The younger of our two children is a non-sleep walker. By that, I mean that he’d rather get out of bed and wander around than lie in bed and go to sleep. That’s particularly true after his older sister has fallen asleep. They share a bedroom, and, when he no longer has a playmate to laugh and sing with, he starts wandering around the house, trying to stave off the inevitable. Sometimes we find him asleep in the hallway. Sometimes he runs back into bed when he hears our footsteps coming to get him. Often, however, his wanderings result in frustrated parents who are willing to try anything to keep him in bed.
One technique we use is the good old-fashioned spanking. I’m a spanker—not eager to spank but happy to do it. And I’m usually more happy to do it at 10:30 on a Tuesday night when my son has gotten out of the bed for the 15th time. Seriously. For the most part, though I’ve tried other techniques because there’s something heartbreaking about spanking your son for the 8th time in one night for the same issue. Clearly, repeated corporal punishment is not the answer.
Why, then, has God not learned that punishing Israel isn’t the best way to bring them back? In today’s lesson from Amos (4:6-13), we read a ghastly account of God’s persistent punishment: “I gave you cleanness of teeth…I also withheld rain from you…I struck you with blight and mildew…I laid waste you gardens and your vineyards…I sent among you pestilence…I killed your young men…yet you did not return to me.” That’s an abbreviated list. Go back and read it. It’s terrifying—not just because of what happened but because God is saying that he did all of those things to try to turn his people back to him. Why would he do that?
Actually, as I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, I’m not 100% sure that we can say that God did that in the same way that Amos seems to say it. For him, the calamities that befall Israel are obviously God’s will to try to win their hearts back. But, as any parent who has spanked his child a dozen times in one night can attest, that’s not how you win them over. It might not be fair to Amos, but I’d rather think of it this way.
Bad things happen. Let’s save the how and why questions for another time, but, for now, let’s start simply with the fact that bad things happen. In the face of such disasters, we can have one of two responses: either we bring God into the situation or we reject him outright. Sometimes, human tendency is toward the latter—in the face of disaster, we declare God’s absence and divorce ourselves from him. Amos wants to ensure that Israel’s response is the former. He wants to make sure that Israel doesn’t give up on God, and he does so by reminding him that God hasn’t given up on Israel. In other words, for Amos it is better to think of God as being the perpetrator of these disasters as a corrective measure than it is to take God out of the equation.
Ultimately, the question is this: in the face of a catastrophe, what do you need to do to keep God in your life? Is it to be angry at him? Is it to accept his wrath? Is it to look for his sympathy in the midst of your pain? Whatever it is, we must cling to the promise of one-day redemption. Amos didn’t want Israel to turn their back on God because they felt like God had turned his back on them. He hadn’t. That’s the constant message of history—throughout the centuries of good and bad, God is still God, and he pursues a relationship with his people.
Perhaps Amos’ methods aren’t the ones we would choose. He was probably a spanker, and I’m learning to let go of those outdated techniques. But his purpose is the same as ours. We must maintain a relationship with God—even (especially) when times are really tough. How can we do that? What do we need to remember in order for us to stay in relationship with him? Perhaps the Jesus-event reminds us that God is present with us as a loving, caring God even when the deepest tragedy befalls us.