Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cause and Effect


I’ve spent the last thirty-two years trying to figure out the consequences of my actions. And, now that I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old, I’m trying to help them learn to appreciate the consequences of their own behavior. Action and reaction. Newtonian physics. Even before we are old enough to appreciate equations that describe motion and collision and reaction, we understand that when you throw a tennis ball against the wall it will bounce back at you. That’s just the way the world works.

But throwing a ball against a wall and throwing a fist against someone’s face are two different things. The wall-ball reaction is supremely predictable. If I hit someone, he might fall down, or he might not. And there’s a pretty good chance that I’m going to get my tail whipped. But, beyond that, there are other consequences that are harder to anticipate. I might get arrested. I may have to pay some medical bills. I might get labeled by my peers as an aggressor. And I could lose some friends. Those are the sorts of consequences we try to anticipate beforehand and sort through after the fact.

It is no wonder, therefore, that humanity has tried to do the same thing with God. “What will he want? What will appease the angry deity? How many virgins or children must we sacrifice to convince God to bring rains upon our crops?” Those ancient, primitive expressions of religion as based on a wrongly assumed billiard-balls approach to the divine-human relationship. Action and reaction. The ancient Israelites learned that God doesn’t work that way, so they gave up things like child sacrifice. But they, like us, still wanted to understand the way God works as a Newtonian system.

In today’s Old Testament reading (Judges 3:12-30), we read the story of Ehud, the left-handed Benjaminite, who thrust is cubit-length sword into the fat belly of Eglon, the king of the Moabites. It’s a fascinating story—all the treachery and gore of a modern thriller—but the part that interests me most is the introductory sentence: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Action and reaction. Israel did what was evil, so God strengthened their enemy and cause him to overrun them.

But that’s not the way God works, is it? We don’t believe that God punishes our evil deeds by bolstering those who hate us and delivering us into their hands. There may be consequences for our actions—punching an innocent person can cause us a world of trouble—but God isn’t behind that. We reap what we sow in an earthly sense, but there are no divine consequences for our misdeeds. Think about that. It’s true, but it’s hard for us to accept. We expect God to work the same way that the world works. As primitive as it sounds, we expect God to give cancer to “bad people” and heal all the “good people.” But all of those who have watched wonderful, loving, godly people suffer amazing tragedies know that isn’t how God works.

If we need to look anywhere to see that truth at work, we should look to the cross. On it God’s innocent, perfect, son was killed as a consequence of humanity’s sinfulness. Our evil is what nailed him to the cross, but God demonstrates that there is no divine reaction to our sinfulness. Instead, our sin is expiated—it vanishes. The tomb stands empty to show us that God does not work the way the world works. Our evil is met with God’s love. No one saw that coming.

I think that’s a little of what we see in the centurion’s reaction to the death of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel account. After seeing the humble death and feeling the earth shake beneath him, he exclaims, “Truly, this was God’s son.” In other words, the event that happens on the crucifixion mount is totally unexpected. It is the ultimate testament to God’s counter-intuitive way. Love meets hate and wins. Life overcomes death. Mercy trumps vengeance. Our relationship with God is not defined by Newtonian physics, where each action is followed by an equal and opposite reaction. God works through unchanging, unwavering love.

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