Our Methods Reveal Our God
By Dr. Dorothee Cole
My God is Jesus. He’s the standard I strive to live by. Even though I fail every single day, he continues to be my example, my inspiration and my encouragement. He’s the one I pray to, the one I want to be with and like. He’s the one I’m waiting for.
Even though I recognize that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament (I Corinthians 10:4), I don’t implement the things he sometimes demanded from his people thousands of years ago. I don’t try to kill those who oppose my God (I Samuel 15:3), I don’t desire to wade in their blood (Psalm 58:10), nor do I kill the babies of my enemies (Psalm 137:9). I don’t advocate stoning Sabbath breakers (Numbers 15:35) or gluttonous children (Deuteronomy 21:18). I don’t pay back my enemies for what they’ve done to me, and if I slip up and find myself acting in that way, I eventually recognize that I didn’t do it in my God’s name. How do I know this? Because my God is Jesus and he didn’t advocate doing these things. In fact, he gave me permission to say No to these kinds of methods: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you” (Matthew 5:38). He set up a new standard that filled the old with deeper meaning; he emphasized agape love and freedom as the motivation for doing God’s will and as his children, he wants us to use his methods also. In order to remove all doubt about God’s methods, Jesus declared on several occasions that the Almighty is exactly like Him (John 14:7) and that God is perfect because he loves even his enemies and even blesses them (Matthew 5:45). He calls us to do the same (Matthew 5:44).
Recognizing that God the Father and Jesus are one (John 10:30), I can’t deny that the bible is full of apparent contradictions in regards to God’s methods of operation. In one place God ordered people to kill his enemies and in another we’re told to pray for them and to love them (aka. to actively oppose their aggression by refusing to strike back). But these once glaring contradictions have become less prominent for me in recent years. As I read the bible and recognize the severity of planet Earth’s rebellion, I see a God who tried to lead his people in their culture and time, a God who at times spoke a language that would touch rebels, always trying to lead them closer to his ideal – to my God Jesus. He didn’t want polygamy, divorce, hatred, and killing but his people weren’t ready to accept him as a God who values our free will and whose nature is to serve, rather than to be served (John 13). “You are stubborn as donkeys, how can I feed you like lambs in a meadow?” (Hosea 4:16) was God’s cry during those violent Old Testament times.
But in recent times, these once glaring and troubling differences between the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament Jesus have actually endeared me to God. I have even more respect for him because he was willing to work with us amidst our rebellion, amidst our chaos and misunderstanding of what a god ought to look like. He was willing to compete with the futile and non-existent gods of the Canaanites, Midianites, and Ammonites who were so much more attractive to our spiritual ancestors. Our God was willing to wrestle in the dirt, identifying with us all the way throughout our miserable history. And, he was willing to be misunderstood by the religious community thousands of years later, even in our time. Many have used these crisis interventions by God as “proof” that he condones violence. God took a great risk by sticking with His people and by speaking our human language, but in the process, His reputation was severely damaged:
Wherever they went, they gave me a bad name. People said, ‘These are GOD’s people, but they got kicked off his land.’ I suffered much pain over my holy reputation, which the people of Israel blackened in every country they entered. (Ezekiel 36:20, The Message)
But finally God came as a human so that there would be no more questions about his methods. He was clear and unambiguous. He didn’t condemn sinners; he came to save them. He forgave those who didn’t ask for forgiveness (Luke 23:34). He healed physical and spiritual diseases and he gave hope and joy to people of all ages.
Most importantly, Jesus never used violence as a means to get his way! Even the cleansing of the temple caused the children and the poor to come to him without trepidation (Matthew 21:14). For the poor, sick, and outsiders of society, he did not inspire fear but trust. He did have some severe words for the religious community, yet spoken with the highest sense of agape love, trying to reach a very hardened bunch of religious intellectuals who were unmoved by his acts of kindness and mercy. And finally, God didn’t demand a sacrifice for our sin; he himself became the sacrifice. In Jesus’ death, we see the clearest revelation of God’s methods: sacrifice, service, forgiveness and gentle persuasion. No force, no violence, no killing on God’s part. All of the violence Jesus experienced came from people who were driven by the hatred of God’s enemy. Jesus abolished our picture of a punitive God and freed us to obey him without fear of punishment or fear of death:
There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. So then, love has not been made perfect in anyone who is afraid, because fear has to do with punishment. (I John 4:18 GNB)
Since Jesus, we should be clear on God’s methods. And we should be clear on the methods of the enemy. There are powers at work behind the scenes that use secrecy, lies, coercion and violence to get their way. Revelation tells us that there is a dragon (Revelation 13) who devours and destroys, compelling the whole world to follow him. But we must be clear that God does not use coercion and that he won the Cosmic Conflict as a Lamb that was slain (Revelation 5:12)). His “wrath” is that of a slain Lamb who persuades but leaves us free to choose the consequences of sin, separated from the Lifegiver. Force and coercion are always the mark of the enemy, “Compelling power is found only in Satan’s government.” (1)
The methods we use in this world reveal our picture of God. It is possible to be on the side of “truth” from a doctrinal perspective but to simultaneously stand in opposition to Jesus. An extreme example to illustrate this is seen in the life of Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a Spanish theologian and physician. He was the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation and his brilliance extended to astronomy, mathematics, and many other areas. There was just one problem – he was a non-Trinitarian. Because of this, he was relentlessly pursued by Calvin and was convicted of heresy in the French Inquisition. Calvin wrote 17 letters to condemn Servetus and wanted him to be beheaded. He was eventually burned at the stake. In this instance, Calvin saw “truth” and “doctrines” as more important than the methods with which to establish them. Calvin’s said:
Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory. (2)
Do we agree with Calvin that we should “spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity” when we seek to promote God’s “glory”? In this instance, did Calvin’s methods exemplify Jesus’ methods or those of God’s enemy?
Jesus left His followers with one command: “And now I give you a new commandment: love one another” (John 13:34). Sadly, it was Calvin who used non-kingdom methods merely to protect a theological position. Living out the love of God should always supersede “doctrine” and “truth.” And, it is precisely the methods we use with those who oppose our religious understanding that reveal who our God is. Paul’s emphasizes this issue on several occasions but nowhere as clearly as in his letter to the Corinthians:
I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.
I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets;
I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned —but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable;
love does not keep a record of wrongs;
love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth.
Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.
Love is eternal…
Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13:1-8, 13 GNB, my emphasis)
While we struggle with matters of doctrine or “truth,” such as creation vs. evolution, women ordination, the nature of God’s wrath and other “character of God controversies,” let’s consider carefully how we deal with those who oppose our theology. If we find ourselves using the enemy’s methods to coercively silence “heretics” for the sake of doctrine, we might in the process become the heretics ourselves.
- Desire of Ages 759
- Marshall, John (2006). John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture, pg 325