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.
Ordained Anglican. Thinking out loud about church.