Saturday, July 20, 2024

Is God Punishing Us?

Is God punishing us? I read a recent question from a journalist asking what many people of faith are asking now: “Do you think the pandemic is an act of God’s wrath upon humanity?”
To be fair, such a message is not hard to derive from the Scriptures, like the passage we read recently on the Fourth Thursday of Lent, from Exodus. These questions are to be expected. In the first reading, God comes at Moses like a frustrated and disgruntled parent. He says, “Go down once to YOUR people! … For they have become depraved.” It’s like when my mother would say to my father: “You’ll never guess what that son of yours did this time!” (Surely something about my brother, not me.)
God tells Moses that He wants His “wrath to blaze up against them to consume them.” Did God really want to wipe out Israel and start again with Moses and his progeny? Some Jewish scholars think that this might have been a test for Moses. If it was, he passed. But that doesn’t help us understand God’s “wrath” especially as it is mentioned in other places in the Old Testament. It’s mentioned in historical books, the prophets, and wisdom literature. Even the psalm speaks of it: Moses withstood Him in the breach “to turn back His destructive wrath.”
In the Old Testament, wrath is path of the divine pathos – a Greek word that means suffering. That means wrath is not as much about God’s anger but His suffering for humanity. It isn’t an expression of something irrational and erratic. God’s wrath is not capricious and whimsical, like some Greek or Roman god who takes delight in playing games with humanity. That’s not the way our God acts. Rather, God’s wrath is usually the result of some transgression against the covenant He made with Israel. God suffers because Israel is not living up to their end of the relationship and that somehow, mysteriously, affects the infinite and transcendent God. Yet, through revelation we also know that God is personal – and this is where we can speak of the wrath of God as an expression of His divine pathos – His divine suffering.
You see, the God of Israel, our God, is a jealous God who demands of us an exclusive and faithful love. When Israel fails to love God as He deserves, God responds in a divine way. The Old Testament calls this “wrath.” Far beyond unfettered anger, it’s the response of a heart that is broken after everything has been bestowed upon the beloved. It’s the anguish of a someone who has experienced infidelity or betrayal from a dear friend. It’s the passionate love of a Father who wants nothing but the best for His child and is upset when he sees that child making bad choices and going down the wrong path.
God’s wrath is not an expression of anger or hatred for humanity, but a mysterious manifestation of His infinite love and mercy for every human being. It is sin and evil that rouse the anger of God because of His tender love for His chosen people. The Hebrew word for God’s tender mercy is “chesed.” Psalm 30 speaks of it when it says, “His wrath is for a moment, his faithful love (chesed) life-long.” You see, the Old Testament message doesn’t allow the wrath of God to stand alone, unqualified, unchecked. It is always in a kind of poetic tension with His tender, merciful, love. Yet, it is unequal – remember, His wrath is for a moment, His mercy (chesed) is forever.
One scripture scholar likes to use this stunning image for chesed, tender mercy, that brings the two together: God’s chesed is like a hunting dog that catches hold of its prey by the throat and doesn’t let go. It is relentless and strong and persistent. That’s how God loves us; relentlessly and strongly and persistently. We have no half-hearted God who looks at us and permissively says, “Go and do what you want. It doesn’t matter.” Everything about us, everything we do, everything we suffer, everything we celebrate matters to our God. It always matters to God what we do, how we live, and what happens to us. Remember the lilies of the field in all their splendor and the birds of the air? Jesus asks, “Why are you anxious? Do not worry and say, ‘what are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear? Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be given you besides.”
So, is this coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic an expression of the wrath of God? Who of us could possibly answer that question? We might only say “yes” to that in a highly qualified way: if we embrace the full truth that God may be allowing this current evil to happen in order to draw us back to Himself and show to us just how relentlessly, how strongly, how faithfully He loves us. God might be using this to teach us to be a little less self-reliant and to deepen our trust and love for Him.
Is God so angry with humanity that He wants to wipe us off the face of the earth? No. Remember that God promised that He would never repeat the event of the flood again – He sent Noah a rainbow as the sign of this promise. God doesn’t want to destroy His creation – He wants to refashion us. God only wants what is best for us. After all, He sent His only begotten Son into the world, not to condemn but to save. He is our saving God, our redeeming God, our healing God. And, through Christ Jesus, God becomes to us “our Father” for He has chosen us as His adopted children – not to be destroyed but to be built-up and strengthened. If God is upset, it’s because sometimes His adopted children do not live the full beauty of their special place in His divine heart. We don’t need a pandemic to remind us of that, but it surely makes us wake up and pay attention. It’s a resounding reminder to hold on to the truth that God has chosen us for His own and loves us relentlessly.
This makes me think of that great quote by C.S. Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Do you hear Him?
By Father Joshua Brommer, Special to The Witness
(Father Brommer is the pastor and rector of the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick in Harrisburg. This is the text of his homily for the Fourth Thursday of Lent, March 26, and is reprinted here with permission.)

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