Monday, June 22, 2009

What Does it Mean for God to Be Offended?

As readers/commentators of Fr. Stephen’s blog have illustrated, there is a very strange notion common to certain strains of Western Christian thought, that since God is infinite, any sin we commit constitutes an infinite offense against Him. Therefore, sin requires infinite punishment.

But how do we see the “Most Offended” behaving on the Cross? Here mankind has offered Him the ultimate offense, killing Him, and how does He respond? “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” What meaning does it have to be “offended” if this is the way the Offended One responds?

Or do we seriously think this attitude differs one iota from the Father’s own attitude, when Jesus Himself tells us, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”? When St. John tells us Jesus was the exact imprint of the divine glory? (Hebrews 1:3) No, His forgiving attitude is identical to the Father’s and the Spirit’s, in every minute detail. There is no conflict in the Holy Trinity, none whatsoever. The Father no more takes offense than the Son does, for they are in complete harmony in all things, being two facets of a single God, and The Son is the Mind of God, the Wisdom of God.

And although it is extremely difficult for us who have been raised in the West to get this through our noggins (at least it is for me!), it really ought not to come as any surprise that God the Father NEVER changes His loving attitude toward us, not in the slightest. Why should this not surprise us? because after all, He is in no way harmed if we disobey His commandments. He only gave them to us for our own good. It is not as though He had determined which behaviors He likes and which He does not just arbitrarily, for no reason at all. Nor does He make this determination because it in some way serves Him. He is not self-serving. “God is love” (I John 4:8) and “love seeketh not her own.” (I Corinthians 13:5) Jesus did not say, “I have come that all men may know and serve Me and bow before Me.” Rather, He said, “I came not to be served, but to serve.” God does not need our service, does not even need for us to exist. He already has the all the fullness of glory independently of us.

Rather, God gave us commandments because the keeping of them would be for our own benefit, the same way a parent commands his child not to touch the stove or to look both ways before crossing the street. And if the child does touch the stove, does the parent get mad at the disobedience and therefore cause the stove to burn the child? If I jump from a skyscraper and hit the pavement and die, is it because God was angry with me for jumping? Or if I chain smoke for 40 years and develop lung cancer, is it because God is getting even with me because for some unknown reason He is opposed to smoking? Of course not! All these things happen just because that’s the way the universe works. It’s the same way with the commands God gives us; they are for our growth and happiness and if we transgress them, it is not He who is harmed, but we. It isn’t He who inflicts the harm, either. The harm just happens because of what we’ve done. The harm is inherent in the sin. (Otherwise, God wouldn’t have had any reason for considering it sin!) The harm is there independently of God’s attitude. God’s attitude toward us is constant and true, not fickle, not changeable.

And what is that attitude? He makes His sun to shine on the wicked and the good alike. He makes His rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, alike. He is kind to the wicked and the ungrateful. Those are Jesus’ own words (Luke 6:35), not the words of some liberal theologian. And to be like our Father in Heaven, Jesus says, we must bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us. That is God’s unwavering, unalterable attitude. “God is Love.” “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” God does not add to the enormous harm we’ve already done by harming us further! No, the very opposite: He seeks to save us from ourselves and from the harm we do.

We often do not notice the harm we do to ourselves when we disobey God’s instructions. We blind ourselves to what is happening to us inside; we imagine we’ve gotten away with it. But the harm is still being done. We grow gradually alienated from one another, we feel increasingly isolated and lonely, we find life more and more bereft of meaning, we become depressed. Our character erodes, our ability to act freely is diminished as we become enslaved to our passions, our personhood suffers trauma, even our physical health deteriorates. We build ourselves a little, but growing, hell.

No, God is not infinitely offended; He isn’t offended personally at all.

But on behalf of the people or things we’ve harmed, He can be said to be offended, yes? Well, put it this way: He does not take joy in seeing harm done to any aspect of His handiwork. He does not approve of the harm we do and He labors to undo it – but all the while still loving us every bit as much as if we had never sinned. (That’s what grace is, when He still loves us no matter what, even though we don’t deserve it.) Again, if His love for us will never change, what does it mean for Him to be offended?

Doesn’t He require at least some payment for our sins? NO! No, for the very same reason: He does not take joy in seeing harm done to any aspect of His handiwork! He does not approve. Much less does He inflict yet more harm! That’s the devil’s doing and ours, and neither we nor he do it on God’s behalf, either. We may be sure that whatever the devil does, he does in opposition to God, in rebellion and in hatred, not in collaboration. WE are the collaborators with satan; God is not. What God wants, instead of payment for sins, is correction of them, a.k.a., repentance, so that we may become whole again, and holy.

Does that mean God actually DOES NOT give to each person what He deserves? That’s exactly what it means. He gives to each person far better than any of us ever deserved. Note the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. Notice that “He died for us while we were yet sinners.” (Romans 5:8)

Does this mean everybody is going to be saved? No, not necessarily. It does mean that if you are “in hell,” whether right now or in the ages to come, it is entirely your own doing. Alexandre Kalomiros describes how this happens in his lecture, “River of Fire.”

Now if anyone is perplexed and does not understand how it is possible for God's love to render anyone pitifully wretched and miserable and even burning as it were in flames, let him consider the elder brother of the prodigal son. Was he not in his father's estate? Did not everything in it belong to him? Did he not have his father's love? Did his father not come himself to entreat and beseech him to come and take part in the joyous banquet? What rendered him miserable and burned him with inner bitterness and hate? Who refused him anything? Why was he not joyous at his brother's return? Why did he not have love either toward his father or toward his brother? Was it not because of his wicked, inner disposition? Did he not remain in hell because of that? And what was this hell? Was it any separate place? Were there any instruments of torture? Did he not continue to live in his father's house? What separated him from all the joyous people in the house if not his own hate and his own bitterness? Did his father, or even his brother, stop loving him? Was it not precisely this very love which hardened his heart more and more? Was it not the joy that made him sad? Was not hatred burning in his heart, hatred for his father and his brother, hatred for the love of his father toward his brother and for the love of his brother toward his father? This is hell: the negation of love; the return of hate for love; bitterness at seeing innocent joy; to be surrounded by love and to have hate in one's heart. This is the eternal condition of all the damned.

If you find yourself in hell, it is because you actually prefer to be there, and you prefer it knowingly. It is because you hate, resent, and reject God; because you fear Truth, hate what is Good, feel jealous in the presence of Love, and find Beauty unbearable. It will be your choice, which God will not override, because to do so would be to destroy you as a person and reduce you to an automaton. And God, Who is love, Who created you to become the opposite of automatons, will not do that to you. He will always respect your freedom, which is a part of His own image in you, even if you use it perversely. He does not want to see anybody in hell; far from it; He has done everything possible to keep us from that. But He will even let you have hell, if that is what you really want. If you are in hell, it is in spite of everything God has done for you, is doing for you, and would have chosen for you.

Does the fact that God always loves us, infinitely, eternally, and unconditionally, mean there is no justice? Well, yes and no. It means there is no “justice” in the sense of equality, of giving to each person a reward or punishment equal and only equal to his good or wicked deed. That never existed, either on earth or in heaven, as I will try to explain in an upcoming post. But that never was justice anyway, not true justice. True justice there is, which I will also try to describe in another post very soon.

P.S.) Actually, the fact that God is infinite means the very opposite of the idea that He is therefore infinitely offended. It's because God is infinite that His mercy is infinite. Search any online concordance and note how many times the phrase appears, "His mercy endureth for ever." I think it's 40 times, if memory serves.


elizabeth said...

I struggle with understanding this as well but am so glad for it. This seems to tie in very much also with the Orthodox teaching for us to judge no one and have no scorn in our hearts. What life giving teachings; I find them hard to deeply learn but am learning to trust in God's mercy.