Category Archives: Jesus Christ

A Conversation with Jesus About Creation (Part 2)

Suffused with grace.

Part 1

On Friday morning, I opened my Bible to the psalms as part of my usual morning routine of prayer and reflection and read the above passage.

God is all mercy and grace –
   not quick in anger, is rich in love.

God is good to one and all;
   everything he does is suffused with grace.

I read those lines — especially the last line — over and over.

Everything he does is suffused with grace.

Everything?

“It doesn’t feel that way,” I told him. I thought about the Old Testament and all its violence. I thought about the nations that didn’t get to know the God of Israel. I thought about my ongoing struggle with the contents of history.

It sure doesn’t seem like everything God does is suffused with grace.

I sat at my desk, staring at those words, and eventually told God my resistance to their testimony. Then, after a while, I went to sit on the couch in our living room. This has become a place for me to curl up and listen to God when I’m crippled by the noise inside my head. I curl on the couch under a blanket and rest my head against the chest of Jesus.

So there I was on Friday morning, curled up on the couch, that line in the psalm ruminating in my mind. Suffused with grace. 

And Jesus began to talk to me about it.

He didn’t come at it directly. Lately, in my prayer times, we have been walking back and forth along a beach shoreline. We walk and we talk. A lot of the time lately, I do most of the talking. I tell him the ways my heart hurts at all this pain and suffering that I see and know exists and has existed. I sputter and accuse and sometimes cry.

I want him to give me answers for these things, but truthfully, I haven’t slowed down enough to let him speak. I’m too aware of my pain and the magnitude of the questions to let any other voice in.

He has waited for me to be ready, and on that Friday morning, I finally was. I stopped my talking and opened myself to listen to him. And he took his time responding. He looked up at the sky, contemplating where to start responding. He looked over at me and smiled but still walked along the shore with me in silence.

I walked and waited for him to speak. I knew eventually he would.

And he did.

Eventually, he looked back up at the sky and began to speak to me of the time before the beginning of time — the time before creation, when the Godhead of the Trinity existed in pure communion with itself, unadulterated love in cosmic joy.

He led me to contemplate what that pure communion of love and joy among the Trinity was like. True perfection and the fullness of all goodness — a being than which, as Anselm of Canterbury called it, nothing greater can be conceived. Perfect love, perfect truth, perfect justice, perfect kindness, perfect goodness, perfect action: all that is the best, most perfect existence.

Suffused with grace. It occurred to me to ask, “Would grace have existed at this time in God?” There would be no need for grace if nothing but perfection of being — nothing but God — existed at that time. Nothing fell short of perfection or lacked any good thing to render grace necessary. The perfect Godhead acted justly — in perfect correctness and rightness in all things.

Perhaps it was only the introduction of creatures other than God’s own perfect self that rendered the active attribute of grace in God necessary.

So we turned to the act of creation next . . .

A Conversation with Jesus About Creation (Part 1)

Sun bloom.

A little over a month ago, I read a section of Martin Luther King’s autobiography that caused me to write him a letter and ask, “How did you not despair?”

Ever since that time, I’ve been sinking in a sad state. My heart — at least a solid quarter-quadrant of it — is grieving. It’s a grief that sneaks up on me every now and again in this journey I’ve been walking the last three and a half years. Sometimes the grief over the years comes and goes in an afternoon, sometimes a weekend, or maybe even a week.

This is the longest it has stayed.

And in this place, I’ve deeply wrestled with God. I feels as though my insides have split wide open and that I’m unable to stop feeling or asking him hard questions. Most of those questions circle back to the same central question:

God, where are you in the darkness?

I ask him this question concerning people in my life whom I love dearly who can’t see the light at all. They want badly to find God, yet he seems absent. The God of love and tender care that I have come to know and adore has not shown himself to them.

Where are you, God? 

I beg and plead with him on a regular basis concerning this.

I ask him this question about history, too. (I posted a little bit about those questions already here, here, and here.) And most specifically, the reality of World War II keeps breaking my heart into a million little pieces right now.

My concern about this period of history is not new. I grew up reading books like Number the Stars and The Diary of Anne Frank and The Hiding Place and watched movies like Shining Through and Charlotte Grey, amazed and awe-struck at the courage of those who faced persecution and death and those who fought in their own subversive ways against the evils of Hitler’s world.

So it makes sense, given this history of mine, that World War II would already hold my heart. It has always held my heart. But I also see that it’s close to my mind and heart because of its close proximity, historically, to us today. So many atrocities have happened throughout history — the darkness of 1939-1945 was not new in the whole scope of our world — and yet when my mind travels backward in time, World War II is one of the major dark spots in history that I hit upon most immediately. It is still so close to us.

There are many walls of darkness between then and now. The femicide happening right this moment in the Congo is one of them, and its horrifying reality is almost impossible for me to face. The tiny soldier boys being used as human barricades there in the Congo every single day, too, is another. And there have been plenty of other wars between then and now.

But perhaps World War II has its vise grip upon my heart more than any other atrocity right now because I have more knowledge of the facts of what happened there than I do these other sufferings. I’ve studied it much longer. I’ve read many more books and first-person accounts. I’ve thought about it and cared about it longer than any other large-scale human suffering I’ve encountered.

Or perhaps it is ever-present in my mind simply because of the frequency with which Hitler’s name is invoked as the reason nonviolence makes no sense. “If we didn’t go to war,” I hear again and again, “then Hitler would have won.” World War II is an ever-present companion in conversation among those studying and seeking to live a nonviolent way.

But whatever the reason it’s plaguing my heart right now, here are the facts: six million Jews rounded up and callously slaughtered as though they weren’t human and didn’t matter.

God, where were you there? 

At times, light begins to break through this darkness of mine, short fits and starts at attempted answers to my plaguing questions. Like, for instance, the encouragement of Dr. King’s response to the darkness when he said, “It is well that it’s within thine heart.” Or remembering Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie — how God was in the darkness of their Ravensbruck barracks in so many tangible ways. Or reading through a difficult section in Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts that wrestled through similarly painstaking questions as mine to land at the revelation that perhaps all is grace.

I stumble across these words and thoughts and memories and seek to hold them tight within my hands. But these hands of mine, they are so weak from wringing and soon lose grip on these encouragements.

And so I keep wrestling with Jesus.

Where are you here?

Where were you there? 

And finally, perhaps most pointed of all:

How could you let that happen?

I sob and sob when asking him this question. How could you let that happen? How could you, Jesus?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and God forbid I desecrate the name and memory of those who did suffer and die — and continue to suffer and die in the darkness of the world — in my attempt to make sense of these things.

I may never make sense of them. And I am slowly, slowly coming to terms with that. Moments like the one I wrote about elsewhere, where Jesus holds and sings over me, begin to make that not-knowing possibility more bearable.

But I will say this.

This morning, the struggle I’ve been sharing with Jesus concerning all this took a new turn. As I also wrote elsewhere, I reached a readiness to listen. And where Jesus began his response surprised me. He took me back to creation.

We aren’t done with the conversation that started this morning, and so I don’t yet know where it will lead or where it will end, but the pieces he’s shared with me so far have brought enough encouragement for me to begin holding the tension of darkness and light with a bit more ease. This series will be my attempt to share pieces of it with you.

Dear Jesus: Maybe It’s the Result of Human Beings Saying No

Dear Jesus,

I’ve been wrestling still with the comparison between what I’ve learned of you from my own journey and what I see littered in the debris of history.

Like I wrote in my last letter to you, I see you everywhere in my story. I feel like my whole life has been nestled inside yours and that all I’ve done is receive — say yes — to all that you’ve implanted in me and designed my life to be.

Even the ability to say yes was given to me by you.

And it has confused me about history. I haven’t known what to do with the painful, wicked realities of this world. If the truth is that you are all good things and that you choose us, we don’t choose you, then why do evil things happen? Did you not choose some?

While I’ve been wrestling with these questions, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the true self and the false self, and I’m starting to think that conversation can be instructive to this conversation here.

It’s my belief that each of us has a true self — a self that conforms to that which you created when you conceived us. Because of original sin, environmental factors, and our own ongoing choices, we also have a false self. It’s not the deepest truth of us, but it exists all the same and we live inside of it and from it much of our lives.

Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed into the original image you conceived for each one of us. It is the process of being conformed into the unique image of yourself that we bear.

I wrote recently that our role in that formation process is simply to say yes. You do all the work of creating conditions and issuing invitations and actually changing us, and we simply say yes to it.

Perhaps the insane chaos of this world that seeks to shatter the divine imprint in humanity’s particularities is the result of human beings saying no. Turning their backs on the truth of who they are — beautiful, glorious creations by the hand of God who are meant to mirror your own love and truth and beauty in this world — and choosing the false self instead.

We are meant to live in harmony with you and with each other. You create the conditions for this. You set the divine imprint and invitation in each one of us. But it is our job to say yes.

And when we say no, hell erupts on earth. 

Our Father, 
who art in heaven,
hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Love,
Christianne

A Thought Regarding History

Trinity figures II.

I’ve been taking a 9-month course at my church that provides a survey of the scriptures and church history. We started with the Old Testament, then moved to the Gospels and the writings of Paul, and lately have begun making our way through the beginnings of the church.

It was such a messy process, that.

Our teacher, Father Stephen, often reminds us that the apostles — the ones who walked and talked with Jesus, saw his resurrected self, and were then commissioned to share the message and begin to teach the way — had no context for the context of church we have today. They met in homes and catacombs, wherever they were safe and could share life and the teaching of the way with those who had come to believe.

The world had not yet heard of Jesus Christ. The message was new. And the organization of the church was even further behind the proliferation of that message. It took about 150 years for the followers of Jesus and his way to realize it needed a system to preserve itself. And it was another 150 or so years after that before church buildings ever entered the picture.

In short, the apostles — even Paul, who wrote a major portion of the New Testament we read today — had no idea throughout the whole of their lifetimes that the church would come to be what it became. They had no idea the followers of Jesus would learn to organize themselves on the broader scale that they did. They had no inkling of what lay ahead of their lifetimes for the church worldwide.

But Jesus did.

Jesus knew before he ever came to earth what would happen after he left it. The shaky, confusing, stumbling journey the early believers took toward an understanding of what it means to be the church universal and the early, formative steps it took in the first several hundred years of its existence — not to mention the many centuries that have unfolded since — were known to Jesus from the beginning.

And it’s not just that.

It’s that God knew, before he ever created the world, what would happen upon its creation.

He knew the fall of man would happen. He knew man’s separation from full communion and intimacy with God lay ahead. He surveyed the landscape of mankind’s timeline in advance and also saw his choosing of Israel. He saw the exodus and exiles.

He saw the dark years and then the coming of the light of Jesus Christ. He foreknew the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of the Christ and the formation of the church. He saw the unfolding centuries of history — man against man, nation against nation, confusion upon confusion — and, in the midst of it all, the church celebrating the eucharist, the proclamation of Jesus whose body and blood invite us to share in that same life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And he saw the end of time before it ever began, that holy vision of Jesus presiding over all and the making of all things new.

God saw it all — every single and continuous piece of it — and chose to create this world anyway. Somehow, he deemed it good.

Just something I’m continuing to think about in response to Tuesday’s post.

Dear Jesus: I Don’t Understand History

Dear Jesus,

Sometimes I look at my life and see that everything good in it comes from you.

From the moment of my first consciousness, I have been aware of you. You made yourself present to me, and I’ve never known my life without you in it.

You gave me a family environment that further supported a life with you. I went to church, learned the scriptures, and grew in my faith over time.

Even when my propensity toward sin and error and environmental factors led me astray from your truth and who you really are, you corrected my steps. At a certain point in time, you arrested my attention and caused my spiritual journey to take a new turn: a turn toward you and your true self.

That was a long journey, and I’m still journeying in it, but even as I look at the growth of my life since that journey began, I see your fingerprints everywhere.

My love for you was given to me by you. My spiritual awareness was implanted in me by you. My love for others is your own heart in me. My care for peace and justice and mercy and compassion and dignity and truth — these are all your cares, further evidence of your own heart in me, given to me by you.

I did not choose you, but you chose me.

I don’t know how to express with enough forcefulness that I know this to be true: that the good in me is there because of you, and I did not choose you, but you chose me.

It is because I know this to be true that I get stumped up on history.

If you choose what will be — you implant goodness, you ordain events, you grow us up into your own heart’s desire and reflection — then why does life contain so much pain? Why is history pockmarked with such depravity? Why, even still today, does evil reign supreme?

People live and die with evil intent in their hearts and venomous actions littered in their wake.

Do you deem this to be so, too? How could you?

It is a perplexing question too great for this heart to hold sometimes. I do not understand. Will you help me understand?

Love,
Christianne

He Suffered Violence . . . for Us

On a Dark Friday

Image by Sister72

Last year on Good Friday, I sat in the back of my church and watched seven candles on the platform stage go out, one by one, as the last seven words Jesus spoke before his death were read from the Scriptures. When the last words were spoken and the last candle extinguished, the sanctuary went completely dark. Several hundred quiet souls sat together in the dark for several long moments in time.

Silence.

Darkness.

Today as I write this post, I’m trying to get back inside the powerful and profound realization I had in that moment. It was the realization that Jesus sustained violence . . . for us.

This was not a new truth for me to hold. I grew up in the church and have participated in my fair share of Good Friday services, some of which depicted the reality of Christ’s last hours in gruesome detail. But this reality struck me in a new way last year, perhaps because I was deep in the woods of this nonviolence journey and could see with fresh eyes that Jesus embodied on that original Good Friday all that I’ve come to believe is contained in the nonviolent ethic:

  • Love is stronger than evil.
  • Nonviolence is more transformative than violence.
  • Nonviolence is rooted in the conviction of truth.
  • Nonviolence is postured in love.

Early in my nonviolence journey, I began to read the autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. What stood out to me in the early section of that book was Dr. King’s own process of coming to embrace the nonviolent way of life. He studied various philosophers — Marx, Nietzche, and Reinhold Niebuhr among them — and eventually landed upon Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance as that which has the power to “lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale” (p. 24).

I was particularly struck by Dr. King’s response to Niebuhr, who had been a staunch proponent of pacifism for many years but eventually rejected it. Regarding Niebuhr’s rejection, King said:

Many of his statements revealed that he interpreted pacifism as a sort of passive nonresistance to evil expressing naive trust in the power of love. But this was a serious distortion. My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two posiions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr, p. 26

I remember watching the Ben Kingsley film on Gandhi’s life several months later and seeing this demonstrated so clearly in the famous salt march. Along with several hundred of his followers, Gandhi marched 240 miles to the sea coast over the course of 26 days in protest of a salt tax. When the marchers arrived at their destination, they faced aggressors who beat and killed many of them, and yet still the marchers stood in conviction for what they believed to be right and true, and they refused to fight back.

This was nonviolent resistance: a firm stand for truth and justice coupled with an unwillingness to raise one’s own hand against another out of love for the dignity and humanity of the one standing against you.

In Jesus, on Good Friday last year, I saw this exemplified in even greater measure. On that day, as I listened to those seven passages of Scripture being read aloud and as I watched those candles, one by one, go out, my mind filled in the details of the story.

In my mind, I watched the Jesus I have come to know and love get arrested. I watched him stand before the chief priest and all the elders and scribes and Pharisees and become the object of their scorn. I watched those religious leaders stir up the crowd against him in derision — the same crowd who had saluted him with palm branches just days before and who had thrown their cloaks on the ground for him when he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, many of whom had likely followed him around for years, always showing up where he did because they wanted more of his teaching and more of his healing. I watched those same people seek his crucifixion.

I watched him stand before Pontius Pilate in the court the next day and say nothing to defend himself. I watched him being given over to the death sentence and watched the Roman soldiers beat him with their clubs and their cat of nine tail switches. I watched them laugh at the torture they inflicted on him and watched them rip the robe off his back, raw pieces of his flesh tearing off with it because of how badly he had been beaten.

I watched him stumble down the dusty road  to Golgotha with a heavy wooden cross laid upon his shoulders, splinters gouging into those gaping wounds. I watched the crown of thorns they twisted into his head pierce his temple and his forehead and watched blood run in streams down his face and into his eyes and mouth.

I watched the soldiers pound three heavy, rusty nails into his hands and feet. I can’t even imagine the pain of that part, but yes, sharp, thick nails tore through his skin, tendons, and bones so mightily that they were able to hold the weight of his body against that cross when it was raised high up to the sky.

I watched it happen in my mind as I listened to those Scriptures and watched those candles go out on the stage in front of me that day, and as the last candle went out and we sat in the darkness and silence of that room, tears streamed down my face at the realization:

He suffered violence . . . for us. This was his nonviolence act.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not afraid to speak words of truth because he believed they contained real life. This speaking of truth is what eventually led to his arrest and crucifixion, as it leads to death for so many who speak truth in places where truth is not wanted.

He was willing to speak the truth, but he was not willing to save his own life to defend it. Instead, he operated with the knowledge that new life would come from his death — that love would indeed be more powerful than evil.

In the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, we see this principle born out in the most powerful way it has ever been demonstrated. Life really did conquer death. Love really did overcome evil. Everything contained in the nonviolent ethic is played out in its most literal form in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For that reason, Jesus Christ stands as the foremost example to me of the embodiment of this way of life and its actual transformative power. It is my sincere hope and prayer that he will teach me to be worthy of this reality he exampled through his life for me to follow.

Now, to Live Inside the Kingdom

Image credit: Barbara Lane

It’s been interesting to watch my journey into nonviolence these past two and a half years.

The journey began with a lone statement that intrigued and arrested me:

Only love has the power to transform and overcome violence.

I stayed with that statement for months. I could not evade it. It wanted my full attention and would not let me go. So I turned toward the question and asked a number of my own: Really? Is this how all the darkness in the world and in our hearts is meant to be redeemed — through love? Is love the only way?

I knew it was true.

My own experience of being transformed by love was testimony enough for that. Nothing but love had ever transformed me. Can’t you say the same is true for you? When you honestly evaluate your life, can you say you’ve ever had true, life-altering transformation of heart, soul, and spirit any other way?

So I went in search of mentors. If the world and all the darkness and brokenness living within it could only be changed by encounters with love, then I wanted to see it. It’s no secret that I carved out a year of my life to study the great peacemakers. That initial year was the first of a whole lifetime before me that will continue to include such study.

But in the midst of that intentional study, I learned one main thing:

It begins with me.

Even when taking several months inside one summer to study and think deeply about this subject, the majority of those months were filled with the honest examination of my own heart before God. Together, we rooted around inside to see what was really there. And what did I find? Unforgiveness. Judgment. Arrogance and anger. Unlove in spades.

So I’ve learned this above all:

The nonviolent journey begins with our own hearts.

Much of the work of this space, this JTN blog, is about that central truth: how our own hearts increase in their capacity to love . . . because it is only from a posture of love that we ourselves become nonviolent, and it is only from the posture of our own nonviolent lives that we can ever hope to effect any change inside this world, no matter how grand or miniscule that change may be.

So it’s about learning to grow in love. That’s what we do here.

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Over this last year, my journey into nonviolence has continued into these truthful depths in my heart. I have faced the reality of a competitive spirit. I have faced, and continue to face, my difficulty with the truth-telling side of love. (I look forward to sharing more about this in an upcoming post.) And I’ve continued to find my heart broken for those we normally call our enemies. For whatever reason he has deemed fitting, God keeps giving me a heart that weeps for those who hurt others.

More recently, God has renewed a fervency of love in my heart for himself. He’s been taking my focus off doing and planning and living with passion and cause in order to turn my full attention to himself. He has become, increasingly, the One True Object of my love these past few months.

And as we’ve grown in love together, I’ve begun bumping up against my struggles with God’s history of violence. I’ve found myself unable to fathom the wrathful side of God when my own experience of God is one of full acceptance, generosity, intimacy, and unconditional grace.

So we’ve had our struggles in the midst of this fierce love. And that’s been okay, and even good.

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Speaking aloud here about my struggle with the violent God of history has been fruitful and has informed my ongoing journey. I’m so thankful you take this journey with me and feel the freedom to share your perspective and your own struggles. I find myself starting conversations, but it’s really from your contributions that I learn the most. So, thank you.

More recently, I have begun to find much peace in the knowledge that Christ’s coming changed everything and does make a difference. I’ve been surprisingly comforted by a theological idea I never much noticed before: that Christ’s descent into hell inside the grave was marked with revelation, perhaps, to those under the earth who may have anticipated his coming with eagerness or who may never have even known to expect it.

Just tonight, in fact, during a church service I attended, I was reminded of the verse that says “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11, emphasis mine). This passage reminds me that the reality of Christ will become present knowledge to all at some point. No one will be left out.

That comforts me in the midst of this struggle that recently emerged with God.

That being said, I am sure I will continue to struggle with these ideas and many more. I have no illusions of them being settled once and for all, despite the current appeasement to the struggle that I feel. That’s why I continue to be glad to call this a journey.

But for now, I’m ready to go on living inside the kingdom. I’m ready to move forward in exploring the nooks and crannies of what that even means.

What does it mean to live in love inside this world?

Let’s continue to find out together.

Struggling with a Violent God, Part 2

Image credit: Barbara Lane

Nearly seven years ago, in what feels like several lifetimes ago, I was living on my own for the first time in my life and going through a process of healing and restoration of heart. I was separated in a marriage that would soon end in divorce, and I felt, on a human level, incredibly wounded, abandoned, and lost.

Every night after work, I returned to my tiny guesthouse and settled into the quiet life I had learned to lead on my own. The furnishings were simple, the dishes delicate and few, and I had discovered a new joy in keeping a tidy and simple home.

Every night for what seemed like months on end, I settled into my evenings at home the exact same way: by flipping on the CD player to play, over and over again, a song by Jeremy Camp called “Revive Me.” It was the song of my companionship during that bereft and lonely time and echoed the cry of my heart for God to revive my heart and love me in an intimate way.

As the song played on repeat, I sat on top of the comforter of my tiny twin bed and open the pages of the Bible to the exact same place: Psalm 139. I read the verses of that psalm each night, sometimes inserting my own name into its words, in an effort to begin to understand and believe how loved and held I was by God.

God used that season and that psalm to teach me my belovedness. He taught me my loveliness. I learned that God saw and delighted in me and wanted me for his own. I learned that I was the bride of Christ. I learned that I was cherished and adored by God, so tenderly and thoroughly.

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It is largely because of that experience of learning my belovedness that I eventually landed here, in a posture of nonviolence. I came to realize a few years ago that God’s tender, fierce, and restorative love for me is the same love God has for everyone else.

It is a love that takes joy in the creation of every single human being, a love that knows the intricacies and particularities of each person’s essence, and a love that knows each person’s fullest potential and deepest depths. It is a love that seeks to claim each person for the true home in which we were all meant to live, which is: the majestic, merciful, and loving presence of a triune God.

Knowing this, I can’t help but walk the journey toward nonviolence.

But the reality of this fierce and tender love God has for all is why I struggle with the violent God of the Old Testament. The God we meet in the Old Testament was indeed long-suffering and compassionate toward Israel over and over again. And in truth, it’s amazing that this God chose a wayward, confused, and clumsy people to be his own at all. It’s beautiful the way he rescued them, guided them, and stayed with them again and again.

He really didn’t have to do that. He is God, after all.

In many ways, then, it’s amazing to watch God create the elaborate systems by which he came to be in relationship with Israel. As silly, shocking, or dismaying many of the rituals of the Mosaic law may be to our 21st-century sensibilities, I do stand back and find it marvelous that such a holy God would want communion with the human beings he created so much that he would instill an intricate and extensive system that made it possible, despite how far removed God’s holiness was from Israel’s utter humanness.

###

And yet he chose Israel and no one else.

And sometimes, when Israel pushed God too far, he lost patience and exerted his righteous wrath.

And then, on top of it all, he waited hundreds and hundreds of years to instigate a new system by which all humans could be saved and never exhaust God’s patience or compassion.

I’m speaking, of course, of Jesus Christ.

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Several weeks ago, shortly after we discussed my initial post on the struggle to understand this violent God, I came across a passage in Romans that helped clarify some of my struggle. Paul says:

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. . . . Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.  Pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. . . . [He] set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now — this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.

–Romans 3:21-26

At the time I read this passage, I felt an immeasurable amount of relief. The coming of Jesus really did mean something. It really did change something in a cosmic and historical sense that Jesus came and walked the earth and then died and rose again.

It sounds so prosaic and pedestrian to say what we’ve always known: God took the sins of the world on himself through Jesus because he knew we couldn’t do it for ourselves. And through that, he set things right and did something new that had never been done before.

We live in a wholly new age. The character of God exercised in the Old Testament really is exercised differently in the New Testament because of Jesus. In short, Jesus matters.

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And yet, as much as this helps make sense of the difference in God’s actions and expectations in the Old and New Testaments, which was part of the struggle I voiced in my initial post, I’m still left with my struggle — it’s just a struggle that’s been re-clarified.

Now, instead of wondering why God demonstrates himself so different from one Testament to the next, I’m struggling with what essentially seems to be survivor’s guilt.

I asked this in my previous post, and I’ll ask it again: why me, and not them?

This past Wednesday, Kirk and I attended a lunchtime Ash Wednesday service at the local episcopal parish around the corner from our house. At one point in that service, I heard something that may help lay to rest this clarified struggle, and I would welcome your thoughts on the matter.

Each week in the liturgy, we speak the Nicene Creed that includes a line that says Jesus descended into hell after his death on the cross. There are many theological perspectives on what that means, why that happened, and what was accomplished when he did that, and I’m not here to debate those perspectives. What I am here to share is that I heard, in a very small moment of that service, an expansion on that idea that said Jesus descended into hell and preached.

He preached? To whom — the dead?

And what did he preach? The reality of grace offered through his death on the cross and consequent victory over sin ?

Perhaps.

If it is true that Jesus descended into hell and preached to those souls gathered there who had lived before his time — the souls who never knew the compassionate, long-suffering, all-inclusively loving God that we now know because of Christ — then perhaps my struggle with the violent God of the Old Testament is indeed satisfied.

Perhaps this means that God took care to rescue those who seemed beyond the scope of God’s rescuing or care in the Old Testament after all.

Perhaps.

Struggling with a Violent God

Photo credit: Image by me, Getty Museum, January 2011

I’ve been struggling of late with my knowledge of the violent God who exists in the Old Testament. I am a follower of Jesus, and in the pages of the New Testament, I discover God walking around on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

In this Jesus, I discover the fullness of love. I discover a God who teaches and embodies peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I discover a God who bears burdens gladly. I discover a God who forgives all enemies.

But in the pages of the Old Testament, I discover a different kind of God. Here, I find a God who chooses favorites. I find a God who chose Israel and no one else. I find a God who decimated whole cities and countries because they lived lawlessly or opposed God’s chosen nation.

One God exhibiting quite different attributes between each testament.

I don’t say any of this to be flippant or disrespect my God. I truly want to understand what this means and why it is, and I’ve been asking God to help me understand. I’m writing about it here for two reasons:

  1. To continue chronicling the reality of this very real journey I keep walking into nonviolence, including all its questions and difficulties.
  2. To learn what you might say. Have you ever struggled with this subject?

I’ve wrestled with this question for over two years. Quite early in my journey, actually, I wrote a piece called “What About the Violent God of the Old Testament?” on another online space I maintain, and I continue to wonder if the place I landed at the end of that piece isn’t the most orthodox place to land: that perhaps in the death of Jesus, the full justice of God was truly satisfied. This means God no longer has reason to administer justice in the ways he used to do.

As I share at the end of that piece, this brings with it its own fair share of new questions, and there are questions I have about that which weren’t even raised in that article.

But even if it is true that this is what happened to make God “change” when it came to Jesus, that still left thousands upon thousands of people in the hands of an angry God. All those people who lived and died before Jesus walked the earth  lived under the wrath of a God who administered such grave justice.

I get that God is just. I get that such a supreme being bears the high standards of perfection. And yet still, my heart breaks at the reality of what that means.

A couple weeks ago, for instance, I read the Passover account in the book of Exodus. This is where God “passes over” those houses of the people of Israel when he comes in wrath against the citizens of Egypt and all their first-born sons. In one night, all the first-born sons in the houses of Egypt died.

That same day, I read the following psalm:

What a stack of blessing you have piled up for those who worship you,
Ready and waiting for all who run to you
to escape an unkind world.
You hide them safely away from the opposition.
As you slam the door on those oily, mocking faces,
you silence the poisonous gossip . . .
Love God, all you saints;
God takes care of all who stay close to him.
But he pays back in full
those arrogant enough to go it alone.
– Psalm 31:19-20, 23 (The Message)

Earlier in my faith journey, I used to read these kinds of passages and find great comfort and solace in them. They told me of a God who cares for those who love and follow him. They told me that those who mocked and scorned me for my faith wouldn’t keep their days of herald forever.

But today, it’s not like that at all.

Today, I read these passages and weep. I weep for those God killed in the Passover. I weep for those parents who lost those sons. I weep for all the people who lost their lives because of the anger and judgment of the God I serve. Such weeping for those I would normally deem my enemies just won’t seem to go away.

Lately, I’ve been sitting here in a struggle with this violent God. I don’t fully know how to reconcile him with the Jesus I’ve come to know and dearly love — the Jesus whom I believe is the incarnation of this same exact God — who tells me I am wholly precious and cherished.

I know that I didn’t choose God. I did nothing to merit the love of God, and yet here I stand, utterly steadfast in it, unable to lose it at all. Why me, yet not those?

These questions trouble me, and I ask God to teach me. I hold these questions, and I wonder. Will you wonder with me?