Lines in the Sand

I drew a line in the sand today — with God.

In my Christian experience I have wrestled with the concepts of grace, love and forgiveness. I have found it difficult to consistently forgive myself and those who have wronged me with any sense of permanence. I have been consoled with the notion that I am imperfect until final redemption and that God is giving me time to “learn to forgive,” even while failure to forgive on my part would supposedly render me unforgiven.

I have spent years striving to fully obtain the grace of God, being careful to eliminate all “roots of bitterness” and any hunger for revenge. However, by following popular Christian teaching all I have really managed to do is defer the bitterness and desire for revenge with the reasoning that God will grant me justice after death. I have imagined redemption in the form of my adversaries getting what is coming to them (assuming they remain evil and unrepentant until the point of death). This so-called redemptive reservation has been used to motivate forgiveness to those who find it difficult.

Of course the command to love ones enemies is also a “motivator” toward forgiveness. But I have been unable to escape how that love feels false, if not impossible in these circumstances. How can I love someone while simultaneously anticipating retribution in the form of their demise? If the justice of God comes primarily in the future sense as many pastors scholars and laymen indicate then this is my only choice. I must live in the tension of already loving and forgiving my enemies and not-yet witnessing the judgment to come to evil in the world.

This is where I draw the line. I cannot serve a god who demands that I love and forgive my enemies while, by the very nature of his so-called sovereignty, he is not held to the same standard. Am I supposed to somehow surpass his goodness and god-ness by loving those who wound me while he reserves judgment and punishment for those who do not repent and confess him? If I am to forgive for my own good, at the least to make myself forgivable, how is it he reserves forgiveness until confession and repentance take place? Is this just a divine privilege we don’t have access to? Is this reservation somehow part of the mystery of his love? I do not understand any longer how this portrayal of God’s heart holds any positive appeal.

However… if God’s heart is truly portrayed from the cross in the suffering, choking words, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”… if His heart is portrayed in a man pleading forgiveness for those who are unrepentant, actively mocking and gambling for his garments… if this is the example we are meant to follow, extending forgiveness even before the sacrifice has been made… then my objections are silenced. In this portrayal of God’s heart there is a radical redefinition of justice, one that exposes evil and violence by the absorption of it, rather than eventual retaliation in apocalyptic fashion.

This portrait of gods heart of forgiveness is an embodiment of love that evaporates my bitterness and inexplicably compels me to drop the weapons of self-protection I have been clinging to. When beholding love like this I am inspired to free myself of every hope for revenge. I want to follow Jesus into death, extending love and forgiveness to those who least deserve it and have not even asked for it – because he first showed me how.

But I cannot serve a god who demands that I love and forgive my enemies while he punishes his eternally. I am finding glimpses of hope that I don’t have to.

As I have encountered various portrayals of god put forth in the current theodicy of consensus, I find myself drawing more lines. I cannot serve a god who will go to any length of coercion and manipulation in order to elicit some form of love from his creation. I cannot serve a god who will then challenge or test that love through the sanctioning of evil and suffering inflicted on those he intends to win. I cannot serve a god who uses my life as a means to fill heavenly trophy cases in his triumph over evil.

Drawing lines in the sand feels like a scary thing to do, but I can’t seem to stop myself from doing it. I fear that I will be accused of attempting to put god in a different box. Or perhaps I would be called arrogant for insisting that there must be more to him than we see. More than what we have been conditioned to see.

Then again I wonder if I am not the first to draw lines in the sand. The religious leaders of Jesus time dangled a broken woman in front of him, daring him to contradict their so-called god of justice. But instead of following the neatly boxed rules of the god they thought they understood, he challenged them to absorb the violence they were ready to inflict, thereby encountering the true heart of God in revolutionary justice. Jesus bent down and drew lines in the sand. Through these actions he broke out of the box they had constructed for him, for God. Is it possible that the lines he drew confronted their arrogance in assuming they knew how God would act? Is it possible that the lines I am drawing do the same for me?

Perhaps these lines point to the heart of a god who refuses to engage according to the rules of evil any longer. A god who came in flesh to show us how to overcome evil and sin in ways that centuries of prophetic voices could not. Perhaps the heart of God is portrayed in one who has the authority to judge but chooses instead to love and forgive, saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

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Mississippi River Lines in the Sand (photo taken by me in 2012)

This is a God I can serve. This is a God I can follow. Nothing he asked me to do, he has not already done. I don’t have to spend my life waiting for the other shoe of retribution to drop, hoping it doesn’t crush me on the way down. The lines in the sand have fallen for me in pleasant places.

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6 thoughts on “Lines in the Sand

  1. John 3:16-21
    16 For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior.

    18 Whoever believes in the Son is not judged; but whoever does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in God’s only Son. 19 This is how the judgment works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. 20 Anyone who does evil things hates the light and will not come to the light, because he does not want his evil deeds to be shown up. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light in order that the light may show that what he did was in obedience to God.
    TEV

  2. Did you read the book of Thomas Talbott ‘The inescapable Love of God’? Its a wonderful book about this item, he had the same problems as you and wrote this book. I live in the Netherlands and this book is translated into Dutch and we are very happy with this book.
    Part of the conclusion is that there are a few words which are translated wrong from the Original, in the first centuries universalism was the prevailing doctrine of the christians church, you can read more about it in tentmaker.org
    Blessings, and sorry for my bad English.

  3. Oh, Rebekah! How many straw-man images of God do we have to knock down because they’ve been woven by preachers and teachers and theologians but don’t match the Father Jesus came to show us? In singing “In Christ Alone” and I came to the lines:
    “Till on that cross as Jesus died
    The wrath of God was satisfied”
    I had to react! What kind of God needs to punish in order to pacify His anger? That’s not in sync with the God Jesus was displaying. So, after some thought, I sang it again with changed words:
    “Till on that cross as Jesus died
    The grace of God was magnified”
    To me the “wrath of God” is the Godhead’s (including Christ’s) manifestly passionate hatred for the deceptive, damaging, disintegrating horror that is sin. How and where was that “wrath” against sin displayed? In the most gracious way and place possible: on the Cross, which was made available by God’s own Incarnation. To be true to Himself, the God of light could not hide His wrath on sin, but at the same time, the God of love could not safely (for humans) manifest it except “In Christ Alone.” Judgement on sin took place on the Cross, so that outside of Christ, there is no safety from the burning lazer light on human sin.

    I read a poem recently on the AllPoetry.com site that ranted at a more-or-less ‘straw-man image’ of God, and I commented on it thus:
    “This is a poetic release of creedal frustration similar to the voice of Job and other poets in the Psalms…. Such mutual disconnect between infinite Wisdom and partial knowledge, eternal changelessness and human vacillation, ultimate purity and chronic waywardness, has only one greater, more profound dissimilarity: finite understanding may hotly write off a misunderstood Almighty, but ultimate Love keeps an open ear to finitude’s complaints and even makes sure they get recorded in His Book….”

    Then I wrote my own poem as a poetic rephrasing of that comment: “God Condemned” and posted it (http://allpoetry.com/poem/12586760-God-Condemned-by-Pastordavidrn)

    This month’s CT had an interview with pastor-theologian Fleming Rutledge, presenting her view of the Atonement. I hope this link will allow you to read it, because her view of the Cross is so similar to mine, and I just finished preaching a Lenten sermon series on it:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/march/why-did-jesus-choose-cross.html?share=YRHUo2UxDW3hHUexdAWLbMzXdHR5ctA%2f

    But also helpful in rebuilding the authentic view of the God displayed in the life and teachings of Christ is a video on YouTube called “The Gospel in Chairs” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wnj52gaauBs) If you have not seen this, I believe it will revolutionize your theology.

    Blessings on you, my honestly naked, authentic sister!

  4. Wow. Such vulnerability and honesty. Struggling is a sign of growth. I know I haven’t talked to you in years and this may seem out of place, or weird (forgive me, I am weird), but it’s ok to ask God tough questions. It’s ok to battle and wrestle with Him (see Jacob’s story). I really encourage you to keep seeking to understand His heart. Hope you’ve been well. Praying for you.

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