October 22, 2017

Another Look: Destruction: God’s Alien Work

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Destruction: God’s Alien Work (Lisa Dye)

• • •

“The Lord will rise up as he did at Mount Perazim, 

he will rouse himself as in the Valley of Gibeon—
to do his work, his strange work, 
and perform his task, his alien task …”

• Isaiah 28:21

“What is more alien to salvation than destruction? 
And yet this is what Christ does to his own.”

• Martin Luther

• • •

I had an “aha” moment when I read these words of Martin Luther, and I imagine he had a similar moment when he first thought them. The idea that God who created the heavens and earth is also bent on destruction seems … well, alien. But then again, it explains so much.

A few evenings earlier I came home from a Greek translation class with thoughts of the passage we worked through in Mark 11. In it, Jesus was walking toward Jerusalem and spied a fig tree from afar in full leaf. It was not the season for figs, yet coming close he looked for fruit he knew he would not find. And finding no fruit he pronounced words of destruction over the tree.

Going on into the city, he went to the temple and found the moneychangers conducting business in the court of Gentiles. Theirs was a legitimate and necessary business conducted in an illegitimate place – and taxed by Caiaphas, the High Priest, who wanted a percentage of the trade. Having tables set up inside the temple area instead of outside necessitated merchandise to be carried in, thus making it a thoroughfare … thus violating the temple laws designed to keep it sanctified for prayer and worship.

Was Jesus angry? Scripture doesn’t say. After he turned over the tables and benches of those changing money and selling doves, he taught them saying, “Is it not written: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Ah, aside from the economic activity that quenched the spirit of prayer, the temple market excluded Gentiles from the place designated for them to worship and learn of God. For this, Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders whose shepherding responsibilities were abandoned to business management and whose apathy prevented the “all nations” from coming.

He upset them. He upset their tables, their profits, their systems, their ways. And according to my Greek teacher, he may have done it more than once – even several days in a row. From ruthless encounters with fruitless fig trees to ruthless encounters with fruitless priests and people, Jesus’ alien workings withered things. Whether it was once or multiple times, he made the teachers of the law so afraid that they plotted to kill him.  He put fear into their hearts.

Don’t our hearts also quake with fear when he crashes into our lives and upsets our systems and our ways, our families and our jobs, our health and what temporary peace and happiness we manage to find in a hostile world? It’s tempting to chalk these things up to the wrath of a holy God or the caprice of a heartless God, but it’s so very difficult to chalk them up to the alien work of a loving God who first destroys in order to make new.

Yet, the human suffering we witness and acts we perceive as God’s wrath may, in reality, be the greatest evidence of his love. Before we make that leap, let’s consider what inspired Luther to develop his thoughts on God’s alien workings.

Although devoted to God for all his days, Luther was also tortured for many of them. This student, monk, priest and doctor of the church struggled to work out his salvation with much fear and trembling. One conclusion he came to, and which his own life reflected, is that God tears down in order to rebuild. He kills to give life. He strikes down the lesser in order to raise the greater. According to Luther, “God promotes and perfects his proper work by means of his alien work.”

Revelation and inspiration on this teaching sprang partially from Isaiah 28. In this chapter, reference is made to how God enabled David to destroy the Philistines at Mount Perazim like a flood of water and how, in the Valley of Gibeon, God rained hailstones upon the Canaanites as Joshua routed them.

Although they were Israel’s enemies, there are plenty of accounts in which Israel, the apple of God’s eye, was also the object of his destruction. We might conclude that these alien acts always follow on the heels of disobedience, but sometimes not. There are accounts of other destructions that seem, from a human perspective, unfair in their length, or severity or focus. Think of Job, for example – a man who was destroyed in his family, his wealth, his social standing and his health – all because he was, in God’s own words, “blameless and upright, a man fearing God and shunning evil.”

Luther contended that we are wrong to believe God’s wrath is simple retaliation, to see it strictly as cause and effect. It springs from passion, not apathy or annoyance. Only great love motivates the orchestrations of such a jealous Lover. Luther wrote, “If jealousy is removed love is of necessity removed as well, since these are inseparable activities.” It’s when he leaves us alone to the eternity of our own nothingness we have most to fear.

“Alien” comes from the Hebrew zuwr, meaning foreign or strange. At first glance, we might also think it means rare, but the Bible is filled with accounts of the devastations God not only allowed, but, at times perpetrated. No, alien seems apt. For a God who declares love for his people over and over, his destructions seem numerous and hard to explain.

Just like his Son, God seems fond of acting out parables of destruction and has done so throughout history – in allowing a serpent into the Garden, in deluging the earth with a great flood, in Egyptian enslavements, Babylonian captivities and Roman occupations – even in the wolfish abuses of Pharisees against their own sheep.

On less global and national levels, there were also God’s destructions of the personal kind. Think of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son, Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers and imprisoned by a lying Mrs. Potiphar, David running for his life from Saul’s hit men, Elijah evoking the murderous wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, Moses herding sheep in Midian for a third of his life, dragging the Israelites through the desert for another third and ultimately losing the privilege of the Promised Land for striking a rock. There was Ruth struggling to support herself and her mother-in-law in their widowhood during a famine, Daniel sitting in a cave among ravenous lions for offending the king’s court with his prayers and Esther risking her life to avert Haman’s holocaust.

One could argue that God didn’t actually destroy these people, but in the swirling events of their crises, they no doubt felt the jaws of destruction closing around them, just as we would … just as we often do. Still, he took them down into hard-pressed places with no practical means of escape. He was their only way out, their only means of redemption.

He has reiterated his parable throughout history, but his masterwork of wrath and destruction, love and redemption was displayed in what he did to Jesus, his beloved Son, on the cross. His penchant for this parable is further displayed in the lives of those who follow him and even some who try to run away from him. His alien work of destruction continues in every life in which he desires to bear fruit.

When Jesus and his disciples passed the fig tree on the way out of Jerusalem, Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.

Have faith in God? But it’s withered. It’s destroyed.

Then he told them that faith could obliterate mountains. He was telling them that withered fig trees could one day bear fruit, and errant nations could fall in love with God again. His whole life was about telling us these things. His resurrected life in us is about telling the world these things.

Consider the blind men of Matthew 9 who called to Jesus for mercy. What did Jesus do? He ignored them and went inside. I don’t know why. Maybe the mercy the men had in mind was a handout. Maybe Jesus wanted them to have enough faith in God to knock down a mountain. After awhile, they came to him, this time prepared to receive their sight. Alien. Strange. Destructive. Redemptive.

The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 is similar. She came asking that Jesus heal her daughter. Okay. She had faith for a healing, but what about believing that in Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female? Again, Jesus seems to rebuff someone in need and he does it in no gentle way. He takes her down into her cultural nothingness. He seems to say, “What about your mountain? Can you believe you are more to God than a dog?” Looking inside herself, seeing him in front of her calling faith out of her depths she found she did … and it was a very great faith.

Job, whom God all but sacrificed, came to the point of seeing that though he loved his life, his family, his wealth, his reputation and personal righteousness, he would die before losing faith in God’s goodness. “Though he slay me, I will trust him.”

Strange parables and alien acts. We look for the warm, fuzzy God from whom nothing harsh or painful comes. We look for the wrath-filled, holy God from whom we expect to be squashed like bugs. But we don’t look for the God who loves us so much that he will take us down into depths of despair in order to mine hidden reserves of faith. Then, lovingly, he raises us if we will let him. It’s all so much more complicated and inconceivable than we want it to be. It’s the stuff of fear and trembling. It’s the choosing of faith and the blasting of mountains. And sometimes, if the way is very hard, it’s the chipping away at them … pebble-by-pebble … for a lifetime.

Comments

  1. Wow! Thank you, Lisa, for such a bittersweet scroll to chew on.
    I wish you had been in my Intro to Philosophy class way back in my college days — particularly when we were discussing David Hume’s problem of evil.
    In light of this wonderful post, it seems that Hume was just knocking over a straw god.

    • I was lucky enought to have a brilliant Philosophy Professor who had left the Jewish faith of her German-born parents to become a Catholic. I only NOW can see what a leap of faith that must have been, and the shunning she recieved from her holocost surviving family. She knew a thing or two about destruction…..I only wish I could have absorbed more as a very bright but very shallow 19 year old.

  2. I wrote this post a while back, but since have read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. So much is in there on this very subject if you are interested. His thinking astounds me …

  3. Great to hear from you again, Lisa! This is very thought-provoking.

  4. Saw this while browsing somewhere but can’t find it again to give credit; anyway, here is Habbakuk 3:17-19 which, when I read it, immediately made me think of the cursing of the fig tree – and today you write on that very thing! 🙂

    Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
    the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
    the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
    18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
    19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

    • Oh Martha, thank you for reminding me of this passage. I used to have it committed to memory. Now would be a good time to brush up on it.

      • I don’t want to give the false impression that I regularly peruse the minor prophets 🙂 Whoever it was that serendipitiously put up the Habbakuk passage, it seems to fit very well, doesn’t it?

        “When Jesus and his disciples passed the fig tree on the way out of Jerusalem, Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

        “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.”

        “Though the fig tree should not blossom…yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation”

        Why, it’s almost like the Old Testament foreshadows the New, and that the New Testament fulfils the Old 😉

    • David Cornwell says:

      I’ve always loved this passage. Thanks for putting it before us.

  5. Excellent post; I will be chewing on this.

    I am reminded of Hosea 6:1, “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.”

    There’s been much tearing and destruction in my life in the last few years, totally inexplicable. I no longer say I know the Lord – I do not, but I am known by him.

  6. I understand the greater point of this post, so apologies if this is somewhat off the path. No doubt we can look backwards at Biblical historical accounts and can easily see where God so often exercised his wrath against creation in a multitude of ways.

    Do you think He’s still doing it today? Certainly he allows suffering and despair to occur routinely, but in the same instance is it possible that maybe the Robertson’s and Dobson’s of the world aren’t completely out in left field when they assign blame for the Katrina’s and tsunami’s that occur as sent from God (something I’ve scoffed at)?

    • I guess anytime we presume to know the heart of someone making comments we are taking leaps. I’ve only heard one or two items spoken by Dobson and Robertson second hand, so I wouldn’t want to guess. But I think part of the issue is the definition of wrath. Seen as punishment, it is one thing. As God’s loving act to strip away barriers to our coming to him, it is entirely another. If God is love, as Scripture reveals in words and Jesus revealed in his person, even God’s acts of destruction can’t be separated from his love. He will move all of creation to make us his true sons and daughters.

      And just so you know, I’m just throwing out ponderings here. God constantly befuddles me. The older I get, the duller I am and the less I have things figured out … but I know he loves us.

      • David Cornwell says:

        “The older I get, the duller I am and the less I have things figured out … but I know he loves us.”

        Same here Lisa. When it gets stripped to the Story and those wonderful old passages, I can understand. “Jesus love me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.”

  7. “He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
    17 my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
    18 so I say, ‘My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.’

    19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!
    20 My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me.
    21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

    22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
    23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
    24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

    –Lamentations 3:16-24

    We’d rather forget God’s alien work–it’s too hard. We love imperfectly and incompletely which is why we miss “the God who loves us so much that he will take us down into depths of despair in order to mine hidden reserves of faith.” Well said, Lisa. Thank you!

  8. Do not take the light lightly. The fear of the Lord is the beginning…. It is foundational. It is the recognition, through faith, of who is who and where my place is.

  9. God’s wrath is constantly being poured out because of all inequity.

    He’s got us on the threshing floor…on the anvil.

    In this world there is no escape from it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      After that statement, how is that any different from “the wrath-filled, holy God from whom we expect to be squashed like bugs”?

    • Jack Heron says:

      The threshing floor as a metaphor interests me. Grain doesn’t go on the threshing floor to be destroyed, after all – it goes to be separated and have the chaff disposed of. Not separated as in ‘you stay and you go’, but separated as in ‘this part of you stays and this part goes’. Something to hope for, certainly.

  10. Wow…..great work!

    THIS is the very reason that I find it nigh on to impossible to speak about God and His loving plan to those who do not know Him. I am afraid I am a rotten apologist, as much as I would like to be better at it.

    It is so hard as believers to wrap out hearts and souls around this paradox, that His ways are not our ways, and this His actions look crazy from the outside. As a nurse, the closest analogy I have come up with is the PAINFUL treatment of burns, which involves a daily scrubbing away of dead tissue with a wire brush, to prevent infection and allow healthy new skin to grow. It is torture, but without it the patient will surely die. Worse? How do you begin to explain this to a burned CHILD??

    I feel so helpless in the face of those who call out “what kind of god allows this kind of evil?”. I cannot explain the Love that is willing to be cruel to cure, to destroy to rebuild, and whose goals are so inconsistant with what we humans think life is about. I will have to be content to try to strengthen my own Belief and understanding, and keep coming back here for encouragment in knowing I am not alone on this journey.

    • Another Mary says:

      I think I understand your feelings. Sometimes I feel like an old fashioned battlefield nurse. There is so much mayhem going on around us and no guarantees that the wounded person will get better. But, what is the alternative? To not be there? If someone else is there will they be willing to pray each step of the way and intercede for the wounded? I may feel that my light is small amid the din of the destruction that is going on in this world and I seldom understand just what God is up to. But, like others have said here, I know He loves me and that is enough to keep me doing what He has set me to do.

  11. Joseph (the original) says:

    considering the ‘alien’ concept of a wrathful/destructive God, would it be too linear in thinking (since i am studying for the GRE) to attribute such to His desire to ‘destroy’ death, sin, corruption, etc.?

    sorta like 2 negatives make a positive when subtracting them? or mulitplying them? something that was already counter to the intent, character, work (new work/construction) of transformation? razing the old, raising the new? (my Lenten meditation for the week…).

    i can ‘see’ this element of God’s work in my own life. i have coined 2 terms that describe what i recognize as divine disruptions; 1) the crucible of transmogrification; & 2) a Jacob’s embrace…

    when i think of God’s alien work in the New Testament display of extravagant/lavish grace+love, i see it at work in individuals. not sure about Him setting up natural disasters to bring about divine punishment on a grander scale. since there is no theocracy now, it is not something that can be limited to such a time+place+people…

    yet if God indeed ‘rains on the just & the unjust’, then there will be natural disasters on them too. towers of Siloam will fall on the just & unjust. God is not so accurate in singling out the righteous from the unrighteous as He was during the Plagues of Egypt. cancers, tragedies, old age dementia, auto accidents will happen to the sinner & the saint without impunity. this is something that does perplex even the most staunch Christian claiming unshakeable faith…

    nope. i cannot say with any level of comfort that i have it figured out or that i understand God’s perceived actions/inaction in any set of circumstances. i do believe the good (blessings) outweigh the bad (bullshit) of life, but i cannot rightly divide between the two, nor am i asked/expected to…

    walk by faith, hope in God, love Him & others. could be the imponderables of this life not even fully apprehended in the next…

    Lord…have mercy on us for You know we are but dust…

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    When you put “destruction” and “gods” in the same title, I think of the two destruction deities of the Hindu Pantheon, Shiva & Kali.

    With their endlessly-cycling universe beliets, Shiva personifies destruction more in the sense of “demolition”, demolishing the old to make way to build the new. Kali is more into destruction for its own sake.

    There’s an analog in the Olympian Greek Pantheon, between Athena & Ares on the subject of war. Athena’s war aspect personifies “the Art of War”, Strategy (in Greek, literally “Generalship” or “Command”), war as a means to an end; Ares is into combat purely for the sake of combat, with no higher purpose.

  13. Welsh Willie says:

    The Indians (dot, not feather) divide God into Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer. Christianity has God the Father, Jesus the Saviour, and Satan the Accuser. (Struggling to remember me Sunday school here.)

    In the Old Testament, God takes on both good and evil aspects. He slaughters the firstborn of Egypt, and orders the binding of Isaac and the rape of the Canaanites, and allows Job’s family to be exterminated. He is Christ and Satan, all in one. Then in the New Testament his good and evil sides get separated. Christ would never hurt anybody, and goes around forgiving his enemies and hugging little lambs, while Satan is this completely separate character. But on the Day of Judgment Christ and Satan will re-integrate. Christ will again become the Destroyer, the Accuser who hurls sinners into hell. (The Book of Revelation even refers to Christ as “Lucifer,” thereby signalling that Christ and Satan are one.) The difference is that God of the OT is unconscious, acting purely on instinct, while the fiery, vengeful Christ represents consciousness.