Steve Chalke and the God of wrath

It's always interesting listening to Steve Chalke preach. He is passionate and quite intellectual in his approach but because of who he is and what he has been through, he can not fail to engage your heart as well. He spoke about Moses and his experiences of a God who reveals himself in a burning bush, an indecipherable name and a face too holy to behold. As we began to look at Exodus three together, I thought about how I need to unpack a little further Yahweh's 'I have observed...' 'I have heard...' 'I know...' 'I will come...' 'Go.' One of the ways in which God responds to our suffering is through his sending other people, us, into the fray. People often look for a separate and distinct work of God when we are the work of God sent into a situation.

The other day, on my way out of church, I got talking to a heroin addict, his girlfriend and a recovering alcoholic. This time wearing a collar became an opener for conversation, they were curious that I was a 'priest.' As I was asked questions about this God who seems to allow such suffering to occur, I spoke about the God of the Open theists who weeps when we weep, whose face is racked with pain as we feel pain. As I talk this way, the Classical theists' God of wrath, who dealt in penal substitutionary atonement often enters the room as well and these two aspects of God jar in my head. The God of love wins through but I carry the baggage of this kind of indoctrination. As Steve preached, you could hear his past transforming his present, his emphases were those brought to light too because he has spent some of his life in the presence of this God of wrath and anger.

I have also heard from Graham Dow this week that we can carry the hurts of a kind of evangelicalism that has us dwell too often and too much on our depravity, our falling short... it can breed a kind of guilt that infects and bounds. Chalke captured me for the way that he said we all do theology. Even if we think we are leaving theology to our clergy, in actual fact we are all doing theology and what matters is whether we do good or bad theology. He reflected on the bad theology of the Dutch Reformed Church and how their theory that all black people are derived from Ham (Noah's son) and are therefore living under some kind of curse has infected the way that they preach so that they actually preach a gospel of racial inferiority - no gospel (good news) at all. It goes wider, if our artists and our thinkers and our writers and our police do bad theology, we all suffer.

He alluded to the idea that our churches are as full of gods as the Old Testament. When we all think we are talking about the same God, very often we are not. We looked at Genesis 12 and Abraham's relationship with Terah, how the Jewish Midrash and the Koran tell us more about this early story - how Abraham went and smashed up the idols that his father was making, proclaiming that there can only be one God. This is the God who declares to Moses 'I am who I am' and there is something evasive about this, according to Chalke. I have never seen it this way before - it has always conveyed to me power because I have always considered his declaration - 'I am' in terms of 'all - being', 'forever', 'ongoing being', 'to be' being our most powerful verb. But perhaps English teacher days persuade me to think this way too.

So the idea of God revealing unrevelation at this point in his journey with his people is a new way to think it through for me. For Chalke God is not revealing who he is in a name - names are so bad at telling us anything about a person. They do not work for God either - it is in fact God's way of dissuading us from boxing him in. Names do reveal little - you have to journey with God and follow him as Abraham does into a new land, as Moses does across the desert, as the disciples follow Jesus, who leave their nets. It is God's way of preventing us from bottling him up in a couple of doctrines that only result in us saying that we are right and others are wrong.

Chalke takes us to Exodus 33 and this idea of Moses being sheltered in the rock because if he looks on God's holy face, he can not live. It is a passage that seems to conjure within us a kind of aversion to something frighteningly powerful. We then listen to testimony of Chalke's time in Tailand, visiting an orphanage for sick children piled ten high to a bed, babies packed in on their sides for the best fit and we are taken with him to one such bed containing a ten year old boy who does nothing but rock backwards and forwards in oblivion - how Steve rested a hand on this boy's forehead for him to respond for a few seconds before Steve is called away and the boy resumes the rocking action. After this Steve describes movingly and genuinely his desire at that point to simply give up and die, leave the planet with a pain too much to bear and it was at this point that the face that he understands Moses can not look upon is so anguished (in wrath) so angry, so disturbed by what God is looking upon, his children in this kind of rocking pain, that this is the reason we can not look at God's face - it would kill us to see this much love...LOVE... anguish, pain. I think to myself at this point where I would go with this.

This is the face of love and compassion, the face that in Jesus weeps at the loss of one of his best friends, I write my own thoughts as Steve preaches about how if I were to look upon a face that loved so much as God loves - a holy and perfect love, I would want to leave planet earth too to be united with this love. This is how the love of God first felt for me. I wonder if one day, I will share this in a preach. I can see myself now walking up over Eaton bank, staring into the country-side and being so overwhelmed by this new thing that God had done in my life, pouring his Holy Spirit into me for the first time, that I had to pray quite hard against this feeling of just wanting to join him right there and then. Do not get me wrong, I was not about to throw myself off the bank to hurry the life process to death and eternal union, there are not quite words but I was overwhelmed by this wanting desoerately to be with God fully.

Steve says we can not look at God's face because it is his pained love that we can not behold and live with.

The point that Steve is making and which I think is probably liberating the many present whom he suspects are stuck with the theology of a God of wrath and their never measuring up to damaging degree, is this God of an agony, an anguish of love. For Chalke preaches that sin generates its own consequences. I have blogged about this before and our reading of the early chapters of Romans. I too believe that sin, as the Proverbs discuss, causes its own consequences, God does not smite and obliterate and dish out his wrath in punishment. I can not preach this kind of a gospel.

I tell the heroin addict at the bottom of the driveway of the church that it is the heroin doing the damage, this is not God's punishment for anything this young man has done - God weeps with a heart breaking for the son he loves every time that liquid is injected.

...and so Steve's preach liberates me too, the God of the classical theists, unmoved does not shout charges of patripassianism quite so loudly. The God of love flings open his arms a little wider and ideas begin to flow for how I will communicate this love of 1 Corinthians 13 for my first preach in a new church later this month, where uncluttered by powerpoint, I will be able to proclaim what I think about this God of love for twenty minutes from the pulpit.

We worship the God who has revealed himself in Jesus, who weeps, is humble, merciful - the foot-washing God who asks us to throw ourselves into his arms and asks us to journey with him as he absorbs our pain - and on that word I hear Chalke's testimony to a theory of the atonement where there is expiation rather than propitiation - where God absorbs our pain and I hear the voice of a preacher who has been in agony, splitting Spring Harvest, condemned by parts of the church for his theology and I say - Yes - Thank God - Steve Chalke - you are welcome here.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

But the problem this leaves you is that this all loving God must be not all powerful. He is never capable of doing anything about it. If he was all powerful and all loving he'd do something about it, but never does. The Jews were gassed and the heroin addict continues to inject. What is sympathy with inaction?

Rosemary said...

Preach is a verb, not a noun. I don't know when this changed in the UK, but it is very strange to read it used as you use it.

Anonymous said...

Steve Chalke has always been better on high emotion than deep theology, and in stirring an adolescent sense of resentment against one's elders - a standard youthwork approach, really.
It's simple really - just keep repeating the hallowed shibboleths with increasing disdain while affecting a tone of hurt and pain on behalf of those on the fringes (or beyond) of the evangelical church of one's upbringing: blacks, women who've had abortions, gays, non-evangelicals, Muslims, atheists - they've all got a beef and if you think 'bout it long enough, it's probably the fault of evangelical fundamentalist conservative Christians like Anders Brievik....

Anonymous said...

... and Pluralist is right in his observation. The sentimental god who 'feels your pain' is nicder but weaker than the gods of the Greeks.

People like Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke and Rob Bell grew up in evangelicalism but are now transitioning into an older sentimental version of liberalism, while still retaining the emotionalism of evangelicalism.

There is nothoing new at all in what they are saying. Universalism and a non-intervening God have been around for a long time in liberal Protestantism.

Rach said...

Anon - Hi.

Interesting reactions - quite common ones. Too polarised, i.m.h.o. No stirring going on particularly. His unfolding testimony into a better understanding of the revelation of his loving father, whose face we see in Jesus Christ as I received it. For many it makes a lot of sense but sense is neither here nor there. I.M.H.O God is using Chalke as a vehicle through which our spiritual health might be better realised - just one person, with faults just like the rest of us with a calling to reveal aspects of the God who has revealed himself and continues to do so in such a variety of ways. Essentially a combination of Scripture and personal testimony with a prayer for a will that keeps in step with the Spirit is what we have - the book about us and God, his Son and his Spirit - we need to keep in step with these and preach and hope.

Rosemary - technicality noted. As I am listening to people preach at the moment I am beginning to shake off some of the restraints of my English teacher days - language is such a flexible, creative thing, clumsy sometimes too as it was here as you have noted - never mind.

Random Arrow said...

Rachel - “This time wearing a collar became an opener for conversation ...”

Where can I get one?

Rachel - “I tell the heroin addict at the bottom of the driveway of the church that it is the heroin doing the damage, this is not God's punishment for anything this young man has done - God weeps with a heart breaking for the son he loves every time that liquid is injected.”

Great empathy. Pretty good theology. Looks like the collar didn’t choke out the empathy and love.

Imagine what you could do without it [the collar! - not the empathy!] :).

Here’s the deal. I get these clients. Battered women who are on the receiving end of physical violence. Men too. Methamphetamine is the make-you-feel-like-wrath-of-god-drug. They hit meth. Hit high. Hit each other. Hit the hospital. So I get calls to hit back – hitting a judge with facts – the judge hits the violent abuser with a restraining order or jail. So there’s a lot of wrath to go around. Practically speaking. What I like about your post (thank you) is your reminder to me to keep speaking with a forked tongue and with a dual voice. Double voiced – love, wrath (I’m just using ‘wrath’ as a meme for a court restraining order here – not hifalutin theology). It is too easy for me to practice wrath. And forget the love. Or the other way around.

But I really do need a collar. My hat scares sane people away.

I can’t hang around this blog. This woman’s wearing a collar.


Anonymous said...

Rachel, the issue isn't Steve Chalke's (personal) faults, which may be as obvious as mine. It's whether he has expounded the Bible truthfully as a preacher of the Word of God. From listening to the and reading 'The Cross of Christ', I have a very good idea what John Stott would have said.
I suspect some cognitive dissonance is going on here. Are you rejecting - and caricaturing - PSA because you don't like other aspects of conservative evangelical theology? You are very much on the well-trod liberal trajectory.

Rach said...

I do not think of myself as liberal Anon...and few would - Chalke reads the scriptures in accordance with the grand-shape of the biblical narrative. He reads it according to John 1's 'God is love' - the disciple who hung around at the cross to see the suffering and then understand the love. Chalke understands the New Covenant and that the face of God is revealed in Jesus.

Spirit - you show us Jesus - Jesus you show us the Father and then we see love - simple.

Rach said...

Jim - thanks for your contribution - perhaps your use of the phrase 'forked tongue' is unhelpful because of the overtones it carries of something duplicitous. Do you mean you see the wrath and the terror that flies around but are reminded that we are to speak love into it. Love is our most powerful 'weapon' - excuse the use of the word. The idea of death and evil and the devil being shamed (devil capable of shame? - perhaps not) at the cross or at least the idea of heaping coals or snuffing out death, fear and violence with love is the only godly choice we have - breaking the cycle, bringing redemption. Punishment does half a job if that - love transforms. Did you hear of the woman who on standing in the courts facing the murderer of her husband and children asked on the sentencing whether she could embrace the perpetrator and tell him he was forgiven, ask that he visit her village twice a month so that she could have him become her son, the people in the dock, suffering the loss of the murdered victims begin to sing Amazing Grace as this woman demonstrates Christ's selfless compassion and mercy.

I said this time the collar was an opener because the last time I had an encounter with a person of this profundity it was on a train to London and I didn't have the collar. It's all very random for me but seems to be up to our creative God who will use whatever he can to bring people maximally and efficiently into his Kingdom or closer to it when he can... or so it seems to me. Collars come if that's God's shape for you, I guess, his plan for making you most maximally Kingdom attracting - ask him!


Random Arrow said...

Rachel, what a wonderful rejoinder! And thank you for it. Truly

Rachel, I regretted that post soon after I posted it.

What I had in mind was how Margaret Somers teaches how to – quantify - narrative stories. Margaret Somers notices in her brilliant essay how feminist law school professor, Patricia Williams, uses two voices in discourse. And these two discourse voices depend on context. I must – quantify - narrative stories in law cases. That is my work. My clients are ordinary poor people – who speak in many different voices as they make their way toward justice. And I had to quantify tons and tons of narratives for my post-graduate work too. So I had in mind the forked tongue that is and was used by white Euro-gospels of genocide using the gospel to murder over seven million aboriginal Natives.

Rachel, I am sorry that I used the term - forked tongue – at all. Or that I did not spell out the context and why I did so. That was very misleading. And wrong. See how Margaret Somers treats feminist law school professor, Patricia Williams, and her two voices.

Down deep in my heart, I feel there is a unity between love and wrath. Not a bifurcation. Not a binary. Not a division. Not a forked tongue.

Love and wrath – wrath is love’s care for the victims of injustice.

I am not into metaphysics and fancy theology.

I can barely focus on love in one case at a time. Wrath means getting a restraining order against abusers. Or wrath means making things right in other kinds of cases. Wrath means that love rights wrongs. Wrath means that love restrains evil (like with restraining orders). That’s just my usage.

Of course, I am not speaking as a – professional - theologian. I am not in that league. So professional theologians have their many arguments about love and wrath.

I love Edmund Burke – we cannot love where we should love if we do not hate where we should hate.

Sorry I used the forked tongue language – without putting it into the context set by Margaret Somers. Or that I bothered with it at all.

My mistake. You made a good correction.

I'll ask God about the collar :)!



Rach said...

...yes Jim I think I knew what you meant anyway - the Spirit helps us discern each others' meanings - such is the economy of God. Let me know how you and the community and God discern the potential collar and how your journey unfolds - exciting!


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