Love and Fury

I remember just a few years back (or maybe it was a lifetime ago), reading that a mainline denomination had asked the writers of the song, “In Christ Alone,” whether they could change, the lyric, “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” The authors refused, and the song was dropped from the PCUSA hymnal.

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Through this incident a budding trend among Christians in America bloomed into full flower.

Over the past ten years, I’ve had multiple conversations with well-meaning Christians who’ve become unable to harmonize the notion of love with the depiction of a wrathful God. Just the other day, I saw someone call Christianity a “death cult” on social media. If such a being as God exists, surely “it” must transcend even our highest moral aspirations. If that being doesn’t, how could it be worthy of our worship? Conversely, if such a being sunk so low morally as to require human sacrifice to make it happy, how could it deserve anything but our disdain?

But the Bible doesn’t just assign moral perfection to its God; the Bible claims that “God is love.” Surely, God, from the wellspring of his very being could love his creatures enough to quash any sort of offense he might feel over our actions! Why would there be needed a violent, brutal execution to supplement divine love? I mean, even out of human imperfection we’ve generated sentiments like, “I love you enough for the both of us.” Can’t God from his infinite supply love me enough for the both of us?

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No, he can’t. At least not in the way we think he should.

We’d like to think of God seated in splendor so transcendent as to be unaffected by human slights. But how could such a detached and disaffected being ever claim to love us? From that distance, he could pity us or be amused by us, but he certainly could never love us. Should such a distant deity decide to exact some sort of “wrath,” it could only be out of sadistic narcissism. It’s telling that those who critique the notion of God’s wrath often depict him as a little boy holding a magnifying glass over an anthill. The distance of which I speak is built into the metaphor.

If God loves us, then he must be vulnerable to us. Think of the risk a lover takes the first time they profess their love. To love is to invite someone to hurt us, perhaps to even destroy us. When we love, we offer ourselves in hopes of a response in kind. Should that response not come or should it later be revoked or revealed as sham, then we find ourselves defrauded outright and devalued to the uttermost. Now, think of the utter dismay breaking over heaven’s courts when humankind rejects the overtures of the ultimate, incomparable Source.

So, no, God can’t just love us enough for the both of us. No individual can supply all of the love needed to fill the space between themselves and another. In therapeutic circles, that attempt at “love” is known as codependency or enabling. God’s love must be reciprocated. Anything less scorns him and warps us. Consequently, God’s wrath is a function of his love. If he could love us more, his wrath would only burn all the hotter.

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And so, for the love of God, we face future judgment.

Should we believe such a fate awaits us, we might be moved to save ourselves in some way. But how could fear produce love? We might pretend to love God by offering empty affections in the form of fastidious religiosity. Of course that never works. To us, God will always be the rich old man with hands as cold as ice. We might go to church and maintain a moral façade, but our hearts will always long for the other side of town. And we will make forays there in any way we think we can justify. God would join the Eagles in telling us, “You can’t hide your lying eyes.”

What is to be done?

Praise God, what can be done has been done.

The authors of the New Testament knew nothing of our God so “loving” as to need no appeasement. Christ’s beloved John had no trouble weaving the two ideas into one sentence which we can find in 1 John 4:10. For context, here’s the verse with the two that precede it:

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John 4:8-10 NIV

“God is love.” It’s a wonderful truth, but we can’t allow ourselves to stop reading there and walk away assuming that the sentiment we feel for those we cherish defines God.

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He showed his love among us by sending his Son into the world. Hallelujah! That doesn’t mean that God is defined by the life of a Nazarene carpenter turn itinerant preacher. The bit about Jesus eating with sinners doesn’t nullify the multiple commands to execute sinners in Israel. To get the full revelation of God, we must read on past the tales of Christ’s miracles and the record of his teachings. We must go on into a garden where that same precious One cried out for his life to a silent night sky. We need to glance from a distance as he’s interrogated and violated. Our ears need to ring with the barbaric shouts, “Crucify him!” Our minds must be bent and our hearts must be broken as he cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” We must watch as the light of the world is snuffed under a sackcloth sky.

“This is love,” John says.

God loves us enough to appease his own wrath, but not through empty sentiment. No, he did it through a blood sacrifice which he himself provided.

Leave and Cleave

They say, “Christ is the reason for the season,” but that’s a bit vague don’t you think? Yes, today is the day in which Christendom turns special attention to the birth of Christ. And yet the coming of the Son of God as a baby surely wasn’t an end in itself. There’s a reason behind the season.

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Of course, we know that Jesus was born to die for our sins, but even that horrible, wonderful event points to a wider purpose. Scripture gives us the reason for Christ’s birth and for his death from the very beginning in Genesis 2.

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24 (NIV)

I love Isaiah 7 and 9, but to get the mechanics of “God with us,” we must get to the beginning and what better place to start a story of birth than with a story about marriage. When asking for the reason, we can find no better place to look than verses which begin with “That is why…” If you’ve heard very many sermons on marriage or been to a Christian marriage seminar, you’ve probably always seen this passage as a divine mandate to avoid your in laws. I don’t agree.

There’s more going on here.

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Adam didn’t have parents, so what does the story of his wedding have to do with putting our parents at a distance when we wed? The Jews obviously didn’t interpret their own text in that way since Jewish men of marrying age would build a bridal suite onto their parents’ home and bring their wives to move in.

I think we’ve misunderstood this verse because we’re looking for a precedent where the Bible has placed a prophesy. Look at the verse again, this time in the ESV:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24 (ESV – emphasis mine)

The story of Adam and Eve is about “a man.” The Hebrew word here refers specifically to a male human. Who “shall,” at a time future from the perspective of creation. “Leave his father and his mother” is unnecessarily specific. Why doesn’t the text just say, “parents.” In a patriarchal society, it could have just said, “father.” I think the words and even the word order point to this future man who will first leave his father and then leave his mother for the sake of his wife to become one flesh with her.

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I’m sure you see where I’m going with all of this, but maybe you think I’m reaching. If I am, I’m not doing so alone.

For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 

Ephesians 5:29-32 (ESV)

Christ left his Father to be born a man. As a man, he left his grieving mother in the care of his beloved disciple at the cross. Christ was born to die, but he died to take his bride. The reason for the season and for all of creation is our intimate union with the Son of God.

This Christmas, let’s live up to our purpose to reveal God in flesh since we are his body the partakers of his flesh. Let us adore him, our husband. Let us help him, our Lord. Let us represent him in our proactive love for each other and in his mission to the world.

If you’ve yet to accept his proposal of marriage, please consider what he left to betroth himself to you. Accept his offer today and let him be born in you this Christmas.