Tuesday, August 30, 2016

An Odd Theology of Relationship

Does God bless the obedient and curse the faithless? The short answer is no, but centuries of suffering have made that an important statement of faith for those who otherwise might feel that God had abandoned them completely.

On Sunday morning, the Track 2 OT lesson is Deuteronomy 30:15-20. Maybe it's just my aversion to this legalistic formula, but I feel like we read from Moses' speech to the Israelites before entering the Promised Land over and over. In the twenty-first century, whether because we're committed grace-alone Christians or simply because we're scientifically and philosophically enlightened individuals, can't we all agree that God doesn't bring curses down upon those who fail to keep his covenant? Can't we get past this superstitious "If I'm suffering, it must be because I deserve it" mentality that has kept people locked in fear and shame for millennia? God doesn't work that way. Please, stop thinking that God works that way! God is not out to get you.

But maybe there's a strange sort of hope in thinking that. I never would have seen it on my own, but our Sunday school class is studying Lamentations, and our conversation this week opened up a new way for me to understand this theology of divine legalism. If you read Lamentations, you can't help but notice that the poet is firmly convinced that the punishment that Jerusalem has received is directly because of their failure to keep God's covenant. We might eschew that sort of theology, but we shouldn't begrudge an ancient prophet upon whom unspeakable suffering has been heaped a moment to feel as if God is dishing out more than he can handle. In fact, as the conversation elucidated, we can imagine a moment of such intense loss and grief that the only way to make sense of God's continued participation in the life of the sufferer is through punishment. If there is still any relationship with God, it must be that of the divine curse enacted for violation of the covenant relationship.

Consider that for a minute. Could you ever find yourself in such dire circumstances as to face a fork in the road of your faith: either God is absent or God is punishing you? Maybe not, but I understand why some might feel that way. If the walls have crumbled around us, where will we find God? Will we abandon the covenant relationship between God and his people, or will we define God as active in the punishment we're experiencing?

Although not known to the author of Lamentations or the author of Deuteronomy, the cross of Christ redefines our experience of suffering. In the death of Jesus, we discover a third option. God isn't absent, nor is he punishing us for faithlessness, but he is present with us in our suffering. As the book of Job answers the poetry of Lamentations, sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer...in this life. Sometimes God's justice is denied until death.

I'm not ready to preach Deuteronomy 30. I still find its call to a legalistic definition of faith discouraging. But I have the luxury of saying that. I have been spared the suffering of this life. I hope that even in disaster I would see God's love as transcending my circumstances, but I see, now, that for some hope is found in a God who would punish his people. Like a child who disobeys just to get the attention of his parent, sometimes it gives people hope to know that God is there--even if he is punishing them. That's easier to believe than the gospel, which proclaims God's unconditional love in all circumstances. And that's why preaching the gospel is so hard and so important.

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