God’s love may be all-encompassing, but God is not neutral.
A particularly apt Lectionary reading reminded me of this the day after the presidential debates:
“The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! …
Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!”
Our tendency is to say that God is on the side of the righteous, God is on the side of justice and equity for all, and just be done with it. But what does God consider righteous and just? As we trace the narrative arc of scripture we see over and over that God responds to God’s people, acting on their behalf – but not all responses are created equal.
Does God have a hierarchy of needs?
I’ve been watching my students wrestle with stories like Hagar – who not only flees after being abused at the hands of Sarah (for doing exactly what Sarah wants, I might add!), but then is asked by God to return to her mistress! (Gen. 16) And within this scriptural arc, we get stories like Jacob – who literally becomes Israel after tricking his father into passing God’s blessing down to him (Gen 27). There are many more examples but these are just a couple that we’ve covered recently in my class.
In the case of Hagar, God seems to be upholding the covenant made with Abraham over against “establishing equity” on behalf of a suffering woman. In Jacob’s case, God again seems to reward less-than-righteous behavior.
So what then? Is God on the side of an ancient covenant more than God is on the side of the marginalized? And what if that is the case? While we aren’t living under the ancient Hebrew code of law in order to stay in relationship with God, should we be worried that God is more concerned with technicalities than with people?Is God on the side of an ancient covenant more than God is on the side of the marginalized? Click To Tweet
We are free—to really screw things up
I think these stories show us that quite the opposite is true. God is so concerned with people that we are free to lead non-coerced lives. Even millennia outside of Israel’s theocracy, God wants to be our God and wants us to be God’s people – but the outcome of this relationship is completely up to us. And this doesn’t always lead to the most desirable results. It doesn’t now, and it didn’t back in Abraham’s time.
God offered relationship to Abraham, but Abraham took matters into his own hands. So did Sarah. So did Jacob. So do we.
Just like us, these ancient biblical figures really messed things up. They created pain and suffering. They took advantage of “the other.” They broke relationships and divided families. They lost power, gained power, and used their power to disenfranchise. They turned their backs on those in the greatest need.
Covering our ears, but not escaping the call
What we learn from passages like the Psalm from the beginning of this article is that God is for equity, justice, and righteousness. What we learn from the Genesis texts and others, is that God is on the side of people. We are asked to be in right relationship with God and to make good on these divine attributes in tangible ways – to do otherwise stands squarely against God’s character.
So are we “making good” on the divine attributes of equity, justice, and righteousness? We can over-complicate these ideals but they are simple calls to follow God’s example of listening and responding to humanity; to seek the good for people however we are able. And this boils down to relationship. How can we know what equity and justice looks like if we don’t know the people crying out? How can we learn their needs if our ears aren’t open to our neighbors, our classmates, our colleagues, our family members?Are we building fruitful relationships with God and with people? Click To Tweet
We need to be doing a deep dive into our areas of influence, growing closer to those we come into contact with every day. And we need to push ourselves outside our normal parameters, learning from and listening to those who don’t look, think, or act like us. If we’re not doing these things, then I venture to say God is not on our side – or perhaps put better, we are failing to be on God’s side.
Power made perfect in weakness
And yet, God is bound up in our story, and in this seeming weakness God shows the depth of the power of God’s love. It isn’t a power that can be wielded against others, it is a power that is down with us in the mess we create. This power of love made perfect in weakness is beckoning us, calling us to reflect this fierce love back into the world. To develop relationships, to open our ears, to respond to needs, with God’s character as our example.
To be sure, we are rejecting God’s call all the time, in grievous ways. Sarah and Abraham did it when they took God’s covenantal promise into their own hands. We do it today when we get too comfortable with and too entrenched in our normal ways of being. Like Abraham and Sarah, we – perhaps unwittingly – become complicit in a system that prioritizes the powerful while further disenfranchising the powerless because we are too concerned with doing things our way.
We may make choices that put us outside God’s call, working against God’s key attributes, yet we are never outside God’s love. God is bound up with us, loving us, but God is not on our side in these moments.
Freedom means we get it wrong a lot of the time, but it also means God’s constant presence is luring us to get it right. Loving us into right action. Helping us turn the ship around.
When we realize God is not on our side, it’s never too late to switch sides.When we realize God is not on our side, it’s never too late to switch sides. Click To Tweet