Mercy and Backbone

Last week I wrote a little bit about some things I’ve had on my mind about how I believe God teaches us to love ‘the good.’ In short, I have come to suppose that an important part of our relationship with God, and our growth as Christians, is the process of becoming ‘free moral agents.’ We become people freed to step into life with conviction and courage: To love God’s law, His goodness and righteousness, for ourselves  – and not as spineless automatons.

A passage I read in Numbers this morning put a new spin on it all for me.

We all tend to carry with us the idea that God is, in the Old Testament, a predominately justice-oriented, wrathful, and sometimes (when we’re honest with ourselves) capricious, Deity. Supposedly seminarians such as myself ‘know better,’ that the conflict between the angry God of the Old Testament, and the gracious God of the New Testament, is a misconception. But it is a stereotype hard to break. He truly does seem, to any average reader, pretty angry in the Old Testament. We account for His behavior by musing something along these lines: God shows us in the Old Testament how much He hates sin and loves righteousness, that way we know how much we deserve His punishment, and ergo we know that on the cross Jesus gets all the justice and wrath that we deserved so that we can go free.

I guess there’s something about this scheme that is along the right lines. But I don’t find it quite satisfying. It doesn’t sufficiently explain what I see in the Gospels, where the mission of Christ is shown as conquering through love. In Christ, we see a God who shows His power in His grace, not along with, or in spite of it, as if they are separate and contrasting aspects of Himself.

Today, I was reading in Numbers (chapter 14) and stumbled upon another example of when a God-fearing individual stands up to God and talks back to Him, like some of the examples I discussed in my last post.

The people of Israel, in Numbers 14, are once again shown to be timid, and downright whiny. They are about to move into the promised land, but are scared to death of the people that already dwell there. Apparently there are giants. That would freak me out too. So, I get it.

God gets angry with them for not trusting that He is powerful enough to bring them into the Promised Land. I get that too. After all, they’ve seen an empire shaken to its core, armies thrown into the water, manna fall from heaven, and a bunch of other spectacular moments. They should be ‘getting with the program’ by now.

But then, God has another one of those angry moments that sometimes makes us cringe. He says: ‘That’s it. That’s the last straw. I’m going to disinherit you guys. All those promises I made to Abraham? Forget about it. I’ll transfer them to Moses and his children. They’ll be better than you anyhow” (My paraphrase).

Things are looking good for Moses. He is about to become a new Abraham. He is about to become the father of a new nation, one that’s apparently going to be even greater than Israel. And doesn’t he deserve it? He’s sacrificed everything for Israel, and they keep screwing up. He’s about to finally get rewarded for everything he has done. And in this crucial moment, all that Moses has to do is stand aside, let God get his anger out of His system, and reap the rewards.

And it wouldn’t take much from Moses. He is described as ‘the most timid person alive.’ He just has to do what he does best anyhow: Nothing.

But by this point in the story we have seen that Moses is now consumed by the love of mercy; so much so that this ‘most timid man’ has enough chutzpa to challenge the God of the universe.

Moses has the audacity to talk back to God.

I’m honestly flabbergasted by what he says when he sticks his neck out to contradict God:  “Please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised.”

We usually associate God’s power with justice, wrath, punishment, kicking the bad guys. But Moses calls God’s mercy, His power.

Moses says: ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression. . . . Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love.”

In other words, Moses tells God: ‘It is in Your mercy, not in Your punishment, that you show Your glory and Your power.’

Moses was filled with love and mercy. He gives up his newly promised reward, gives up his fear, and risks his life and his soul. He does this all because of his deep love of mercy; the love that God taught him to have in the first place.

And God, strangely, ends up agreeing. He listens to Moses and ‘changes His mind.’

In our attempts to square God’s justice with His mercy in the New Testament, maybe we miss that the Gospel is the climax of a crucial theme that begins way back in the Old Testament: The sheer power of God’s mercy; the strength of His steadfast & self-sacrificial love.

God does this sort of thing several times in the Old Testament, doesn’t He? He uses this same sort of ‘reverse psychology’ (as I’m inclined to think of it) on others, to push them out of their fear and into a life-consuming, risky, self-sacrificial, commitment to love and mercy. That’s clearly what God ends up trying to pound into Jonah’s head.

I mean, that’s the whole message of the Gospel, isn’t it? Christ was expected to be a military-hero. The Messiah was coming to purify Israel and bring about God’s Kingdom through a big show of power, and the spilling of the blood of her enemies. But He conquered through spilling His own blood. He became King through laying down all power.

When you read the Gospels closely, you can catch the irony. He keeps being portrayed as a potential hero; all this grandiose, military, messianic language follows Him: Christos, Messiah, Son of David, Son of God (like Augustus Caesar called himself). But everything goes topsy-turvy. His coronation is with thorns, His enthronement is on a cross, His throne is established in a grave. He defeats His enemies by loving sinners and non-believers (Gentiles). He conquers death by laying down His own life.

What a needed message in our world: Our mercy is our most powerful tool.

I love this quotation I wrote down yesterday in class, by a Crusades-era missionary to Muslims, Raymond Lull:

“I see many knights going to the Holy Land in the expectation of conquering it by force of arms, but instead of accomplishing their object, they are in the end all swept off themselves. Therefore, it is my belief that the conquest of the Holy Land should be attempted in no other way than as Thou, Lord, and ‘Thine apostles took to accomplish it-by love, by prayer, by tears, and the offering up of our own lives.”

As many have noted, our Western civilization has wandered into something of a moral relativism. You might say our society lacks a moral backbone. And we are, for good reason, concerned that Christianity have a moral backbone. Rampant promiscuity, scandals of all sorts, greed, divorce, and adultery in the Church certainly gives us valid reason for concern. The ‘anything-goes’ philosophy of our society creates chaos, brokenness, and destruction. The Church must be a prophetic voice.

But Satan’s most deceptive trick in this time is to make us afraid of mercy. Mercy is sometimes suspicious, because it smells an awful lot like ‘everything goes.’ But I think this is a false choice. Even in our relativistic society, love is still scandalous and counter-cultural as it was in Jesus’ time. It is a constant feature of ‘the world.’ Our society prides itself on being progressive, and such rhetoric can be a convincing facade. But love and mercy are still lacking. Our ‘pro-woman’ society is still full of rampant abuse, sexual slavery, and objectification. Our ‘pro-gay’ society regularly fails to treat homosexuals as human beings, but instead as political and cultural objects to be made fun of on TV, or left to commit suicide after being ridiculed by classmates. Our ‘celebrity-worshipping’ society takes great pleasure in scapegoating, shaming, gossiping about, and rewarding, the broken public lives we pretend to be scandalized by. Our ‘pro-equality’ society is full of abortions, and a blatant disregard for the needs of mothers faced with the possibility of an abortion. Our ‘pro-diversity’ society still suffers rampant racial conflict. Our modern cities are full of gang violence and murder. Our ‘humane’ penal system has left our prisons bursting at the seams.

This does not sound like a society of abundant mercy.

Grace and mercy are still radical and counter-cultural. They are features of God’s power. Let us not be tricked into thinking otherwise.

Love is still the most powerful force in the universe. That’s still the backbone we’re called to have.  That’s what it means to be like Christ.

That’s what it means to be upright.







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