Category Archives: Violence in the Old Testament

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.

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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?