“How can you be a Christian? There’s no way I’d worship a God who is that mean!”
How often have we heard God described as angry, bloodthirsty, or just plain mean? I know several people who refuse to consider Christianity because of God’s unsavory reputation. Is he really that vengeful and vindictive? I think it depends on one’s perspective.
We’re all familiar with the stories of God wiping out pagan tribes. I’ve always assumed that these peoples were so awful, so evil, that the world was better without them. They practiced human sacrifice and worshipped demons disguised as idols. God could have eliminated them by himself (as with Sodom and Gomorrah), but he used the Israelites to cleanse the land so they would understand just how bad sin is. Perhaps I’m missing something, but this is an explanation I can live with.
What has long bothered me are the stories of God punishing the Israelites. These are his chosen people, the tribe he chose to demonstrate his loving kindness. Yet he brings in neighboring armies to destroy them, then sends the remnant into exile. If this is how he treats those he loves, can I trust him to take care of me?
It wasn’t until I read through the Bible, start to finish, that I began to gain some understanding. Over and over, God rescued his people, they promised to worship him and only him, then they drifted into idolatry and lawlessness. Over and over, God sent prophets to warn them—and they covered their ears. It took years of apostate kings and corrupt priests before God finally, reluctantly, had had enough. Then he cleaned house.
I think this is why Isaiah is now my favorite book in the Bible. It’s the story of God pleading with his adulterous bride to come back and be blessed. The same theme continues throughout Jeremiah and into the minor prophets. I’m currently reading Hosea, and I came across these verses:
[W]henever I would heal Israel,
the sins of Ephraim are exposed
and the crimes of Samaria revealed.
Woe to them, because they have strayed from me! Destruction to them,
because they have rebelled against me!
I long to redeem them
but they speak about me falsely.
They do not cry out to me from their hearts (7:1, 13-14a, emphasis mine)
God isn’t a meanie. He longs to bless us, but he can’t do it when we ignore him or run in the other direction. Think of all the verses about God being slow to anger, abounding in faithfulness and love. We prefer to see him as the wonderful God who showers us with blessings. But consider Numbers 14:18—
The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….
Yet. God love us. But he is also a holy God. He can’t overlook sin. When people disobey him in the all-encompassing way that Israel was rebelling, he has to act. Not only does disobedience hurt him—it hurts us! Think of the Ten Commandments. Now think of the pain caused by coveting, “false witness” (lying), theft, adultery, or turning away from God to chase after things that cannot ultimately satisfy us. He acts because he loves us.
The concept of sin isn’t really popular right now. There is no longer any shame in being caught in a lie (as the last election illustrated). We lock our doors, devise convoluted passwords, hire attorneys, and argue over gun control because we expect people to cheat and steal and murder. Sex outside of marriage is not only acceptable, it’s considered normal. As a society, we ignore God but bow down to football teams or new cars or organic food or physical fitness.
We know what happened next. Israel continued to disobey, God continued to grieve. And finally Jesus paid the ultimate price for our sin. If that isn’t love, what is?