When I read my Bible, I tend to ignore the prophets. Well, except for Jonah. I come back to that gem again and again. Jonah is not a children’s story — its real target is curmudgeonly adults like me.
I steer away from the prophets because, well, God’s rage scared me. So, imagine my surprise when I felt nudged toward reading Isaiah this Advent. When I’ve read Isaiah before, I narrowed my focus to the happy and hopeful sections, while forgetting hope is made more substantial by the presence of God’s anger and justice. I looked for the love and light, while glossing over the gory.
But, not this time. Isaiah interrupted my world this Advent. And, perhaps for the first time, God’s rage comforts me instead of terrifying me.
Healthy emotional boundaries help me be a better reader.
Since November, I’ve been intentional about growing my emotional health on a couple of fronts: not taking everything personally and resisting the impulse to fix other people’s feelings.
Making those changes created space for me to see Isaiah with fresh eyes. I knew my experiences can hinder my ability to understand the Bible’s teachings, but I never thought about the way my emotional (im)maturity gets in the way.
It makes sense now.
The struggles we have in relationships with people also play out in our relationship with God. Improving in one area seems to promote growth in the other.
I don’t have to take everything personally. I’m one of those people who hear all rants as a personal statement about me, and I die a little inside while I panic, afraid people hate me. I’m trying to catch myself in the act here. Once I know, I either let it go or ask about it (instead of my normal internalizing it and stewing on it for days).
Previous readings of Isaiah led to a laser focus on my personal issues, and to distorted vision about the systemic justice issues Isaiah tackles. I heard Isaiah’s critique only as a statement about me. While it’s good to take responsibility for my failings, seeing Isaiah only as personal and individual is a problem because Isaiah has a lot to say to government, big money corporations and systemic injustice.
The other major choice: committing to self-awareness when I want to fix other people’s emotions. Someone’s angry. I don’t have to talk them down. Someone’s irritated. I don’t have to smooth things over. It’s not my job to make him or her happy or calm; that’s his or her job. People get to feel how they feel, and their feelings are not my fault. I don’t have to make them be happy, either for my comfort or so that they like me. I can’t actually control their happiness or whether they like me anyway.
I’m not responsible for fixing other people’s emotions. Especially, (gasp!) God’s.
I don’t need to make God happy so God will like me. God already loves me.
God’s anger doesn’t mean God hates me. Even if God is angry, it doesn’t automatically mean God is angry with me. Further, even if it makes me squirmy, there might be really good reasons for God to be upset.
Working on my emotions gave me space to hear Isaiah differently.
Waiting on the One who never seems to come
There’s frustration in waiting for God, who never seems to come. Does God see? Does God care? Is this whole political mess in the United States what God wants?
And there are lots of folks with differing answers to those questions. Christians have a wide range of responses to this political climate (Trump as messiah vs Trump as antichrist and a whole host of things in between), and I’m not drawing lines on who’s in and who’s out. Who’s wrong. Who’s right. Who’s a true Christian. Who isn’t. That’s an oversimplified, slippery slope I’d rather not go tubing down in this single post, as exhilarating as it might be at first.
However, as I listened to people who have been wounded by politics and professing Christians the last few months, I found myself frustrated with the Church in the United States. Not all of it, but pockets of it. And rage comes when God’s name get bandied about as an endorsement for choices that oppress and wound others. Whenever worshiping God gets tied to hatred of other people or being afraid of people, the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and I’m filled with righteous indignation.
I don’t want to use shame as part of my rhetoric. I want to choose love and grace. And, with that, I’m struggling with how to write. The racism (and other -isms) conversations in our country are NOT about whether someone likes pasta or hamburgers or tacos or sushi. This is not a conversation about personal preference. No, it is a question about whether we see other people as fully human as we see ourselves.
And the fact that there’s even a question mark chokes me with indignation and disgust. In the midst of the frustration, God seemed silent. Wells in the Church where I’d previously turn for hope and faith had run dry with their complicity. Waiting silently for Jesus’ return feels hollow.
Yes, that’s the ultimate hope, but that hope is not an excuse for complacency. Hope fuels endurance, to keep running the races set before us knowing that we do not ultimately work in vain.
I felt inadequate (still do if I’m honest). Unsure of how to write or speak, I stayed timid. As I grew frustrated with the silence in pockets of the Church, I felt unsure about my own positions.
And perhaps I wanted other people to stick their necks out, so I can stay in my comfort zone, not making mistakes in my writing or speaking (but ultimately, not doing much either). I didn’t want the cost of following Jesus, particularly as he seemed so silent. Taking up my cross: no, thank you. But, you all out there totally should do it.
Finding hope in God’s rage.
Isaiah calmed me as I read. Ironically, God’s anger helped me rest. Not in resigned passivity, but with the comfort God does, in fact, see the injustice. And more than seeing it, God feels things about it. Anger. Rage. Wrath.
Having my emotions mirrored by God’s kept me from being swallowed by them.
God’s kindness does not necessarily equate to God’s approval (Is.26:10). While the powerful may feel secure in their positions, violence begets more violence, and their deeds will catch up to them. Perhaps not on the immediate timetable I’d like. But, consequences will come.
The challenge is to continue, like Isaiah, naming evil as evil and pointing toward hope on the horizon; that, friends, means vigilance and awareness are part of the Church’s responsibility in the world. And apparently, as God and I talk, they are my responsibility, too. Amazingly, on this side of December the cost of following Jesus seems less burdensome than the alternative.
The ultimate goal of calling out injustice is transformation, NOT condemnation.
Judgment happened when hardhearted people refused to change, not because God is a meanie or crabby panda. God’s judgment means God has boundaries, and ultimately, God’s boundaries bring hope. There’s no true peace or hope without justice.
Yes, it’s true that God forgives. Without God’s forgiveness, none of us could stand righteous. But, God’s forgiveness is not in opposition to God’s justice. What if, instead, God’s forgiveness brings about God’s restorative justice? God’s grace transforms us as we encounter it. God’s grace is not an excuse to go on willfully doing things that harm people and ourselves (Ro. 6).
Transformation — recognizing the harm we’ve done, taking steps to not repeat it, and making reparations — is possible. And indeed, this is where true peace is found. Not in sweeping the pet hair under the rug or hiding the clutter in the back of the closet.
We find peace when we allow the Light to reveal our mess, and we begin to deal with it, instead of disguise or justify it. Only then can we find peace.
The reality is this: not a corner of this precious world, nor a single person in it, is outside of God’s loving kindness and care. God’s love for me does not come at the expense of God’s love for you or anyone else.
God’s love for me doesn’t diminish God’s love for the person who makes me full-out crazy BANANAS. It doesn’t mean God endorses his or her actions either (or mine, for that matter). And that’s a big pill to swallow. Plus, it leaves me with conundrums to solve, namely how to keep a heaping dose of humility in my spiritual diet as I try to talk about justice.
God’s table is wide and welcoming, and there is room for all who would come. Perhaps especially the people who make me most uncomfortable or who I’d be most tempted to exclude if the guest list was up to me. And maybe that’s a hard thing to wrangle at Christmas, when we navigate guest lists, invitations and the familiar folks who’ve hurt us (and, let’s be honest, who we’ve hurt, too.).
God’s love is vast and unfathomable, and while frustrating at times, it also gives me great hope. For God’s love doesn’t leave us ripped and tattered, it knits us back to wholeness as we’re willing to open ourselves to it.
That wondrous part of grace is becoming enough for me. I don’t need perfection from myself or anyone else. Perfection — or put differently, self-righteousness — makes us arrogant, destructive people. Instead, I need a heart willing to admit its brokenness and open to having it mended by God. And, like every other change, I have to expect it to begin with me instead of you.