Thursday, June 19, 2014

The LORD must hate us

There is a fascinating passage in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. After the Israelites had been rescued from slavery in Egypt, after numerous miracles and signs had been performed by which God's benevolence towards them might have been established, they send some spies into Canaan to do some reconnaissance work. They come back speaking of peoples inhabiting the land much stronger than they, and the people of Israel despair at the report:

But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you grumbled in your tents and said, "It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. . ." (Deut 4.26-7)

It is fascinating to me that after all the miracles, after all the signs and wonders, the vision of the Israelites narrows enormously in the face of some adversity, and the first thing they go to is: God hates us. Why this? Why do they presume in adversity that God hates them? Why suppose that the LORD wants to destroy them, have them murdered in the wilderness? Why don't they trust the numerous signs and displays of good will?

We might say that the Israelites posited a god behind the back of God, so to speak, as if his behavior towards them wasn't exactly straightforward. Of course it is logically compatible with all of the displays of God's goodness that actually he wanted to do them evil; in the same way the Calvinist may suppose that it is logically compatible with Jesus' outreach and call to repentance for all people that he doesn't actually intend that all people be saved. But this is eminently problematic insofar as it makes God less than honest, less than straightforward, less than candid. It makes him tricky and slippery, like the snake in the garden. If we can't trust God's acts of wondrous mercy and power in the favor of the Israelites as evidence that he desires their salvation and their good, then neither can you, whoever you may be, trust anything in your life as conclusive evidence that you are elect as well. As Barth insists in CD II/2, you are plunged by your exclusivist predestinarian theology into a dual darkness: neither do you know who is elect, nor do you know who this electing God is, who is always seemingly just behind his actions and public manifestations.

The lesson to learn here, I think, is we do God evil, we sin and calumniate him, when we insist that he must have malevolent motives for what he does. Jeremiah in Lamentations 3, after having described the horrific consequences of God's judgment upon Israel (e.g., women eating their children, 2.20), yet he goes on to say: For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict anyone (3.31-3). God is good and he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked person (Ezek 18.23). Therefore let us not paint a blackened picture of our LORD when he shows himself to be good.

Still, however, we might pose the question: why do the Israelites, and we do we, ascribe hatred and malevolence to God? Why do we immediately think, when things aren't going as we'd like, that God has abandoned us, has forgotten about us, doesn't care about us anymore, that he hates us, that he listens to everyone's prayers but our own? One possible answer is that human persons have some kind of deep guilt, a recognition of our own unworthiness before God. Rather than recognize it and seek mercy, however, we try to hide it, to cover it up by projecting our own ill will onto God, making him into an unreasonable misanthrope, bent on murdering us coldly and irresistibly.

Hence the good news that Jesus Christ has taken the burden of our guilt upon himself and has done away with it, in his vicarious obedience and atonement. He died for all, and all are considered to have died in him (2 Cor 5.14) -- therefore we have peace with God being delivered by Christ's faithfulness (Rom 5.1)! Thank God that he has shown himself willing to go even to death for our salvation while we still hated him (Rom 5.6-8), guaranteeing our immortality and delivering us from death (1 Cor 15.22). Let us have no worries, then, about God's goodwill towards us: Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2.2); let the whole world approach the peaceful God in confidence and peace!