Posts Tagged ‘Miroslav Volf’

Psalm 139: The curse that we deserve fell on Jesus instead

October 14, 2015

psalmsPsalm 139, which I preached on last Sunday, presents a challenge to us Christians because it includes literal cursing—words of imprecation against God’s enemies: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!… I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

How do we deal with these kinds of verses in the Psalms?

First, we appreciate that this psalm is a prayer. Among other things, psalms such as these teach us that God gives us permission to honestly express our emotions to him. We don’t need to censor ourselves. Why would we even try? As this psalm says, God “knows our thoughts from afar.” I’m sure that psychologists would be the first ones to agree that being honest with our feelings is a necessary step toward healing.

Second, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “hatred” (שָׂנֵא, or sane) doesn’t connote quite what we think it does. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her commentary, says that this kind of hatred

refers to an emotional reaction of aversion to someone or something. But the aversion does not necessarily invoke a desire for harm to come to the other, but rather a desire to distance oneself from the other. In Prov. 19:7, we read, “If the poor are hated even by their kin, how much more are they shunned by their friends!” Isaac says to Abimelech in Gen. 26:27, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” In the Old Testament, God “hates” particular actions and behaviors rather than particular people. Moses says to the Israelites in Deut. 16:21-22, “You shall not plant any tree as an Ashram beside the altar that you make for the Lord your God; nor shall you set up a stone pillar—things that the Lord your God hates.” And in the Psalter, the psalm-singers affirm that God hates “evildoers” (Ps. 5:5), “the lover of violence” (11:5), and “wickedness” (45:7).[1]

Be that as it may, the psalm reminds us that there are proper objects for hatred. God’s sending people to hell would certainly be a justifiable act of hatred in this biblical sense (even if, as I’ve argued in the past, it springs from a loving God’s commitment to justice). Hell would be the ultimate instance of God’s “distancing” himself from human beings, for eternity.

Augustine wrote in his commentary on this psalm that we are commanded to love our enemies, but not to love God’s enemies. To be on the safe side, I would assume that none of my enemies are God’s enemies, except for sin and evil in the world and, especially, within myself. So we can rightly internalize the psalm, as many Christian thinkers have suggested, using these words allegorically, to root out evil within us. When we pray, for example, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” we are asking God to slay what is wicked within us—those darkened corners of our own hearts that have yet to be redeemed; those things within us that lead us off the straight and narrow way; those thoughts, habits, and practices of ours that lead to death instead of life. And not to mention Satan and his minions. I want God to slay them, too!

But I’m speaking as a comfortable middle-class American whose life has never been directly threatened by physical enemies. The psalmist, David, didn’t have that luxury. And he didn’t intend these words allegorically. Since I’m not a pacifist, I do believe in justifiable violence and warfare. I can easily imagine situations in which we may rightly pray for God to slay the wicked.

Theologian Miroslav Volf can too. He lived through civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Inasmuch as he is a pacifist—and he at least comes close—his pacifism isn’t based on the mistaken belief that God himself is non-violent, or as some modern-day theologians put it, “God is perfect non-coercive love.” No: God judges the world and God takes vengeance. This is the only justifiable basis, he says, for the practice of non-violence.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[2]

Finally, I believe the best way for Christians to read psalms such as these is to remind ourselves who we were apart from Christ. David says, “Slay the wicked, O God!”—because they are God’s enemies who deserve death. And I say, by all means! Apart from what Christ accomplished for me through his life, death, and resurrection, I was an enemy of God who deserved death (Romans 5:106:23). Or as I put it in my sermon:

The curse that deserved to fall on us because of our sins—this death penalty that we deserved to pay, this hell that we deserved to suffer—fell instead on Jesus, was paid for instead by Jesus, was suffered instead by Jesus—and Jesus is God, God in the flesh. God loved us too much to let us to suffer death and eternal separation from him without doing something to save us. So God came to us in Jesus and offered the way for us to be rescued—and it’s a free gift, fully paid for by the blood of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

And if we understand this, we can make sense of all those psalms in which the psalmist asks for God to vindicate him on the basis of his righteousness. We can read them and say, “I’m not righteous, except that Jesus has given me his righteousness. Praise God! Jesus was righteous on my behalf!” And we can read all these psalms that invite curses on God’s enemies and say, “I was an enemy of God. That curse deserved to fall on me, but God the Son put himself in between me and the curse—and let it fall on him instead. Hallelujah!”

1. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al., The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 966.

2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

Being emotional is part of what it means to be made in God’s image

May 8, 2014

A month ago, I wrote that the doctrine of God’s immutability (“God doesn’t change”) shouldn’t be construed to mean that God doesn’t feel or experience emotion. In the Bible he certainly does! Because God freely chooses to be in relationship with his Creation, he allows himself to be affected by that Creation—he takes pleasure in us; he suffers because of us. Because God is unchanging in his being, character, purposes, and promises, however, God is never capricious or moody.

Granted, we could say that every time the Bible depicts God’s experiencing an emotion, the Bible writers are resorting to anthropomorphism—making God seem more human than he really is—because in our finitude we’re unable to experience him in any other way. But that fails to make sense of a great deal of scripture. As Roger Olson said, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Historically, Protestants, who believe that scripture is our primary authority guiding faith and practice, never defended this extreme version of immutability (“God doesn’t change to the extent that he also doesn’t feel”), which comes to us by way of Thomas Aquinas. (Do Catholics believe this?) Unlike Aquinas, we don’t believe that experiencing emotion represents any kind of imperfection. On the contrary, emotions are good and indispensable even to sinful human beings, who often fail to control them or direct them to good ends. Needless to say, we’re not God.

I’m only bringing this up again because Jason Micheli, a popular blogger and fellow United Methodist pastor (in another conference), has a series of blog posts in which he’s arguing, by way of this extreme version of God’s immutability, that sin can only be a problem on the human side, not on God’s side. He writes:

Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else into this punitive ogre, this satan.

Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it does not matter at all to God.

In a fairly literal sense, he doesn’t give a damn about our sin.

It is we who give damns.

Sin does not matter at all to God. How many chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, must we tear out of our Bibles if that’s true?

In a sermon he preached to confirmands(!) about the Lord’s Prayer, my colleague goes on to say that we project the guilt of our sin onto God such that we turn God (I kid you not) into Satan, a wrathful accuser bent on our destruction. Jesus, by contrast, teaches us not to project our guilty consciences onto God when he says, “Deliver us from the evil one.”

See, it’s all right there in the red-letter words of Jesus! What, you don’t see it?

Regardless, Micheli would say that God’s “forgiveness” (scare quotes are deliberate, since this “forgiveness” bears no relationship to actual forgiveness) is merely this: We remember again that God doesn’t condemn us for our sin. God is love, which can only mean that God never “gives a damn” about sin.

So God is just fine with us whether we sin or not. How could he not be? If God were sorry that we’re sinners bound for hell then that would imply that God feels something for us.

I find the whole discussion bizarre.

I suppose the idea helps protect us from guilty consciences, but who needs that much protection? Guilty consciences are often good and necessary things! Speaking as someone who has sinned really badly in my life, I take no comfort in any god who could look at what I’ve done and be O.K. with it.

But it’s not just me and my personal sins, which are bad enough. What about sin on a global scale? God isn’t bothered by that? I’m reminded of something that Miroslav Volf said about pacifism rooted in the idea that God never punishes or judges sin:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[†]

Read this nice post (“Does God Change?”) from Roger Olson if you want to know more about my understanding of immutability. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with something that evangelical theologian Bruce Ware said in an essay on the subject, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I underline the part that means the most to me:

The abundance of Scriptural evidence of God’s expression of emotion and a more positive understanding of their nature lead to the conclusion that the true and living God is, among other things, a genuinely emotional being. Heschel suggests that instead of thinking of the emotions ascribed to God as anthropomorphic, we should rather consider our human experience as theomorphic, as part of what it is to be created by God in his image.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

Celebrating Christmas in the wake of Newtown

December 17, 2012

A high school classmate messaged me on Saturday, asking what she promised was not a snarky question: How will I preach a “normal” Christmas sermon in the wake of Newtown? It’s a good question. There are parents like myself who are trying, perhaps in vain, to protect our younger children from the news—certainly the grisliest details. More deeply, though, she wondered how we can celebrate in the face of this kind of tragedy. (To make matters worse, did she see that I was preaching on A Charlie Brown Christmas? Would a children’s cartoon not be hopelessly beside-the-point at such a time? If you attended my church service yesterday, I hope you saw that it wasn’t.)

Regarding this deeper objection, however, I reminded her first that Christians ought to be the most realistic people on the planet about evil—its reality, its pervasiveness, its intractability. This is the very evil, after all, that God sent his Son into the world to defeat. That this victory remains elusive to us is also no surprise: the world in which suffering, death, and evil will no longer exist is discontinuous with our own. Our faith is eschatological: Christians don’t share the burden, under which our modern-minded friends labor, that our world is or should be making “progress.” As David Bentley Hart said in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami many years ago, our Christian faith sets us free from optimism and teaches us hope instead.

We celebrate Christmas in the wake of Newtown because Christmas teaches us hope.

Besides, at the very center of the Christmas story is another Newtown: King Herod, hearing reports of a rival king born in Bethlehem, sent soldiers there to murder every boy two-years-old and younger. The first Christmas proclaims hope in the midst of tragedy and suffering and unspeakable evil. Try naming any Christmas since then in which that wasn’t the case.

In yesterday’s pastoral prayer—after referring with great circumspection to Newtown—I directed our attention to a future beyond our present world, when “the blood of all your beloved children will be avenged.”

Avenged. Some Christians bristle at the idea of God’s vengeance. Isn’t that an Old Testament idea? they ask—as if they never read Revelation, not to mention the four gospels. If so, I would point them to something that Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s, wrote in Exclusion & Embrace. He said that those Christian traditions (Anabaptists, for instance) most committed to non-violence and pacifism are also most comfortable with the idea of God’s vengeance. We should learn from them, he writes.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

In yesterday’s sermon, I said the following: “Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will face the justice they so richly deserve.”

It’s perfectly appropriate, as we reflect on the events of last Friday, for us to look forward to that day.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

“The quiet of a suburban home”

June 24, 2011

(This post follows up nicely on yesterday’s post about hell from C.S. Lewis.)

I finally finished reading a challenging book about Christian reconciliation called Exclusion & Embrace by Miroslav Volf, a theologian from Croatia who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He believes that a Christian commitment to nonviolence (which he affirms almost without qualification) must be premised upon God’s violence, i.e., the God of love is also a God of vengeance. Christ as suffering Messiah does not contradict Christ as the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. Only God can resort to violence justly.

He observes that Christians of the Anabaptist tradition (for example, Mennonites and Amish), who tend to be most committed to nonviolence in this world, are themselves most comfortable in talking about God’s vengeance at the end of it. Volf believes that’s the right perspective.

Maybe this talk of a violent God—as opposed to a God who is always “nice”—makes us uncomfortable? Here’s his devastating response:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

“I am who I am in relation to the other”

February 9, 2011

A clergy friend strongly recommended that I read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace. He said that it would help me in my struggle to understand the meaning of the cross—especially in my effort to make sense of penal substitution. Volf is an evangelical Christian theologian from Croatia, who endured the war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s.

It just so happens that within days of my friend’s recommending it, I read this essay on penal substitution by my favorite contemporary theologian, N.T. Wright, in which he also sang the book’s praises. Needless to say, I’m now reading the book.

Although I’ve barely started, I want to stick a pin in this paragraph because it seems profoundly right. In it, Volf explains humanity’s tendency toward violence. It’s rooted, he argues, in the fact that other people are a necessary part of how we define ourselves. That being the case, our well-intentioned libertarian impulse to live and let live is naive.

I am who I am in relation to the other; to be Croat is, among other things, to have Serbs as neighbors; to be white in the U.S. is to enter a whole history of relations to African Americans… Hence the will to be oneself, if it is to be healthy, must entail the will to let the other inhabit the self; the other must be part of who I am as I will to be myself. As a result, a tension between the self and the other is built into the very desire for identity: the other over against whom I must assert myself is the same other who must remain part of myself if I am to be myself. But the other is often not the way I want her to be (say, she is aggressive or simply more gifted) and is pushing me to become the self that I do not want to be (suffering her incursions or my own inferiority). And yet I must integrate the other into my own will to be myself. Hence I slip into violence: instead of reconfiguring myself to make space for the other, I seek to reshape the other into who I want her to be in order that in relation to her I may be who I want to be.

† Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 91.