My thoughtful collegiate daughter recently asked me a good question that threw me into a quandary. She pointed to several passages in the Pentateuch and asked, "Should a God who commands his people to wage war be worshiped?" I dared not treat the subject lightly. ("You mean the God who empowers a bunch of cruelly oppressed bricklayers being led by a stuttering geezer to fulfill their destiny against all odds? It could be a movie!") I realized she was sincerely troubled by the violence.
The truth is, so am I. Until she asked her question, I'd successfully avoided it. But it's one thing to stuff your own nagging doubts in a dark corner. It's quite another to tell the searching heart of your child to be quiet and go away. Instead, I told her I'd pray, study, and then offer her my thoughts.
Thus, for several months I've been seriously grappling with the terrifying aspects of God's nature. For many, the inscrutable temperament of God is a stumbling block to belief. They choose the "safer" scenario of a universe without God over one in which our lives hang on the mercy of an infinitely powerful force we can't fully understand, much less control. But I'd rather be boldly inquisitive than safe. Better to probe threatening territory than to draw back in apprehension, hoping someone else will find a solution for my dilemma.
Consider the difference between the swineherds of Gerasenes (Luke 8:26-39) and the storm-beaten disciples on the sea (Mark 4:35-41). Both groups witnessed compelling demonstrations that Jesus could kill or save by his word alone. Yet only the disciples had the courage to ask, hearts pounding, armpits sweaty, "What manner of man is this?" (Mark 4:41, KJV). The swineherds opted to cut their losses (2,000 dead pigs) and retreat. They didn't want to know why a man of such power would take pity on a lunatic; it was enough to know he was dangerous.
What shall we do, then, with this dangerous God of the Old Testament (and the Book of Revelation, for that matter), who wreaks vengeance on some and bestows undeserved mercy on others?
One possible answer is that we're unworthy to question God at all, since we're wholly sinful and deserve death. But this doesn't seem to fit with an unfathomably compassionate God. There must be a greater depth of understanding for those who desire to honor God by seeking it.
Job is my trailblazer. He refused to agree with his friends' explanations for his suffering. Instead, he cried out for a face-to-face meeting with God, at which point he was planning to complain of gross injustice. In fact, he'd already sustained his complaint for 30-some chapters. God's response? A thundering self-revelation complete with lightning, a heart-stopping whirlwind, and a voice from heaven essentially saying, "Enough of blind rancor! You condemn me without knowledge of me. Now you shall see against whom you stand!" Fearsome words, yet Job is ultimately commended and blessed for possessing a faith that fully expects God to hear and answer.
I'm bracing myself, God. Just who are you, really?
Infused with a Holy Purpose
Stephen Charnock, the 17th-century Puritan theologian, wrote, "Power is God's hand or arm, omniscience his eye, mercy, his bowels … but holiness is his beauty." Since God's holiness drives the judgment delivered by his powerful hand, surely there must be a beauty in its manifestations. Somehow I need to look for the beauty in the hands of an angry God. The problem is, we can't imagine anger being anything but ugly.
When my kids were little, I dutifully instructed them against the ungodliness of unchecked aggression. "Do you want to find out who's strongest?" I'd say. "Then let's see who can be strong enough not to punch the lights out of his brother who pokes him. Do you know who was the strongest man who ever lived?"
"No," I patiently explained. "It was Jesus, because he was God and he was strong enough to send angels to destroy the ones hurting him, but instead he forgave them."
In 25 years of parenting, I've come to appreciate fully the significance of my little sermon. The Crucifixion, so often dismissed as a barbaric episode, in fact modeled fatherly forbearance to a stunning degree. God held the limitless force of celestial wrath in check.
Try to imagine it! The blameless, beloved Son of God is mocked, tortured, and murdered while his Father watches. Remember that Jesus is one with the Father. When Jesus cries, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" the agony of their estrangement tears at them both. Jesus bears the sin of the world in his body, yet the shame and desperation drive a knife through both Father and Son.
Surely God would need no further justification to manifest his wrath toward evildoers. But amazingly, this is the point at which God chooses to reveal the strength and beauty of his holy love. The Almighty gives silent assent to the words, "Father, forgive them." When Jesus whispers, "It is finished," he uses his final breath to underscore God's sovereign purposes in the madness of his death. Jesus, who loves his Father enough to do anything to extinguish the pain of losing us forever, gives his life as the ultimate sacrifice.
God's silence at Jesus' suffering is the greatest of all mysteries, sufficient to muffle all accusations of bloodthirstiness in his character. For if God is a vengeful judge, then what happened at the Cross—or rather, what did not happen—makes no sense. Surely there's no greater sin than to kill the innocent Son of God. Yet God fails to avenge him. Why? Similarly, if God's assessment of man is that we're all prisoners on death row, then why not be done with it and kill us all?
It's because God's anger is not like ours. It is infused with holy purpose. The Cross revealed the broken heart of God over sinners. Jesus' death was for God's vindication as well as our salvation. The Accuser is rendered speechless as the logic of a fallen universe is turned upside down. The hands of the almighty God at the pinnacle of his anger are outstretched, nail-pierced, bleeding, forgiving.
The seemingly random acts of judgment in the Old Testament had a purpose too: ultimate restoration. The prophets told of desired reconciliation between God and his people as much as impending doom. Even the severest warnings of judgment against Israel commingled with a hopeful anticipation of repentance and peace with God.
Think of history's great travesties—the West African "blood diamond" wars or the Holocaust, for instance—and ponder the meaning of justice. Is it right for the perpetrators of such acts to escape retribution? Even our callused hearts recognize the injustice of unpunished crime. The terrors of the afflicted were no less severe in biblical times: children were burned atop sacrificial altars (Jeremiah 19:5); women and men were gang raped to the point of death (Judges 19:23-27); and before the Flood, when violence reigned on the earth, "every intention of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5, ESV). Why do we deem reprehensible the violence inherent in God's judgment, but overlook the violence of mankind that calls it forth?
Many are angry at God for not acting against a relentless tide of wickedness. They conclude that God must not exist or doesn't care. Is God angry over sin? Yes. Why shouldn't he be? But his holy rage is under the perfect control of limitless love. He suspends final judgment for a time, until every good purpose is fulfilled. Make no mistake: his forbearance will surely come to a terrifying end. But just as surely, the nail-scarred hands of a wholly compassionate God will pull us to safety. Patience, holiness, beauty, strength—this is why he is worthy of honor and worship.