.

But I haven’t personally been very in touch with this God of justice of late because God has been taking me deeper into his merciful heart — his heart that grieves for the sins of humanity and wants to rescue us from ourselves. This is the part of God’s heart in me that weeps for my enemies and the perpetrators of evil on this earth. There is a connection to the heart of God in this, too.

But then the following morning, I read a psalm that reminded me more concretely of my journey into the heart of God’s justice that happened several years ago. The psalm reads:

We’ve been hearing about this, God, all our lives.
Our fathers told us the stories their fathers told them,
How single-handedly you weeded out the godless
from the fields and planted us,
How you sent those people packing
but gave us a fresh start.
We didn’t fight for this land;
we didn’t work for it — it was a gift!
You gave it, smiling as you gave it,
delighting as you gave it.

You’re my king, O God —
command victories for Jacob!
With your help we’ll wipe out our enemies,
in your name we’ll stomp them to dust.
I don’t trust in weapons;
my sword won’t save me —
But it’s you, you have saved us from the enemy;
you made those who hate us lose face.

— Psalm 44:1-8

In a vivid way when I read this psalm, I was reminded of key moments in my life where I was beaten up and scarred and wounded, times when I was called out and humiliated, times when I was taken by force and used as a plaything or object of another’s selfish gain, times when my innocence was taken, when another person didn’t respect my boundaries or love me with a selfless love, times when I was accused and left alone by those who ought to have loved me, times when I was given too much weight for my too-small shoulders to bear.

I recalled these moments in graphic detail and remembered my need for God’s just heart when I originally faced the real truth of these hurts and needed to heal from them. I needed the justice of God to heal. I needed to encounter a God who saw those things happen and thought it mattered. I needed to be seen in those moments of pain, and God saw me. He cared for me in a way that I needed care. He acknowledged the wrongdoing and fought for my heart. He ministered to me tenderly and dressed my wounds.

God’s heart of justice was the essence of my healing at that time. His justice brought me close to his side. It grew my love for him. It secured me in his love, and my conception of God today is bound up in his having done this for me.

But as I grew in this love from God and became rooted and established in it, a shift happened. I stopped needing God’s wrath. I no longer needed his vengeful justice against those who had brought me harm. His love for me overcame my original pain and my need for God’s justice on my behalf.

Instead, I began to love those who had hurt me and desired their good and their salvation. I began to see their woundedness and felt nothing but compassion and mercy. I forgave them. I prayed for them. I sought reconciliation with some of them. I desired their good.

In this, I became united to God’s heart of love. I entered God’s love for the world. It is a love that weeps for the brokenness of humanity and seeks its salvation. It is a love that comes after those who reject God. It is a love that is stronger than hate.

The love of God that was rooted in his justice healed my wounds and helped me forgive and love the world. This is where my nonviolence journey began.

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Struggling with a Violent God

Photo credit: Image by me, Getty Museum, January 2011

I’ve been struggling of late with my knowledge of the violent God who exists in the Old Testament. I am a follower of Jesus, and in the pages of the New Testament, I discover God walking around on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

In this Jesus, I discover the fullness of love. I discover a God who teaches and embodies peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I discover a God who bears burdens gladly. I discover a God who forgives all enemies.

But in the pages of the Old Testament, I discover a different kind of God. Here, I find a God who chooses favorites. I find a God who chose Israel and no one else. I find a God who decimated whole cities and countries because they lived lawlessly or opposed God’s chosen nation.

One God exhibiting quite different attributes between each testament.

I don’t say any of this to be flippant or disrespect my God. I truly want to understand what this means and why it is, and I’ve been asking God to help me understand. I’m writing about it here for two reasons:

  1. To continue chronicling the reality of this very real journey I keep walking into nonviolence, including all its questions and difficulties.
  2. To learn what you might say. Have you ever struggled with this subject?

I’ve wrestled with this question for over two years. Quite early in my journey, actually, I wrote a piece called “What About the Violent God of the Old Testament?” on another online space I maintain, and I continue to wonder if the place I landed at the end of that piece isn’t the most orthodox place to land: that perhaps in the death of Jesus, the full justice of God was truly satisfied. This means God no longer has reason to administer justice in the ways he used to do.

As I share at the end of that piece, this brings with it its own fair share of new questions, and there are questions I have about that which weren’t even raised in that article.

But even if it is true that this is what happened to make God “change” when it came to Jesus, that still left thousands upon thousands of people in the hands of an angry God. All those people who lived and died before Jesus walked the earth  lived under the wrath of a God who administered such grave justice.

I get that God is just. I get that such a supreme being bears the high standards of perfection. And yet still, my heart breaks at the reality of what that means.

A couple weeks ago, for instance, I read the Passover account in the book of Exodus. This is where God “passes over” those houses of the people of Israel when he comes in wrath against the citizens of Egypt and all their first-born sons. In one night, all the first-born sons in the houses of Egypt died.

That same day, I read the following psalm:

What a stack of blessing you have piled up for those who worship you,
Ready and waiting for all who run to you
to escape an unkind world.
You hide them safely away from the opposition.
As you slam the door on those oily, mocking faces,
you silence the poisonous gossip . . .
Love God, all you saints;
God takes care of all who stay close to him.
But he pays back in full
those arrogant enough to go it alone.
— Psalm 31:19-20, 23 (The Message)

Earlier in my faith journey, I used to read these kinds of passages and find great comfort and solace in them. They told me of a God who cares for those who love and follow him. They told me that those who mocked and scorned me for my faith wouldn’t keep their days of herald forever.

But today, it’s not like that at all.

Today, I read these passages and weep. I weep for those God killed in the Passover. I weep for those parents who lost those sons. I weep for all the people who lost their lives because of the anger and judgment of the God I serve. Such weeping for those I would normally deem my enemies just won’t seem to go away.

Lately, I’ve been sitting here in a struggle with this violent God. I don’t fully know how to reconcile him with the Jesus I’ve come to know and dearly love — the Jesus whom I believe is the incarnation of this same exact God — who tells me I am wholly precious and cherished.

I know that I didn’t choose God. I did nothing to merit the love of God, and yet here I stand, utterly steadfast in it, unable to lose it at all. Why me, yet not those?

These questions trouble me, and I ask God to teach me. I hold these questions, and I wonder. Will you wonder with me?