Why Romans 8:38 Does NOT Say "I'm Convinced That Nothing Can Spare Us From God's Wrath."
I am sure there are many more to come.
But we have been spared to a certain degree. On Thursday, the storm was expected to come up the east coast of the Florida peninsula and have direct impact on Palm Bay. Today the storm is heading up the west coast, so we are only getting the eastern bands of the storm, not the 120+ mph winds that our neighbors in the Keys, Naples, Tampa and surrounding areas will be enduring today.
I want to wrestle with a theological question this morning.
And the only reason I want to ask this question is because I think there is a lot of misinformation being propagated by people who think they understand God better than everyone else; and as a result, are causing many to create an image of God that is, I believe, counter intuitive to the God of Christianity as revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Here’s the question that I want to wrestle with:
Does God cause storms like hurricane Irma?
For some the answer to this question is a resounding ‘Yes!”
For these folks, God is completely and totally “in control” of everything that happens and is therefore responsible for all natural disasters. Many justify their answer by assuming that God is punishing a certain geographical area or a people group for their wickedness.
If we follow this line of thinking, then God was going to punish people on the east coast of Florida on Friday, but decided that the people on the west coast really deserved God's wrath more, and thus turned the storm further west over the past couple of days in order to get to the sinners who really deserve it most.
I am just going to say it.
This is dangerous and distorted theology.
I have to wonder what people who hold to this understanding of God think when something bad happens to a member of their own family, or to them. None of us will escape difficulties, trials and trauma in this life. What do we do with God when death and destruction comes knocking on our door?
Now, I somewhat understand where this line of thinking comes from: an overemphasis on the God of the Old Testament.
If we build our entire theology on an understanding of the God of (most of) the Old Testament, then I can see how we might attribute everything that happens to God’s “will.”
But, is that really the way we are supposed to see God? Through the lens of an angry, all-knowing, all-powerful, violent deity reflected in the writings of some of the ancient Hebrews?
If it is, then, by all means, blame God for the storms that come, for the earthquakes, the genocide, the mass murders, the rapes, the human trafficking, the random acts of violence and death that occur every day around this country and around the world. Because that’s what you have to do; you can’t just blame God for certain things and not for others.
So, what’s the alternative?
I would argue that we take a closer look at God as revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
In his book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, pastor and author Brian Zahnd says that “our understanding of God must be grounded in our Christology. Apart from Jesus, we can do, know, be nothing.”
He goes on to write about how there are really only three ways of understanding God when it comes to evil and suffering:
1. Question the morality of God. Perhaps God is, at times, monstrous.
2. Question the immutability of God. Maybe God changes over time.
3. Question how we read Scripture. Could it be that we need to learn to read the Bible in a different way?
Zahnd says that he cannot accept choices 1 or 2 but he can accept “that our own understanding of God is in the process of growth, change, and mutation.”
I agree with him.
Personally, I believed for many years that God was in the business of punishing me and others for our sins. I lived in fear of God for many years, believing that there was really no way that God could love or forgive me. I assumed that God had every right to punish us in any way that God chose; including natural disasters.
But then I began to willingly open my mind.
Dangerous. I know.
But absolutely essential to anyone wishing to truly grow in faith.
Remember that the apostle Paul said that we would be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” (Romans 12.2)
Discipleship involves thinking differently. In fact,
the Greek word that we use for repentance – metanoia – literally means “to think differently.”
So, I would completely agree with Zahnd that “(w)e have no choice but to revisit how we understand Scripture, particularly the Old Testament.”
And just how do we go about rethinking the Old Testament?
By reading it through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth.
Zahnd writes: “Even a casual reader of the Bible notices that between the alleged divine endorsement of genocide in the conquest of Canaan and Jesus’ call for love of enemies in his Sermon on the Mount, something has clearly changed! What has changed is not God but the degree to which humanity has attained an understanding of the true nature of God.”
Jesus is the clearest picture of who God is, and “once we realize that Jesus is the perfect icon of the living God, we are forever prohibited from using the Old Testament to justify the use of violence.”
When we read the Gospels, we get a snapshot of God by looking at Jesus. Here’s some of what we see:
• Unconditional Grace
• Particular focus on the poor and broken
My understanding of who God is has progressed over time from seeing God as angry, vengeful and a distributor of random punishment, to a God who seeks and saves the lost, offers grace to all and never leaves us even when we go through the natural trials and tribulations of life.
Jesus promised that we would deal with stuff in this life, remember?
“In the world you have distress.” (John 16.33b)
That verse is important. This world that we live in is broken. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes etc. are not the punishment of an angry God, they are the result of broken people living in a broken world. As broken people, we have refused to care for the creation that we have been given dominion over; we have polluted the planet and disregarded our mandate to act environmentally responsible. Natural disasters are the natural result of our brokenness.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there.
“But be encouraged! I have conquered the world!”
What does that mean?
I think it means that the worst thing is never the last thing.
No matter what we go through in this life, God is with us.
God suffers with us. God weeps with us. God comforts us. God strengthens us. God encourages us. God promises us that while God did not cause the storm, God is with us in the storm, and that God will bring something good out of the storm if we will simply trust.
The Bible has a word for this: Hope.
In his book Why? Making Sense of God’s Will pastor and author Adam Hamilton writes:
“The Bible proclaims hope in the face of the darkest of circumstances.… It does not promise that we won’t go through difficulties or that we won’t experience pain. But these will not be the final word. So the psalmist writes, ‘weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning’ (Psalm 30.5a). The writer of Lamentations, seeing the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC, confesses his overwhelming grief and sorrow but goes on to say, ‘But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning’ (Lamentations 3.21-23).”
If you are reading this during the storm (literal or figurative) please know that God is not punishing you. God is with you in your storm, God wants to comfort you and offer you hope.
Take a moment and read Romans 8 all the way through slowly. Notice the number of times the author uses the word hope. Focus on verse 28 specifically. What is the promise? Now read verse 38 again, slowly.
What does it say?
I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
May we all believe it and receive it.