tying down some loose ends

It’s been brought to my attention that some of my recent posts haven’t been totally clear. In particular, two posts are kind of unresolved: (1)  ‘providence and the absurdity of evil’, and (2) ‘is God conflicted?’.

Now, I could get all high minded and insist that the fuzziness, ‘unfinishedness’ and provisionality of these posts is simply a result of the genre of blogging. It’s not meant to be all stitched up and neatly settled. What’s more I am quite deliberately trying to leave the door open for collaboration (and correction). I don’t pretend to have the final, authoritative perspective on the topics I turn my attention to.

I could say all that… But looking back over them, those two posts are in fact not just a little ragged around the edges — they’re flapping wildly in the breeze. So, to try and strike a blow for clarity, I want to have a go at tying down some of the loose ends. And, significantly, I think it’s only in relation to each other that I can achieve this…To begin with, I think I totally forgot to spell out what I meant by the ‘absurdity of evil’ in my post on God’s providence. I want to speak of evil as absurd because I want to hold on to three things:

  1. The undisputed sovereignty of God
  2. The undiluted goodness of God
  3. The undeniable existence of evil (I understand evil to be whatever is opposed to God’s good and sovereign will)

As much as we may need to be careful not simply to call everything that’s unpleasant or uncomfortable in our experience of life evil — unless we want to label as evil things falling into the categories either of ‘discipline’ (exercise, disciplining a child, not indulging our every whim) or of ‘justice’ (both distributive and retributive justice often entail some discomfort for some) — I think it’s hard to avoid regarding something like human sin as evil. In our pride and ingratitude we attempt to live as god of our own lives, defying or simply ignoring the One who is our rightful and loving ruler. That’s evil.

And it’s absurd because in a world where God does not cease to be God — he remains both sovereign and totally good — this evil rebellion still unfolds. It doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong, it has no future (unless you call everlasting wrath a future). But it’s here. Mysteriously. Inexplicably. In a way that resists being integrated alongside good within some kind of cosmic harmony in which good and evil both find their place, even acquiring some kind of beauty like carefully applied strokes of a master artist’s brush.

Of course, none of this is to say that God can’t — or doesn’t — bring good out of evil. The Bible insists that he does often enough. But it is to say that when he does so, he doesn’t render it somehow less evil, less criminal, less non-sensical. The cross is still a profound tragedy, a travesty of justice for which the powers and authorities are justly blamed — the fact that God used (and even planned) it for good notwithstanding. In his great love, God redeems the world and us from sin and evil, triumphing over it, frustrating it and turning it on its head — and supremely so at that moment where it thinks to have achieved its greatest victory, with Jesus nailed to the cross.

All of which brings us — on an admittedly circular root — to the loose ends of my other post, ‘is God conflicted?’ The problem there is that I seem not to have answered the question with which I began: Does God hate the sin but love the sinner?

While it’s right to emphasise the tremendous personal cost borne by the holy God as he lovingly draw us into fellowship with himself in Christ, it’s worth being clear about what this does not mean:

  • God does not love us because he has redeemed us. Rather, he redeems us because he loves us. It does costs God — massively — to redeem and sanctify sinners to share in his own holy life and fellowship. But it was his plan and settled intention to do so. It didn’t sneak up on him so that he ends up saying, ‘Oh, all right! You’ve been purchased by Jesus’ blood. I guess I have to love you then.’
  • This means that it’s not that Jesus loves us while the Father is angry at us, as though the two were at loggerheads. That’s just not how the New Testament talks. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are perfectly united in the work of redemption. It is the one action of the one Triune God, motivated by love to redeem and sanctify a people for himself.
  • Thus, God does not love us through gritted teeth — it’s really not quite right to speak about God loving us and hating us at the same time. Love is essential to God’s being. ‘God is love’, John tells us. In the purity of shared joy and delight in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love goes all the way down. Wrath, by way of contrast, only flares up where his holiness comes into contact with sin and evil.
  • What’s more, we’re actually intended for fellowship with God. We’re designed to be freely and graciously included in and embraced by the love shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not because he owes it to us or because we’re somehow worthy. But because (if I may speak this way) he owes it to himself. It is in character for God to love us like this, whereas judgement is his ‘strange work’.

This then is how my thinking about the absurdity of evil and the love of God dovetail with each other. Both are two different angles on the one reality: God’s sovereign intention is for us his creatures to share in perfect fellowship with him, adopted as children of the Father and sanctified in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

That’s what the cross proclaims once and for all — the Father didn’t even withhold his own son for our sake for crying out loud (Rom 8.32)! What’s more, that was always the plan. That’s what expresses God’s heart most truly and faithfully. That’s where he wins the decisive victory over sin, death evil (and the evil one, the ‘strong man’ who’s bound us). That’s where his holy love, his sovereignty and goodness are vindicated. God loves us and bears the cost of that love in himself.

And that’s what we were made for. To share in that. Thus to fall out of that, to find ourselves at odds with that as we take upon ourselves God’s own role as ruler and arbiter of life, is to place ourselves in a position of absurdity, at odds with ourselves. It’s to entangle ourselves with the absurdity of evil — the sin and injustice and violence which God hates, and to which he is unswervingly opposed. such that the wrath of God remains on us (John 3.36).

Advertisements

6 comments

  1. Should we not think of God’s wrath as an eternal part of his character as his love also is? If God comprehends all of eternity in one simple act of knowing, there has never been a moment in his life (so to speak) when in his perfect knowledge sin was not offensive to him and thus incited his wrath. Isn’t wrath the opposite side of love’s coin? To love marriage is to hate adultery, even the idea of unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, even if that unfaithfulness has not transpired yet in time and space. I was just curious for your thoughts here. Thanks for the blog.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Very thought-provoking.
      I think I’d want to say that God’s holiness — which includes his settled opposition to everything that is wicked and evil — is as eternal an aspect of his character as love. And yeah, I think wrath is really the opposite side of love’s coin: God loves us and wants us as his own, and so he hates anything that stands in the way of that. But my feeling is that wrath only ‘flares up’ where there’s an actual offence, not just where there’s a possibility of it (as in your illustration) or even where there’s the knowledge that it will definitely happen.
      I’m not quite sure how to come at the added dimension of time and space yet… But even if God does comprehend all of eternity in one act of knowing, I think I still want to say that he interacts with us in time and space. This is the only sense I can make of the biblical descriptions of judgement as God’s ‘strange work’. Whereas (holy) love characterises God essentially — it is more or less the defining feature of his triune life — I suspect that wrath only charaterises him in his relationship towards whatever is sinful and distorted in his world. Does that make sense?

  2. Thanks for the response Chris. I definitely agree with you that God “interacts with us in time and space,” but I just wanted to establish that standing outside of the space-time continuum, he does not experience his life temporally as we do. And if that is the case, then wouldn’t his acts of wrath against sin always be present to him in some sense which accords with his knowledge of all things in one simple, eternal act?

    Granted we get no statement (to my knowledge) in Scripture like, “God is wrath,” the way we do about his love, holiness, that he is light, etc. You do make a good point that wrath would have no expression in the eternal (essentially) love-relationship within the Godhead. One of the things I am sensitive to, however, is the subtle shifts away from those divine qualities more repulsive to the sensibilities of modern man/contemporary culture. I am not accusing you of any such shifts. But if we want to say with Paul that God “chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless . . . in love he predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself, according to his favor and will” (Eph. 1:4-5)–in other words, God loved us before the foundations of the world or anything was made, in eternity past, then also he must of hated sin, or as you say, “anything that stands in the way of [us being his own],” in eternity past also. And I think also its fair and right to say, as you also say impliticly I think, that to love something is at once also to hate its desecration or ruin–the flip side of love’s coin. So though it may sound provocative to some, I think “hate” (if this is a better term than wrath, if indeed wrath connotes more of God’s holy actions in responding to specific acts of wickedness in space and time, so be it) is as co-eternal, and thus an aspect of his eternal, unchanging character, as is love. Though we would always want to affirm “God is love” in a way that we wouldn’t want to affirm “God is hate,” which reveals that we think of love as a more fundamental or essential quality to the divine nature. So maybe I want to affirm, “God is love. And God has always loved–and because he has always loved–God has always hated also.” Or perhaps another way, “God is love, has always been love, and loves. Alternatively: God hates, has always hated, but without being equated with hate itself as he is with love.”

    Sorry for the long response. Would you agree with some/any of these formulations?

    Also, I am unfamiliar with the notion of wrath as God’s ‘strange work.’ Are you getting that phrase from someone (Barth maybe)? Maybe you said so in your original post, which I can’t recall now. Just curious where I could read more about that idea, which is interesting.

    Thanks again for the interaction.

    Cheers,

    Travis

    1. Thanks again Travis,

      I think I’m pretty happy with your formulations — understood as you’re expounding them. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, but it’s starting to sound a bit like Barth talking about God’s Yes becoming his No (without ceasing to be his Yes) when faced with sin and evil, which still bends my mind every time I try and come to grips with it!

      The ‘strange work’, by the way, is Isaiah 28.21, which I referred to here.

      Very stimulating. Thanks!
      Chris

  3. I looked up the Isaiah reference (28:21), and it would seem this verse is not saying it is ‘strange’ or ‘alien’ that God is displaying his wrath toward sin, but that he is displaying his wrath toward Israel, his chosen people. For example, the two locations mentioned in the verse are places where the Lord fought on Israel’s behalf against her enemies, against the Philistines at Mount Perazim (2 Sam. 5:17–21) and against the Amorites in the Valley of Gibeon (Josh. 10:1–11), but now he has been aroused to do something strange—”a decree of destruction from the Lord God of hosts against the whole land” (v. 22)–fighting against his own people. Is this the sense you were claiming wrath is his ‘strange’ work or did you mean that it was ‘strange’ to him generally?

    Thanks,

    Travis

    1. Thanks again, Travis.

      You’re right of course that in the context of Isaiah judgement is God’s ‘strange work’ when it’s directed against Israel, the people God has chosen to set his love upon. So perhaps it’s stretching things a little too far to apply it more widely — the covenant makes a huge difference! Nevertheless, let me throw out a few thoughts that I feel make it not so illegitimate to do so:

      First, there must be some connection between Israel as God’s son and the whole human race. Adam is explicitly identified as God’s son in Luke 3.38. The universal scope of the promise made to Abraham — to bless all nations in him, reversing the curse that’s tragically unfolded in Genesis 1-11 — ties together Israel and the whole race. While not all enjoy the privilege (and the responsibility, cf. Amos 3.2) of the special covenant relationship with God, we are all God’s own, and so his (totally appropriate) anger against us and our sin results in the ‘strange work’ of him fighting against his own much as it does with Israel.

      Second, it’s God the Father Almighty who we confess to be the Creator of heaven and earth. That is, it is as Father that he is Creator (and everything else) of humankind. While this doesn’t licence playing fast and loose with the text, I suspect that it requires that the relationship of ‘filiation’ (sonship) and ‘spiration’ (procession) that characterise the eternal triune life of God to function as the ultimate context of the Creator-creature relationship.

      Third, and possibly less tendentious, passages like John 3.16-17 seem to indicate that judgement/condemnation not the aim of Jesus’ being sent by the Father but one of its outcomes as it meets with unbelief. Thus, the definitive revelation of God in Christ is where we see most clearly that judgement is God’s ‘strange work’. For there it is less central to his purposes — which manifest his character and very self — than graciously saving, giving life and bringing us to new birth by the Spirit as his dearly loved children…

      What do you reckon? Am I within my rights to speak this way?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s