I seem to have been away from the blog for far too long. Life just got in the way. Time to give it some good, loving TLC.
Not sure whether or not this is a good place to start back blogging through Hebrews, but before I move on from chapter 3&4 I can't help but notice the number of times it talks about God being wrathful:
- therefore I was provoked by that generation (3:9)
- As I swore in my wrath, they shall never enter my rest (3:11, 4:2)
The consequence being that God withheld blessing and the people didn't get the promised land.
I seriously doubt that there is anything less palatable than this to the contemporary British non-Christian mind. And maybe to Christians as well. The idea of God withholding blessing - or indeed actively punishing - is so easily heard as petulance, tyranny or moral failure on his part. Yet Hebrews, and the whole Bible, is clear that God punishes sin. I think there are three reasons why we find the biblical view so difficult today:
- We assume a moral equivalence between us and God. This has two consequences: (a) we tend to judge whether it is appropriate for God to be angry when he is offended against according to whether we think we should feel angry. If God refuses to let slide things that we would let slide we assume he is less moral than us, not more, because we have made our own response to sin the yardstick rather than His. And, being sinful, of course we are more inclined to brush things under the carpet; (b) we assume that we have the same kind of view that God has, the same perspective, the same ability to judge when it is appropriate to be angry. Manifestly, we don't.
- We assume that anger is an unworthy emotion because of a societal view that punishment should always be restorative rather than punitive. Out of which we argue, surely nothing they could do would merit God withholding the promised land until they die? Because that would mean God's anger is punitive. There is nothing restorative in it for them. Once again there is a moral equivalence presumption here - God's anger must be morally dubious because his view on justice and punishment aren't the same as mine
- We assume that people are basically good rather than basically bad. And therefore God's responsibility is to do good things for us. If he doesn't, it places him in the position of angrily punishing those who don't deserve it
At the root of all of these is a huge false assumption: that I know things as well as God and have the same capacity and right that he has to determine what is right and wrong, what he ought to think is inoffensive to his holiness and therefore ignore. In fact they assume that I have greater right than he has. I am inherently suspicious of any argument that assumes that I ought to be able to tell God what is appropriate for God. Notwithstanding several biblical examples (eg Moses, Job) of people arguing appropriately with God, that is turn the relationship of creator and creature on its head.
Of course there is another factor. To those who don't believe in God at all, Man deciding what is right and wrong is the only game in town, and by that yardstick any claim that there is a God who judged and punishes simply seems like a tyrannical power game or wille zur macht.
Either way, Hebrews seems unpalatable because we assume that the picture of God here is wrong rather than right. But what if we assume instead that it is correct? Where does that leave us? It leaves God with all the power, it leaves God with the right to determine truth and morality, it leaves God with the right to define who he accepts and who he doesn't. And it leaves us utterly dependent on his mercy.
At the end of the day I suspect that the real reason we hate the idea of God's anger so much is not that we think it might be petty or impure, but that we fear that it might be right, glorious and completely pure - and that I might be on the receiving end of it with perfect justice on God's part. What hope would there be for me then?
Thankfully the story doesn't end there, and the writer is about to tell us exactly where help resides when God's holiness clashes with human sinfulness.