Monday, December 22, 2014

What is God For?

The inspiration for this post is the Magnificat found in Luke 1:46-55. 

I have always been astonished that people can react to their team losing to another team by rioting, attacking people and destroying property. Whatever you feel about the demonstrations and rioting after the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, or about the wisdom of torching your own hometown and businesses (which ironically does not pay back any perpetrator but rather harms more innocents and a community that is already suffering), at least it was a reaction to what was perceived as injustice. At least it was about the death of a human being. Bodily attacking other people and destroying parts of your city over a sports score makes even less sense. And that's all it is: a score, a statistic. One among many. There will always be another game and another season.

Sadly, some think God's beef with evil is just that: an ultimately meaningless contest. God wants followers and so does the other side. And what difference is it who wins?

Part of that attitude is because people think--with, sadly, a lot of assistance from certain Christians--that God is primarily interested in punishing sinners. They like to quote bits of the Old Testament where God is angry about sin and rarely put that into context or spell out just what injustices God is worked up about. Like violence. Starting with Cain God shows that he hates violence. The reason given for the flood is that, as it says in Genesis 6:11, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was full of violence.” I think most of us looking around the world today would agree. The world is full of violence: domestic violence, criminal violence, child abuse, people cutting off other people's heads, shooting up workplaces and schools, torturing people, raping people. Everyday some new outrage is committed. If God is love then seeing the creatures he created in his image doing violence to one another should make him angry, just as it would a parent seeing one of their children beat on another. That anger is justified.

But violence is only one way the powerful pick on the powerless. The prophets say quite a lot about governments being corrupted by money in order to pervert justice. In Isaiah 1:23, God says, “Your officials are rebels, they associate with thieves. All of them love bribery, and look for payoffs. They do not take up the cause of the orphan or defend the rights of the widow.” The word translated “orphan” literally means “fatherless” and the Hebrew word translated “widow” here also referred to women whose husbands divorced them. These two classes of people, along with immigrants, are often singled out in scripture as the most oppressed. God actually gauges the health of the nation by how it treats these 3 groups. When ratifying God's covenant, Moses says, “'Cursed is the one who perverts justice for the resident foreigner, the orphan and the widow.' Then all the people will say, 'Amen!'” (Deuteronomy 27:19) God stands up for the oppressed.

God is opposed to lying and to those who sew discord (Proverbs 16:16-19), to merchants who cheat their customers (Deut 25:13-16), to being stingy when helping the poor (Deut 15:7-10), to mistreating the handicapped (Leviticus 19:14) and to neglecting or abusing animals (Deut 22:4). That's what the God is against: not people having fun but people misusing their gifts to harm others.

But what about so-called victimless crimes—crimes in which, according to the legal definition, “there is no apparent victim and no apparent injury?” Usually such things as prostitution, gambling and recreational drugs are given as examples. Prostitution, though, is hardly victimless. The overwhelming majority of women and children involved in prostitution did not freely choose that profession but were forced into it by pimps, who keep them on a tight reign using threats, pain, drugs and what amounts to brainwashing. And it destroys the marriages and relationships of those who patronize prostitutes. So, no, God does not see this as harmless. (Lev 19:29).

Gambling is only victimless if you have money you will not miss when you lose it (remember, the odds are always in favor of the House). And if you are not addicted to the activity. It can also lead to loss of possessions, homes, jobs and relationships. Addiction and adverse social and health effects makes victims out of those who use drugs for recreation. And the most harm has been done by the legal ones: alcohol, tobacco and prescription painkillers. (1 Corinthians 6:12) God is not a fan of anything that destroys people who were made in his image.

But here we are again talking about what God is against. What is God for?

God is for life. He created all life. Jesus said that his Father is the God of the living, not the dead. Jesus said he came to bring us life, life in abundance, life eternal. Jesus backed this up by raising the dead: the son of the widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus, and his friend Lazarus. And the climax of his mission was his own resurrection. In Isaiah and in Revelation we are told that God will end the reign of death. Because he is the God of life.

God is for wholeness. The Hebrew word “shalom” is generally translated using the English word “peace.” But the word means more than just an absence of conflict. It means “happiness;” it means “health;” it means “complete well-being.” That why Jesus, the Prince of Peace, went around healing people and making them whole. He restored those suffering from mental and physical illnesses to complete well-being. He also restored those who were social outcasts to being productive members of the community. We all sense that our world and the people in it are broken. God wants to make everything whole once again.

God is for this world. Why did he send his son? John 3:16 says “Because God so loved the world...” God is not against this world that he created and pronounced very good. He is against what we have made of it. He is against how we have taken the gifts he's given us and used them for evil. That includes our bodies. God is not against matter. He made it. In Jesus he took upon himself a genuinely human body. But he made everything for a purpose. And it's when we use his gifts for our own purposes, selfishly or foolishly, to harm ourselves or others, or when we neglect to use them properly that God gets upset.

For instance, God created sex and it was one of the things he said was good. But when we divorce sex from love and commitment and faithfulness, when we exploit others sexually, when we betray one another, when we violently force sex upon one another, when we ignore its biological and psychological consequences, we have turned what was intended to be good into something quite different, something toxic, something joyless. It's that to which God objects. (And even so only 9% of the commandments in the Bible concern sex. We're the ones who overemphasize it.) God is for the world as he intended it to be.

God is for community. In the West we are so focused on the individual that we seem to forget that we are social animals. In fact scientists have decided that Richard Dawkins' idea of the selfish gene is not really the key to human survival at all but rather it's our ability to cooperate that explains why we weren't wiped out by predators that were stronger, faster and better equipped with claws, fangs, and venom. And unlike other animals we will even work together with other humans who are not related to us. But that seems to get harder when the group is larger than 150 people. And though we will work with people from other families we definitely give preference to those who look and act like us. Our attention to differences in race and culture are a detriment to unity. We also defer to those who are attractive and those who have wealth and power and discriminate against those who fall far outside those parameters. And there are always folks who feel that the differences are absolute, that separating people on that basis is a moral imperative and who work to keep people from accepting those who are different.

There is in the New Testament a constant theme of how God is bringing together disparate groups into one body in Christ. Male and female, Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, slaves and free, people from every race and nation, every language group and culture are being reconciled in Christ. Paul even says that our ministry is one of reconciliation: reconciling people to God and to each other. He uses the metaphor of the human body which is made up of parts that look and function differently from one another and yet are all part of the same entity. And the health of the whole is dependent on the health of the individual parts. Stub your baby toe and see if all of you doesn't suddenly become focused on your tiniest digit. Nor would you react with indifference if a doctor told you to have it amputated. It is too bad that we as human beings we don't react that way when we heard of some mammoth loss of life in some distant part of the world among people who don't look or dress or live or talk like us.

And yet long before scientists found the mitochondrial Eve and the Y-chromosome Adam from which they say we are descended, the Bible has said we are all one family. In Revelation John has a vision of God's throne room where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” The kingdoms of men try their hardest to be unified, usually through imposing uniformity of language, culture and race. But the kingdom of God is made up of all kinds of people whose differences are obvious to the eye and ear. Their unity is not a superficial one but a unity of heart that comes from the love of God. The God who made us all different doesn't wish to erase those differences but to bring us together in community.

You can read Mary's song as a paean to the God of her people only. You could assume, I guess, that her use of “all generations” referred only to Israel. I doubt she was analyzing what came pouring out of her mouth in that moment of divine ecstasy. But that's not what Simeon thought when, taking the infant Jesus in his arms, he said, “ eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” That's not what Peter said on his first contact with Gentiles seeking God, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And the risen Jesus himself said to his apostles, “ Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...”

God is for life, for wholeness, for the world and for community. He wants to restore life, make what is broken whole again, rescue the world from its self-destructive ways and reconcile us to him and to each other so that we truly community. When we follow him we are not like mindless partisans, holding to our side simply because it is our side. We are not spoilsports simply telling people to stop having fun but rather telling them that there is a better way, one that will result in a lot less pain and anger and bitterness and envy and hatred and fighting and sadness but in a lot more joy and peace and kindness and love. In fact most of the pain in following Jesus is admitting we were wrong and asking God and others for forgiveness. The rest is just honest hard work whose results will be both satisfying and delightful.

There are a lot of people who think that all religion is evil and that those believe in God just make the world worse. And indeed there are some religious people who act like those sports fans who destroy their communities over a game. But remember that “fan” is just a shortened form of the word “fanatic.” A fanatic only cares that his side win.

But God wants everyone to win. God is love and when people love each other, when each puts the other's well-being first, all sides win. He wants everyone to love everyone, to get along with everyone, to recognize that we are part of everyone. Because God, who created everyone, is for everyone. And when everyone is for everyone, everyone wins.  

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