Struggling with a Violent God, Part 2

Image credit: Barbara Lane

Nearly seven years ago, in what feels like several lifetimes ago, I was living on my own for the first time in my life and going through a process of healing and restoration of heart. I was separated in a marriage that would soon end in divorce, and I felt, on a human level, incredibly wounded, abandoned, and lost.

Every night after work, I returned to my tiny guesthouse and settled into the quiet life I had learned to lead on my own. The furnishings were simple, the dishes delicate and few, and I had discovered a new joy in keeping a tidy and simple home.

Every night for what seemed like months on end, I settled into my evenings at home the exact same way: by flipping on the CD player to play, over and over again, a song by Jeremy Camp called "Revive Me." It was the song of my companionship during that bereft and lonely time and echoed the cry of my heart for God to revive my heart and love me in an intimate way.

As the song played on repeat, I sat on top of the comforter of my tiny twin bed and open the pages of the Bible to the exact same place: Psalm 139. I read the verses of that psalm each night, sometimes inserting my own name into its words, in an effort to begin to understand and believe how loved and held I was by God.

God used that season and that psalm to teach me my belovedness. He taught me my loveliness. I learned that God saw and delighted in me and wanted me for his own. I learned that I was the bride of Christ. I learned that I was cherished and adored by God, so tenderly and thoroughly.


It is largely because of that experience of learning my belovedness that I eventually landed here, in a posture of nonviolence. I came to realize a few years ago that God's tender, fierce, and restorative love for me is the same love God has for everyone else.

It is a love that takes joy in the creation of every single human being, a love that knows the intricacies and particularities of each person's essence, and a love that knows each person's fullest potential and deepest depths. It is a love that seeks to claim each person for the true home in which we were all meant to live, which is: the majestic, merciful, and loving presence of a triune God.

Knowing this, I can't help but walk the journey toward nonviolence.

But the reality of this fierce and tender love God has for all is why I struggle with the violent God of the Old Testament. The God we meet in the Old Testament was indeed long-suffering and compassionate toward Israel over and over again. And in truth, it's amazing that this God chose a wayward, confused, and clumsy people to be his own at all. It's beautiful the way he rescued them, guided them, and stayed with them again and again.

He really didn't have to do that. He is God, after all.

In many ways, then, it's amazing to watch God create the elaborate systems by which he came to be in relationship with Israel. As silly, shocking, or dismaying many of the rituals of the Mosaic law may be to our 21st-century sensibilities, I do stand back and find it marvelous that such a holy God would want communion with the human beings he created so much that he would instill an intricate and extensive system that made it possible, despite how far removed God's holiness was from Israel's utter humanness.


And yet he chose Israel and no one else.

And sometimes, when Israel pushed God too far, he lost patience and exerted his righteous wrath.

And then, on top of it all, he waited hundreds and hundreds of years to instigate a new system by which all humans could be saved and never exhaust God's patience or compassion.

I'm speaking, of course, of Jesus Christ.


Several weeks ago, shortly after we discussed my initial post on the struggle to understand this violent God, I came across a passage in Romans that helped clarify some of my struggle. Paul says:

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. . . . Since we've compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.  Pure gift. He got us out of the mess we're in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. . . . [He] set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it's now -- this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.

--Romans 3:21-26

At the time I read this passage, I felt an immeasurable amount of relief. The coming of Jesus really did mean something. It really did change something in a cosmic and historical sense that Jesus came and walked the earth and then died and rose again.

It sounds so prosaic and pedestrian to say what we've always known: God took the sins of the world on himself through Jesus because he knew we couldn't do it for ourselves. And through that, he set things right and did something new that had never been done before.

We live in a wholly new age. The character of God exercised in the Old Testament really is exercised differently in the New Testament because of Jesus. In short, Jesus matters.


And yet, as much as this helps make sense of the difference in God's actions and expectations in the Old and New Testaments, which was part of the struggle I voiced in my initial post, I'm still left with my struggle -- it's just a struggle that's been re-clarified.

Now, instead of wondering why God demonstrates himself so different from one Testament to the next, I'm struggling with what essentially seems to be survivor's guilt.

I asked this in my previous post, and I'll ask it again: why me, and not them?

This past Wednesday, Kirk and I attended a lunchtime Ash Wednesday service at the local episcopal parish around the corner from our house. At one point in that service, I heard something that may help lay to rest this clarified struggle, and I would welcome your thoughts on the matter.

Each week in the liturgy, we speak the Nicene Creed that includes a line that says Jesus descended into hell after his death on the cross. There are many theological perspectives on what that means, why that happened, and what was accomplished when he did that, and I'm not here to debate those perspectives. What I am here to share is that I heard, in a very small moment of that service, an expansion on that idea that said Jesus descended into hell and preached.

He preached? To whom -- the dead?

And what did he preach? The reality of grace offered through his death on the cross and consequent victory over sin ?


If it is true that Jesus descended into hell and preached to those souls gathered there who had lived before his time -- the souls who never knew the compassionate, long-suffering, all-inclusively loving God that we now know because of Christ -- then perhaps my struggle with the violent God of the Old Testament is indeed satisfied.

Perhaps this means that God took care to rescue those who seemed beyond the scope of God's rescuing or care in the Old Testament after all.