Sin and Compassion
God does not play dice with the universe, Albert Einstein said. He obviously didn’t read the book of Job.
In that book we read that God initiates an exchange with Satan that leads to needless loss of lives, health and wealth. Three characters in the book attempt to justify God and they get a ticking-off from God.
Lesson 1: God is not into Theodicy.
The object of this divine plot pleads his innocence. He rolls out his résumé dotted all over with charity and piety. Frankly he need not have bothered. God calls him the most perfect of all that live. Nonetheless he also gets a ticking-off for his jeremiad.
Lesson 2: God is not into self-righteousness.
Are we simply being taught to neither justify nor plead? Should we simply conclude and accept that bad things happen to good people?
Well it depends on how you approach scripture. Some say Job’s faith in God’s faithfulness was being tried. I struggle with that approach. Since God knows the end from beginning and call things that aren’t as though they already existed, Isaiah 46:10; Isaiah 48:5 He didn’t need to clobber Job to within inches of his life to confirm what He already knew. Others say God’s faith in Job’s faithfulness was being tried. And who would be the judge of that? To what end? To whom would God justify Himself – Satan? Please!
When we read the book of Job we don’t rush to condemn God. We try to understand him.
The Psalmist said God’s relationship with us is not based on His confidence in our faithfulness but His love. Psalm 78: 36-38 He said He does not owe anyone anything – no debt, no explanation, no justification. Nada! Job 41:11
All such interpretation focus only on God, Job and Satan. How about the innocent souls that were killed in that transaction? Were their lives worth less than establishing the strength and character of Job’s faith in God or vice versa? Did God abort the divine essence to prove Himself to, well, Himself or Job to Satan?
I think a careful reading might lead us in a different direction. In the course of being pulverised senseless, Job insisted on being heard. He didn’t quite blame God, but he asked heaven to justify the fate meted out to him. In the absence of any convincing explanation, heaven would have fallen well short of its own standards of justice and equity.
Did God respond?
What were Job’s sins?
So what exactly did God have to say about the whole episode?
Well, it might amount to a heresy to paraphrase Him; so let’s quote Him:
“Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou (SATAN) movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3 (My emphasis by the way).
How are we meant to understand the implication of Satan ‘moving’ God to destroy an upright and perfect man without a cause?
Again it depends on how you read scripture. Note that the whole scene was plotted by God. He called Satan’s attention to Job – twice – and not the other way round. He led Satan on. Satan was well and truly had, used to teach a lesson.
What lessons could possibly be learned in a plot so grotesque? To what divine ideal is God teaching us to aspire?
Could it be that God wants us to appreciate that a perfectly upright and righteous being (His character in that story) could be ‘persuaded’ or ‘moved’ or ‘seduced’ into acting out of character?
When we read the book of Job we don’t rush to condemn God. We try to understand him. We know it’s not in God’s character to play dice with people’s lives, though He said that’s precisely what He’s done. We nonetheless take a large-hearted approach to analysing that story because we know that God is good and there’s no evil in Him, no matter the evidence. Might it be that He’s teaching us to extend to those who act out of character the same consideration we give to Him in that saga?
Apostle Paul wrote that:
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
God is not in need of correction, reproof or instruction in righteousness, but man is. God has nothing to learn from the story of Job, you and I do. The story of Job teaches us precious little about God. It only demonstrates His penchant for play-making; the immanence of the transcendental for the purpose of edification; a character in an allegory to inspire to divine ideals. In order to make His point, He often assumes roles that scandalize us. For emphasis, allow me to digress.
God is not in need of correction, reproof or instruction in righteousness, but man is.
In Genesis the Lord had a jaw-jaw with Abraham. He was going to Sodom and Gomorrah to pass judgement. Abraham was appalled by God’s sense of judgement, so he challenged God. Would the judge of the whole earth not judge righteously? Abraham asked. God did not need reminding to be God but He nonetheless encouraged Abraham to ‘talk’ Him into judging righteously. Genesis 18:23-25
Consequently Moses, Amos, Habakkuk were emboldened by that knowledge to engage heaven and to intercede for the earth. Thank God’s play-making for the Ministry of Intercession. At Sinai He told Moses that the children of Israel did not have what it took to ascend the mountain. He offered to come down instead. Exodus 19:12-20 Sometimes God ‘descends’ that man may ascend.
To put this into perspective let’s consider the story of Adam and Eve. Before their fateful encounter with the seducer they were as pure as pure got. They were made in the image of God – not in physical attributes but in essence. Yet before any acts typical of their divine pedigree could be recorded to their glory, we learn of their ‘fall’. Satan ‘moved’ them to disobey God. Genesis 3:1-13 Whereas nothing in their elevated state made them especially vulnerable to demonic sophistry, nothing in their perfect make-up granted them immunity against the wiles of Satan either.
Volumes have been written about that couple – mostly uncomplimentary – but experience show that we have not learned much from their story, perhaps because we teach the wrong sort of lessons with it. As Confucius might have written, if what is intended is not what is understood, then what could be achieved would remain a pipe dream (allow me)! Evangelists harp on about how ‘fallen’ man could never please God, as though man fared better before ‘falling’!
The potential to ‘fall’ was always part of God’s glorious space. Man did not create the serpent. He just found that they shared a common space, God’s space. They were all parts of a single narrative, a narrative that God in His infinite wisdom declared ‘very good’. Genesis 1:31 The best of men, in the best of circumstance are not immune to the wiles of Satan and his base schemes.
God had no illusions about the potential for conflict within His world, but He exhorted man to rise above it. Genesis 4:7 Each time man failed (which is often enough) He intervened with compassion. He expelled Adam and Eve from the garden but shielded them from the elements. He sent Cain into no man’s land but shielded him from vigilante justice. Genesis 4:15 He dealt with their sins with large heartedness – as the Psalmist wrote:
“…thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.” Psalm 99:8
Is this treatise not revisionist? As the Good Book says, death came into the world because of this lot. Romans 5:12-14
True but we are encouraged to approach these characters compassionately, a suggestion that tasks us.
Man did not create the serpent. He just found that they shared a common space. God’s space.
In ‘Evil and the Justice of God’, Professor NT Wright attempted to go where angels do not dare when he suggested that supra-natural forces impose their unholy influence on mortals and ‘move’ men in directions of evil. But the good Bishop didn’t go into an in-depth exploration of that line of thought, perhaps because it’s not ‘intellectually correct’ to absolve man of responsibility for his choices.
In ‘On Heaven and Earth’, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would become Pope Francis, wrote that it’s not acceptable to demonise those who do bad stuff while under the influence of demonic stranglehold. Neither of these great thinkers set out to justify sin. They were only following in the footstep of the Master.
Sin and the sinner were themes the Lord Jesus Christ dealt with. Much to the disapproval of the leaders of faith of his time he appeared to be soft on sinners. He challenged any without sin to execute the Mosaic sentence on an adulteress, something he was eminently qualified to do; but chose not to. Rather, he exhorted her to rise above her demons. John 8:11; Genesis 4:7
The Lord knew better than most that we face a formidable enemy. In his farewell exhortation he told Peter that Satan was spoiling to do battle with the latter and that he, Christ, was well aware that in that battle it would take Christ’s personal intervention if Peter were to stand a chance. Luke 22:31-32 Despite Jesus’ herculean effort, Peter fell thrice – in a matter of hours. Nonetheless Christ did not remove him from the office to which Christ had appointed him. Christ did not deny him the glory promised, though he ‘fell’ – too soon, rather easily, three times. Matthew 26:69-75
Jesus crafts the story of the prodigal son to teach that however hedonistic we get, however badly we betray our divine heritage, however defiled wallowing in swine farm gets us, the Father never ceases to pine for us. We do not lose that which makes us children of God.
Rabbi Abraham Lavi used a parable to make a similar point to his London Holland Park Synagogue congregation. A professor waved a £50 note before his class and asked if anyone wanted it. Everyone in the class wanted it. He then crumpled the note in his hand then repeated his offer. All hands shot up. He put the note on the floor and stepped on it, leaving it crumpled and badly stained. Again he offered. And again everyone wanted it. Lesson: however much we’re messed up, we do not lose our value.
However badly we betray our divine heritage, the Father never ceases to pine for us. We do not lose that which makes us children of God.
The God who ‘descends’ that we might ascend exhorts us to judge righteously. Righteousness is one of those words that might only be appreciated contextually. In Hebrew it means Tzedek or its derivative, tzedakah. Writing on Justice and Compassion, Lord Jonathan Sacks noted that:
“Tzedek/tzedakah is almost impossible to translate, because of its many shadings of meaning: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence. It certainly means more than strictly legal justice, for which the Bible uses words like mishpat and din…It is best rendered as “the right and decent thing to do” or “justice tempered by compassion”.
That’s what informed Christ’s attitude towards the adulteress. He judged her compassionately. The ‘fallen’ brother or sister must therefore be appreciated and loved for the divine essence they continue to carry within. The way to shame evil is to appreciate the person of Christ in those who fall short of moral and ethical standards. That’s the divine ideal. That’s a way to ascend.
Christ said a place is reserved in his father’s kingdom for those who visited him in prison. The prison is not the place for a being as perfect as Christ. That is where we put rapists, thieves, murderers, paedophiles and other characters of the baser sort. However, Christ implied that despite their crimes and unworthiness, he remained in them. Matthew 25:34-40 They too are good people who acted out of character.
That which we do with God, let us learn to do with our fellow man – as Christ exhorts, rendering justice with compassion.
|↑1||Isaiah 46:10; Isaiah 48:5|
|↑2||Psalm 78: 36-38|
|↑5||2 Timothy 3:16|
|↑14||John 8:11; Genesis 4:7|