Sunday, June 15, 2008

God is God!

God was never obligated, and never obligated Himself, to punish sinners or treat them unlovingly. Yes, I know it sounds that way in some parts of the Old Testament. But much of the Old Testament was written the way it was in gracious condescension to human weakness; or as Jesus put it, “because of the hardness of your hearts.” The Law came by Moses, but truth and grace, by Jesus Christ.

The truth is, a person who rejects God - and every sin is a way of rejecting Him - inflicts upon himself the worst punishment of all, namely, godlessness! I mean, not being within loving union, indeed, communion, with Him Who is love, with Him in whom alone is life. Yes, that is the worst punishment there is, though the fact has yet to be made universally manifest. And yes, the sinner inflicts it (and much more) upon himself, unilaterally, without any help from God. God in no way approves, assists, condones or connives in this. He has no interest in the destruction of His own handiwork (for to reject Life Himself is to die); that is the devil’s agenda.

But even if we were to take certain passages of the Old Testament in an unspiritual way, literally, as they were written for Israel’s hard heart, we Christians could, should, never say the Old Covenant is still in effect, so as to suppose God obligated by it.

What? Didn’t Christ Himself, echoing the Old Testament, say the Old, law-based Covenant would never pass away, not even an iota or an accent mark of it, till all was fulfilled? Yes, He did. (Matthew 5:18) And then He perfectly fulfilled it.

Did not St. Paul protest that we are not doing away with the Law, but in fact establishing it? Yes. He also wrote, “He who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” (Romans 13:8) We establish the Law by fulfilling its intention, by doing what it could only point to, by loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving one another as ourselves.

We establish the Law for what it is, for what it was always intended to be: a temporary substitute for Love, Love which cannot be brought about by any legislation. It’s where our love fails that laws become necessary. But the most they can accomplish is to teach us what love would look like, get us to mimic love, to approximate it externally. Only the Holy Spirit can bring true love to us, as He did on Pentecost, and that initiates us into the New Covenant foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’ (Jeremiah 31:34)

The book of Hebrews, after quoting this passage, comments, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13)

Vanish away? How can that be? In what sense? In the sense that the Law, the Old Covenant, has been subsumed under the New. It was only our “governor” to keep us until the Christ should come.

The purpose of the New Covenant is not to make us into law-keepers per se; that has now become utterly beside the point. The purpose of the New Covenant, and even of the Old, except it lacked the power to do it, is to make us into lovers. To be mere law-observing is unnatural for us and for that reason, we cannot help resenting it, even if we try to push that resentment out of our minds. Loving, however, is natural; it's what we were created to do. To love is truly to rejoice. Loving simultaneously fulfills the Law (gives it its ultimate meaning) and abolishes the need for it.

And indeed, God Himself revealed the end of the Old Covenant in several ways. First Christ taught it, obliquely, when He cursed the barren fig tree and it withered, the fig tree representing the spiritual barrenness of Israel. Again the end of the Old Covenant was revealed when Christ was crucified and the Veil of the Temple was ripped from top to bottom, and, according to the rabbis, the glory (Shekinah) of the Lord departed from the Temple. God demonstrated the end of the Old Covenant even more dramatically some 40 years later, when Rome sacked Jerusalem and demolished the Temple, as Jesus had foretold, and scattered Israel, destroying the old worship permanently. It couldn’t be any clearer: the Old Covenant is no longer in effect. And God is not obligated by it any more than we are. He is perfectly free (as, in truth, He always was).

Now if the thought of a perfectly free God alarms us, it is because our fallen minds tend to equate freedom with license or with arbitrariness. But in God, freedom is not like that because God is love and God is perfect. It isn’t bad news that God is utterly, radically free. It’s very, very good news, because it means He is free not to punish or take revenge or be vindictive. It means He is perfectly free to love us, and only love us, and He is never required to behave unlovingly toward us in any manner.

Moreover, we do not need God to place Himself under obligation before we can trust Him to be kind, or not to be arbitrary! We do not trust Him because we consider Him safely bound (even by His own promises), but because of Who He is, Whom we have encountered. We trust Him because we know Him. We would be safe with Him even without any promises.

Safe from our own consciences is another matter! But let us not project our own problem onto God. God simply loves us. And nothing can ever separate us from His love, not even hell. (Psalm 139:8) Period.