Holy Terror and Tender Love

Holy Terror and Tender Love

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)

For some reason, after reading this commandment, the words that linger with us are “but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (v. 6). These words lift an inch off the page and beg our attention. All the other words, words like “jealous God, punishing children . . . to the third and fourth generation,” are barely remembered once we finish reading.

While we wish to ignore these parts of Scripture, we cannot. The Bible is as full of holy terror as it is tender love. Ask our wilderness friends in Exodus. Having experienced the death of every firstborn in Egypt, they took God at His word. Having seen the God of fire and thunder on Mount Sinai, the people had no doubt about God’s capacity to vent. So the Bible speaks of both love and terror.

But in our new age of terrorism, making God out as a terrorist is not advantageous for the seeker-sensitive church working hard not to offend or for the emergent church trying so hard to recapture a generation grown up on 9-11, Sandy Hook, and ISIS. These texts are not good PR for God.

And how do parents explain to their children a God who asks Abraham to slaughter and roast his only son in one Testament, and then sends His own only Son to a cruel crucifixion in the other Testament? And how does a world of individualism find any justice in sin being punished three and four generations later? Few of us wish to be God’s spokesperson answering for these actions. This law we dare not dance with. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.

One of the ways we try to deal with these texts of terror is to suggest that those who obey God are “terror-exempt.” The commandment would seem to suggest that the obedient get steadfast love for a thousand generations and the disobedient get living hell for three or four generations.

This serves us well when we wish to threaten people into righteous living. But when we widen the scope of the biblical narrative, “Job stands on one side of the pulpit shaking his head and Jesus on the other, both of them confirming our fear that righteousness does nothing to dissuade God from trying the faithful by fire and by ice.”

Our book has frightening things in it, and we cannot explain them away—which also means that our God is radically different and cannot be predicted or understood by the creatures He creates. We stand before Him in awe.

No Stranger to Terror

When she was three years old, I took my granddaughter to Chuck E. Cheese. You know, “Where a kid can be a kid.” It’s an indoor carnival of games, entertainment, music, and not-so-good pizza.

Chuck is a costumed seven-foot mouse who prowls the place high-fiving kids and having fun. But when Anna Ryan, age three, saw him, she retreated in terror and latched herself to my leg with a death grip. No explanation could shake her loose.

“He’s just a nice man in a suit. It’s not real, just a costume. See, all the other children are playing with him.” She had no categories for a seven-foot mouse that walked among mere babes, and nothing I did or said could change her mind that something just didn’t seem right about that mouse.

To be encountered by a God of punitive jealousy causes us to clutch our fixed ideas about who God is and how God operates. We prefer a settled God, predictable in every way, not One who seems too big as He prowls among weaklings with the power to crush.

Maybe the terror texts do their work when they unsettle us. Maybe we are meant to be aware that we are in the presence of One for whom there are no categories of likeness.

Maybe we are supposed to realize that our God is not a stranger to judgment, violence, terror, and death. Maybe we are supposed to think about the long-term effects of our sin.

Maybe the texts still drive us toward the God whose mystery is magnetic.

These days Anna Ryan likes Chuck E. Cheese. She has gotten used to him, almost. I asked her the other day about going on a date to Chuck’s place. She thought for a minute and said, “OK.” Her hesitancy caused me to ask her what she thought about the mouse. Her reply was sacred. “I’m still just a little bit scared.” Not a bad posture before the God of terrors.

Being Killed or Saved?

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a loggerhead turtle in her excellent article, “Preaching the Terrors.”  The turtle had made its way from the ocean to the beach to lay her eggs in a sand nest. After watching for a while, Barbara left, so as not to disturb the turtle.

The next day, she noticed that the tracks of the turtle led, not toward the ocean, but into the blistering dunes. As she followed the tracks, she found the turtle exhausted and nearly baked. Finding a park ranger with a Jeep, she watched him set out to rescue the turtle.

She writes:

As I watched in horror, he flipped her over on her back, wrapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to the trailer hitch on his Jeep. Then he took off, yanking her body forward so fast that her open mouth filled with sand and then disappeared underneath her as her neck bent so far I feared it would break.

The ranger hauled her over the dunes and down onto the beach; I followed the path that the prow of her shell cut in the sand. At ocean’s edge, he unhooked her and turned her right side up again. She lay motionless in the surf as the water lapped at her body, washing the sand from her eyes and making her skin shine again.

Then a particularly large wave broke over her, and she lifted her head slightly, moving her back legs as she did. As I watched, she revived. Every fresh wave brought her life back to her until one of them made her light enough to find a foothold and push off, back into the water that was her home.

Watching her swim slowly away and remembering her nightmare ride through the dunes, I noted that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.

That’s holy terror and tender love.

Today’s post is an excerpt from Dancing with the Law: The Ten Commandments.

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