Friday, September 02, 2005

A Response to "The Opposite of Love"

After a random guy commented on my post below, "The Opposite of Love" (doesn't it make you wonder how in the world people stumble across your blog?), it started a thread of comments. Rather than continue that thread below, I'll respond here.

If I understand right, this guy is saying that my explanation of God's wrath really being a different manifestation of His love is like a battered wife defending her husband for beating her "because really he loves her."

I guess I have actually heard some pretty skewed stories about domestic violence; emotionally shattered women falsely believing that they deserve abuse, that their partner "can't help it," that they have "asked for it," that "really, he truly does love me." I shake my head sadly at such defenses and rationalizations for domestic violence.

The differences when we're talking about God and His people, rather than an abuser and his spouse (forgive the gender-bias; it's for simplicity's sake) are many. Here are a few:

*Character: God is not an abuser, a fallen, sinful man; He is infinitely good. "You are good, and what you do is good" (Psalm 119:68). He is incapable of evil--and I think we would all agree that for a man to abuse his girlfriend/wife is evil.

*Relationship: While two people involved in a relationship marked by domestic violence are equals--both human beings--God and His children are most assuredly NOT equals. He created us; He is our supreme authority. Not our equal. He has every right to discipline us when we are wayward children. In fact, His punishment of the Israelites can be better compared to a father disciplining his children than to a man abusing his wife. Abuse is senseless; discipline, on the other hand, may seem awful to the recipient but is necessary for growth and character development.

"Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:7-11).
This brings me to my next point...

*Motive: I'm no expert, but it seems to me that the motive of abuse is to exercise power and control. It has nothing to do with love. It involves belittling another human being to make yourself feel bigger, to compensate for your own inadequacy. In contrast, when God inflicts His wrath on mankind, His motive is ultimately love. Yes, we need to understand that He has ultimate power and authority, that He is ultimately in control, that He is bigger than us. All this is TRUTH--and we would be in dire straits if He wasn't bigger than us.

The key, though, is that this isn't the last word on God's character. He displays those qualities from a heart of love. Anyone who doubts this should examine the life of Jesus. A God who does not truly love His people does not send His only Son to die so that He might spend eternity with them. He does not go to such great lengths to redeem them. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

When the Israelites experienced God's wrath, there was a higher purpose in play. God didn't allow them to suffer and be defeated for no reason. He allowed it so that their hearts would be turned to repentance--so that they would realize the folly of their ways and seek Him. So that they could return to a love relationship with Him. He knew that only when they were thwarted in their attempts to seek affection and fulfillment and validation in other places would they come back to Him, their only true source of love and fulfillment and identity.

I hope all that rambling makes at least an iota of sense. Maybe another of my readers can respond to this more articulately?

4 comments:

Jules said...

Wow, I guess the comparison was so far fetched to me that it went right over my head.

Morgan said...

Hello, me again. The random guy.

Hmm... sorry; I was in a hurry before and maybe didn't articulate what I was getting at particularly well. Your second paragraph pretty much covers what I was getting at though.

(Reading my comment again, I noticed that it could have come across as slightly brusque and confrontational. If so, apologies. That was not my intention.)

You've attempted to rebut my suggestion with the assertion that 'God is not an abuser, a fallen, sinful man; he is infinitely good... he is incapable of evil.'

What proof is there for this? Other than the fact that, through the Bible, God (supposedly) has told us that this the case. But if he were capable of evil, he would say that, wouldn't he, as a means of getting away with it? 'I'm a nice guy really; I love you.'

You go on to say,

'Abuse is senseless; discipline, on the other hand, may seem awful to the recipient but is necessary for growth and character development.'

I would not disagree with this statement. However, what defines the catastrophic results of, for example, Hurricane Katrina, as being discipline, as opposed to abuse? What opportunities for growth and character development are afforded to those who lost their lives as a result of the disaster?

Furthermore, you say that 'it seems to me that the motive of abuse is to exercise power and control.' Again, no arguments about that from me. But could one not argue that, in manifesting his wrath, God is essentially saying to us, 'Look at what I'm capable of. If you don't behave yourself and do as you're told, there'll be more where that came from.' Is this not, in effect, an attempt by God to exercise power and control over humanity?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this...

Amy said...

Morgan, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your honesty and the apology is certainly accepted. I want to respond to your challenges but don't want to do so in an off-the-cuff manner; please give me some time to consider your comments. Thanks for reading.

Amy said...

Morgan:
I’ll respond to you here rather than continuing to add new posts. Thanks for your patience; I apologize for the delay in responding. As I said, I wanted to give your comments serious consideration rather than a flippant answer.

You say:
“What proof is there for this [the fact that God is good]? Other than the fact that, through the Bible, God (supposedly) has told us that this the case. But if he were capable of evil, he would say that, wouldn't he, as a means of getting away with it? ‘I'm a nice guy really; I love you.’”

A good point. But part of the problem in having this debate with you is that in order to discuss something so specific, it seems we would need to start with some agreed-upon assumptions. I see from your website that you profess to be an atheist, which makes any agreed-upon assumptions difficult since I am a born-again Christian.

I believe the Bible is valid based on a host of other things, which I don’t have the time or space to enumerate here. For one thing, its historicity far surpasses that of other ancient literature. The thing that makes the Bible so amazing is that it's based on the complete work being authentic—-in other words, we can’t simply say that portions of it are good moral teachings to live by.

I assume (though assumptions are dangerous, I know) that if you are an atheist, you doubt the Bible’s accuracy or validity. Can you give me some examples? If you could show me one instance where the Bible is wrong, then we might have reason to believe that God might not be who He said He is. Otherwise, if the Bible’s authenticity holds up in other ways (as I believe it does), I find it rational to believe God is indeed who He says He is.

Aside from that, I think you’re wise in saying that a person’s claim of “I love you” cannot necessarily be accepted without question. I have two responses to your assertion: First, again I come back to the fact that we are dealing with God and not man. If a fellow human being tells me he is loving or good, but his actions give me reason to question his assertions, I’ll do so. But if God, the Creator of the universe, tells me He is good and loving, I don’t believe it is for me to say otherwise. For one thing, my understanding of situations in which I might doubt His claims may be limited at best; obviously I am not omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent (whereas He is all three).

The second point: I agree, it’s wise to claim that love can’t just be claimed with words. It must be demonstrated in actions. That’s Biblical: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). So the question becomes, do God’s actions match His claims?

I believe they do. Again I’d point you to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A God who does not truly love His people does not take the extreme measure of coming to earth in human form and dying the most horrific death imaginable for the sake of removing the separation that sin has caused and redeeming them to be with Him eternally. A God who does not truly love people turns away from them—-He leaves them to die in sin and never looks back.

But, I see from the little comic strip on your blog that my pointing to Jesus won’t satisfy you. However, I don’t believe that the New Testament is the only place we can find evidences of God’s love. The Old Testament speaks of His mercy and compassion as well. What about the Psalms, where real people testify endlessly to their trust in God’s goodness, love and mercy? What about the fact that in every instance where God’s people are hopelessly disobedient and idolatrous, He gives them another chance (and another, and another)? Wouldn’t you think that at some point His patience would come to an end? Mine would have a long time ago. But many times, He speaks of destroying an entire city or nation (or the world, in Noah’s case), only to relent because of His mercy and save a remnant who are faithful to Him.

Or the book of Hosea—-one of my favorites. (Your friend Jay Pinkerton’s analysis is a little off, by the way: God didn’t ask Hosea to “sleep with hookers,” plural—-he asked Hosea to *marry* ONE “hooker.” Though still shocking, it’s a vastly different situation.) Anyway, even after Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, God instructs him to take her back—-to BUY her back, even though she was already his—-and love her again. Not file for divorce, but love her. Quite shocking, but then, as a dim reflection of God and Israel, it’s less shocking than God’s love-—how He could continue to forgive and love a people as endlessly rebellious and disobedient as the Israelites (and as you and me), who essentially commit adultery on a spiritual level as frequently and predictably as we do.

Isaiah talks of God “tending his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11). I don’t know how to describe those actions if not as “loving.” In fact, after the judgment and despair portrayed in the first half of Isaiah, the second half speaks again and again of the mercy and hope that a loving God provides.

That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I could go on, but am not convinced doing so would make any difference. As for your other responses. You ask:

“But could one not argue that, in manifesting his wrath, God is essentially saying to us, 'Look at what I'm capable of. If you don't behave yourself and do as you're told, there'll be more where that came from.' Is this not, in effect, an attempt by God to exercise power and control over humanity?”

I would not argue that statement; I’d actually make it more forceful. God doesn’t ATTEMPT to exercise power and control; He does, in fact, have them and display them. In my last blog entry, I didn’t claim that God’s wrath doesn’t display his power and authority; I merely said that that’s not the ONLY thing it displays. My statement:

“In contrast, when God inflicts His wrath on mankind, His motive is ultimately love. Yes, we need to understand that He has ultimate power and authority, that He is ultimately in control, that He is bigger than us. All this is TRUTH--and we would be in dire straits if He wasn't bigger than us. The key, though, is that this isn't the last word on God's character.”

As creator, God has every right to “exercise power and control over humanity.” And He does so, often. He is sovereign over all things. But I’ll reiterate—-to say only that He is powerful and controlling is not an accurate reflection of the ENTIRE picture of His character. Without acknowledging love, you miss a crucial element that colors the other two.

You also say:
“What defines the catastrophic results of, for example, Hurricane Katrina, as being discipline, as opposed to abuse? What opportunities for growth and character development are afforded to those who lost their lives as a result of the disaster?”

I feel I’ve got to back up a bit to answer this one. It’s difficult because, as I said before, if you are an atheist and I am a Christian, we don’t have a lot of common ground to stand on from which to have a productive debate. But for the sake of discussion, let's assume that there is a god, and that this god is the sole creator of the universe. We don't even need to be talking specifically about the God of the Bible, just an eternal god who transcends space and time.

Why assume this god is a creator? I don’t have room or time in this blog to argue about creation, but can point you to some good books on the subject if you’re interested (I see that you enjoy reading—as do I—some common ground at last :) ). Lee Strobel’s "The Case for a Creator" is an excellent place to start.

So, assuming there is in fact a god, it seems reasonable to determine that this god is a powerful and creative god. The fact that there is a universe at all shows us the power, and the sheer variety in the universe gives us the creative part.

Take the human body as one of countless examples. We, as humans, can not duplicate the intricate complexity of our bodies. We can use pieces of us and try to get them to go together, and we can start with an egg, do some manipulation, and make a clone, but we cannot take basic elements, mix them together, and make a person. We can't even produce real intelligence in computers. This tells me that this creator god has a mind that is many steps above ours. Our best doesn't come close to matching his best.

So we have a god that is hugely powerful, and whose mind is greatly above our own. Whether we like it or not, that means a couple of things when we look at Hurricane Katrina. First, this is but a hiccup when it comes to this creator god's power. If he was really trying to flex his muscles and show off, just for showing off purposes (or just to abuse those poor people), he could do a whole lot more to give people no doubt that he is forcing his control over us. If this god was trying to force his way and be an abusive tyrant, there would be no "attempting" about it. The power shown by creating the universe notifies me that if he wants something done, it's going to happen regardless of what I think about it, or how much I try to stop it.

It also means that even if I don't understand why Katrina came and devastated the Gulf Coast, I'm not in a position to tell this creator god that he shouldn't have done that (or allowed that). Even if I don't see the good or the purpose in it, that doesn't mean there isn't any down the road.

On a personal note, I can’t count how many times in my own life a situation has seemed hopeless or terrible (on a much smaller scale than the hurricane devastation, of course), only to see God bring great beauty out of it later. Ultimately, the mind of God is far above my finite mind, and I shouldn't be so naive to think that I should be able to understand Him all the time. In other words, your or my failure to see a meaningful purpose in the suffering caused by the hurricane doesn’t negate the possibility that there could be one we don’t see or understand yet.

Whew. After all that typing, I’m beginning to feel as though I’ve wasted my time. I am afraid our perspectives are so different that nothing I say along this vein is going to make much difference. But those are my thoughts, as best as I can articulate them at the moment. I’ll be happy to clarify if necessary. Sorry for the extreme length--but you asked some big questions that can't be answered in a paragraph or two--plus I tend to be a bit wordy anyway :)