A Recorder, A Drawer and Kalashnikovs: Revisiting Grace January 22, 2008

Lord, our Lord, of whom the Psalmist Asaph said "He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep"... we come before you today with hard texts that leave us with hard questions. Split them open, and from that surprising place give us drink. Give us answers for our souls from the deep places of your Spirit. In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.

Vengeance. Not long ago, I witnessed an incident between a boy and a girl. It was music day, and we were playing tunes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on recorders. At some point, maybe after the fleece-was-white-as-snow part, the boy said something mean to the girl. So she whacked him over the head with her hard, plastic recorder.

Vengeance. I remember the night my spouse made me so mad I wanted to spit. I don't remember the particular offense, but I remember my not-so-impressive reaction. When he left the bedroom, I dumped all the clothes out of his middle drawer onto the floor.

Vengeance. In the book The Places in Between, Rory Stewart tells another story. But the stakes are higher. Rory's been accompanied from one location to another in Afghanistan, by a small group of men carrying Kalashnikov guns. The head man asks for compensation and then a little extra for the poor man among them. But Rory's already given the poor man a little money on the side. He tells the head man, "I already gave Aziz money."

The head man angrily unclips "his magazine and [pushes] five rounds onto the carpet. 'These are for Aziz. He told me you had given him nothing. I was going to give him some of my money. He tried to steal from me. From a friend. He will die when I meet him next.'"

Stewart tries to convince the head man not to kill Aziz, but the man replies, "There is nothing you can say. He lied. He betrayed a brother. He is dead."

Vengeance. We all have an inborne sense of it. When we experience a wrong, we want to set it right. Even if it sometimes means an eye for eye.

Many people accept this dynamic, until it comes to the question of vengeance and God.

Recently I got in a discussion with a non-Christian friend, which essentially comes down to the issue of whether God has the right to pursue vengeance. Whether God has the right to whack us over the head so-to-speak, with his plastic recorder, in exchange for our meanness; or whether he should be able to empty our dresser drawers, or even take our lives with his Kalashnikov because we've betrayed him.

My friend approached this question of whether God has the right to strike back, by broaching the subject of morality.

She said, "The other possibility is that goodness is just whatever God says it is. In that case, if God says it's right to kill babies, then it's right to kill babies. In fact, if you believe God did, as in the Bible, say to kill babies, then killing babies was at that point the right thing to do. To say that 'God is good' is pretty meaningless in this picture—all it says is that God does what God wants to do. [On the other hand], some Christians say that since God made this world, God has the right to do whatever He wants with this world, and we ought to follow along with that. If we take this as referring to an objective moral statement along the lines of "if you make something, you have total control over it and it ought to obey you", then essentially these Christians are saying that there is some outside... objective morality, it's just that that morality means, firstly, that we should do what God wants, and secondly, that since no-one created God, God can do whatever He wants."

Now let me pull this apart for us. If I've understood her correctly, I think my friend is saying:

  1. God's supposed goodness, especially when it takes the form of vengeance, can be mean, really mean—like killing-babies mean
  2. God unfairly wants us to follow his rules because, having created us, he owns us
  3. If we don't follow God's rules, then God can unfairly do whatever he likes in return, and no one can say a thing about it because He's the Creator, not the created

My friend concludes, "If God causes evil in the lives of human beings, I'll dare resist and be not resigned to a universe ruled by an amoral or immoral God. I won't give up without a fight."

To which I say, "Brava. Fight and fight hard." Who wants an evil God? A God like Zeus, who throws thunderbolts just because he can? I say, "Brava" to my friend. She should fight such a God.

Such a God would be just like us in our worst moments—whacking people in the head with his plastic recorder because he's hurt, or emptying dresser drawers because he's insulted, or taking lives with his Kalashnikov because he's been betrayed.

Which leads us to a most important question. Is the God of the Bible such a God? Is he a gross exaggeration of what's worst in human nature? Should we fight Yahweh, or embrace him?

Now some of us are thinking, where in the world is this coming from? Who could ever think that Yahweh is like an impetuous child? The bible shows God to be a God of love, does it not? How could anyone accuse Yahweh of being like Zeus, accuse him of being amoral or immoral, evil or unfair?

Fasten your seatbelts. Here we go.

My non-Christian friend can start us off with two passages she quoted. From 1 Samuel 15:3, we get this: "'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"

My friend also gives us this one from Deuteronomy 20:16-18: "But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites...so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God."

That sounds pretty mean to me, killing-babies mean. Maybe even impetuous, evil and unfair.

But let's go on. Our passage from Isaiah today is also fertile ground. Isaiah says, "Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them; the mountains quaked, and their corpses were like refuse in the streets."

This follows hot on the heels of Isaiah 3:17: "...the LORD will afflict with scabs the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the finery...Instead of perfume there will be a stench; and instead of a sash, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a binding of sackcloth; instead of beauty, shame. Your men shall fall by the sword and your warriors in battle. And her gates shall lament and mourn; ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground."

Ouch, ouch, and more ouch. Who's this God that threatens such evil? Does he have the right to speak so harshly, to act so strongly? Is he simply being mean? Or flaunting his right to power? Is he acting a little over-the-top?

It seems to me these are critical questions, but there was a time in my life when I couldn't face such questions. I was having enough trouble with this God who people called "father". To me, "father" meant all-of-the-above: mean, oppressive, incongruous, unfair, impetuous. And because I was so filled with distrust for "father", I was filled with distrust for this God who people called "father". So I couldn't face hard questions about God's character and actions. Because my lens, my perspective, predicted how I'd answer the questions. I'd have to indict God. I'd have to fight him, much like my friend has sworn to do.

It's been a long time since those days. My view of father has somewhat healed. My understanding of God as father has expanded. And my sense that God is a God of grace has increased. So I can face the questions. More than that, I've learned to pray the prayer of David from Psalm 119, "Lord, give me understanding according to your word."

Maybe it's best that we walk some of these same paths together, then, before we try to answer the hard questions set before us.

Walk with me first to a father-God who surpasses our earthly fathers. Walk with me to the story of the Prodigal Son—a story of a young man who takes his inheritance, goes away, squanders everything, then returns to a Father who neither belittles nor punishes him but throws a party because of his return.

Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son notes that the son's request for an early inheritance was the equivalent of saying, "I wish you were dead." And indeed, the son treated his father as if he were dead, leaving him behind without looking back. But the very day the broken son returned, the Father ran to him like a little child, completely abandoning his pride, to welcome the wayward son home. He didn't whack the son over the head with his plastic recorder. He didn't dump even one dresser drawer. He didn't wave his Kalashnikov in his son's traitor face. That's grace.

This is the picture Jesus gives us of God the Father: He welcomes us, even when we've used all he's given us—health, brains, talents, resources—to accuse him or live-it-up as if he were dead. When we come back to him in humility, he throws a party for us instead of giving us what's-coming, the way an ordinary father may have done. That's grace.

Walk with me again to the side of the God-Man Jesus. Watch as he considers the cross and pleads with the Father, "Let this cup pass from me." Watch as he says, "Not my will, but yours be done." Watch as men take him prisoner, punch him in the face while he's blindfolded, saying, "Prophesy. Tell us who hit you." Watch as hatred upon hatred, insult upon insult, cuts into him. Watch the wounds, the welts, the hunger, the fatigue, the sorrow, and hear the amazing words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Surely Jesus could have whacked someone over the head with his plastic recorder, emptied a few dresser drawers, pulled out his Son-of-God Kalashnikov. But no, "Father, forgive them..." That's grace.

Now keep your grace lenses in, and let's go back to the hard questions. Because the God of grace is the same God who said all those hard things about the Amalekites and Hittites and Israelites.

In the third chapter of Isaiah, the prophet says this: "The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples... 'It is you who have devoured the vineyard,'" says He. "Woe to the guilty!" he adds, "How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them." (Isaiah 3:14, 11)

Then in today's passage Isaiah says that God will remove his hedge, his watchtower and his rain clouds (chapter 5). We get the picture that God protects us and prospers us, unless we start hurting others too much. Then, in a surprising form of grace, he finally says, "Enough. What you've done to others will be done to you."

Now let's go back to our hard passages. First, the Amalekites my friend mentioned. God told Israel to utterly destroy them. What did the Amalekites do to deserve this? Scripture notes that they preyed on Israel when they were weak and weary during the Exodus, and that they struck down the sojourners at the back of the line. This would naturally be the old, the sick, the small. They killed members of a group who were peaceable to them and who even had kinship ties that came down through Esau. (Deuteronomy 25:17) The Psalms record the Amalekites' deeper intent, "'Come,' they say, 'let us destroy [Israel] as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more.'" (Psalm 83:4) Later, the Amalekites use starvation tactics. ",,,whenever the Israelites put in seed...the Amalekites...would come up against them...and destroy the produce of the land...and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey." (Judges 6:3-6). So after about 200 years of this aggression, God essentially said to the Amalekites, "'It is you who have devoured the vineyard...Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them." (Isaiah 3:14, 11) Then he commanded Israel to destroy the Amalekites.

Let's look at the next hard issue, when God tells the Israelites to disposses the Hittites and others in Canaan. What had these peoples done to deserve this? Here are some of the reasons God drives them out: they burned their children as sacrifices; killed their children and put them in the foundations of new construction; gave some of their members over to be prostitutes for temple sex; forced sex on their mothers, their sisters and their daughters. (see 1 Kings 16:30-34; Lev. 18; and Dennis Bratcher's article Ba'al Worship in the Old Testament.)

Can you imagine if Child Protective Services or the police force stood by today, in the face of such abusive activity? In the U.S., certain states would order capital punishment for some of these crimes. Wars have been justified for less. Does it not make sense that God himself should step into history, with a grace that brings down oppressors, to put a stop to suffering such as this? Or do we think grace has only one face—that of forgiving sin? I venture that grace, that mercy, might also come in the form of tough love—love that lets us feel the consequences of our actions as individuals and as nations. Such mercy can set us back on the path to health, while saving others from our misdeeds.

Now God doesn't play favorites when it comes to these issues. Our final hard passages relate to Israel herself, because she's fallen into the practices of peoples such as the Amalekites, the Hittites and the Canaanites. And God says in Isaiah, "Woe to [the guilty]... For they have brought evil on themselves...what their hands have done shall be done to them."

This judgment should have come as no surprise. Way back in the time of Moses, the Israelites had been warned, "...do not say to yourself, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to occupy this land;' it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you." (Deut.9:4) Then Moses reminded them that if they became like these nations, they too would perish. In other words, there was no winning God-card they could hold to beat the odds in every game. The past hadn't been a Holy War with winners-take-all-and-do-what-they-want.

Unfortunately, the Israelites just didn't get it. And Isaiah's dire prophecies later came true. No God-card saved the Israelites. They fell and fell hard.

But that's not the end of the grace story. See, if God seems to be whacking someone over the head with his plastic recorder, or emptying their dresser drawers, or pursuing them with a Kalashnikov, that's not the end of the story. It's only the beginning. Whereas for humanity, these acts are often simple vengeance, with no intentions for mercy, for grace, for a future, with God there's a chapter two. We should know this because we have the example of the Father with the Prodigal. We should know this because we have Jesus the God-man who wept, "Father, forgive them."

And we should know this from the prophet Joel, who tells the people what God says, "Yet even now... return to me with all your heart...Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful...[he] will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter... you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied..." (Joel 2:12,13,25)

It's like the difference between two stories—one of compassion and one of merciless hatred—that I'll tell you now. In the first story, there's a man. He's burning the thumbs of another man, who's shaking and weeping. In the second story, there's a woman. She's burning the eyelid of another woman, who's shaking and weeping. The first story is true. A story of torture from Stewart's book The Places in Between. The second story is also true. A story of restored health from my own life, when I sat and watched the smoke rise and smelled the flesh burn, as an opthamologist burned an infection off my eyelid, to save me from future pain, danger and disfigurement.

What kind of story do you believe about God? I can tell you that because I see the heart of the Father in the story of the Prodigal son; because I see the love that gave all, in the life of Jesus, I choose the second story. A story of unflinching, amazing grace.

Lord of the universe, Lord of our ordinary lives, thank you for your grace, your love. Sometimes we go through hard things. Or we encounter hard stories in your word. And for a time, we just aren't sure about You. Even so, let us remember the image from Psalm 77, "Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock... " (Ps 77:19,20) Let us follow like that flock, though the way seems hard. Let us trust You, though your footprints sometimes be unseen. In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.