Wrestling Mat

Below are things I have wrestled with. They are written earnestly, because I care & not for controversy.

Jacob Wrestled an Angel

Jacob wrestled an angelic being and would not let the man go until the man blessed him, which the man did. Jacob was injured but received his blessing. This refers to an event over 3,000 years ago, but remains as an episode well worth reading (Genesis 32). It encourages us to wrestle with God, who loves the earnest if troubled follower. When Nathaniel was told the Messiah had been discovered, and that he came from Nazareth, he responded rhetorically: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Soon he met Jesus, who not only knew what he had said (or at least told him the exact tree under which he sat when he said it), but affirmed him: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”

Blood of Christ

The Blood of Christ is inescapable as both a physical substance and a concept in the New Testament.

As a substance, we understand it: (1) In the garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus struggled in agony and “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (2) Then the crucifixion, where the drops were blood, from both the nails and the sword.

This shedding of blood occurred during the Passover, and this ties it inescapably to the atoning value of blood in the Old Testament where over and over again, blood must be shed to atone for the people’s sins. As Jacob Milgrom put it, blood functioned as the “ritual detergent” among the Jews. It is this atoning aspect of blood that is the concept, and it is the concept with which I wrestle.

In what way is there no forgiveness without the shedding of blood? If you see no difficulties with the implications, then don’t read this post—it’s for those who struggle. For many Christians the blood of Christ, as a concept, assures them that they are forgiven completely, irrevocably, authoritatively. The concept is copacetic, working well psychologically (whew, no guilt) and theologically (wow, Christ is essential, no arguing about that now…the ultimate, final sacrifice).

While I agree with all the adjectives attributed to the blood, they strike me as equally attributable to both Jesus before he died and to the heart of God before the foundation of the world. Jesus possessed and was possessed by the heart of God. Accordingly we are forgiven completely, irrevocably, authoritatively, finding Jesus essential & ultimate. All of this is illustrated in a few sentences describing how Jesus forgave the man lowered through the roof (Mark 2).

At this point, let me make clear I do not doubt the importance of Jesus’ death to bring to a representative end the fallen race so that he could start a new race with his resurrection. With my whole heart I believe. My struggle is with the concept that God needs blood to be shed in order to forgive.

I want to honor anyone who suffers for me, let alone the Son of Man, Jesus, who was nailed to the cross for me. He actually was nailed to the cross because he defied religious authorities and chose to suffer rather than call on angels to rescue him. In some way, he went through this suffering to redeem humanity. I belong to humanity, so he died in part, howsoever small, for me. I don’t have to know how something works to appreciate it.

Where I struggle is with the assertion that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22). This is a celebrated statement among Christians, now and in the past. But it can be (and is) used to imply that the Father cannot forgive without seeing something first die. That something can be an animal sacrifice (Leviticus) or the sacrifice of his son (Hebrews). Because I’ve been redeemed, I have to know something is moral to appreciate it.

I have cried out for guidance. It seems a terribly narrow path: on one side, the possibility of discounting the suffering of Jesus; on the other, the possibility of seeing God the Father as a being who cannot simply forgive but must have his human blood in order to forgive, reducing him to a hundred pagan “deities” for whom humans have been sacrificed.

Most Christians say it is because God is so just, so holy, that he needs to have a death in order to forgive. I doubt they actually are thinking about what they are saying—not certainly thinking about what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. When he says for us to be perfect, he refers to his Father who blesses the just and the unjust. Mercy triumphs over justice (James 2:13), so playing the justice card to justify the need for a victim simply doesn’t work.

But I’m not satisfied by ignoring the attention the New Testament puts on the blood of Jesus. It certainly means more and does more than I realize…yet it cannot mean what many Christians say—not if the rest of the Gospel is to remain intact. Jesus said both, “If you see me, you’ve seen my father,” and “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

For now, I pause, and listen,

The Wrath of God

The Wrath of God cannot be ignored in both the Old and New Testaments. The term bothers me both because…who wants wrath around? But also because I suspect it’s been weaponized to protect the guilty and condemn the vulnerable. When the woman caught in adultery was about to get stoned, all her righteous accusers no doubt considered themselves instruments of God’s wrath.

(from Isaiah post – needs editing):

A thought that keeps me sane when I read about the wrath of God:
We see statements such as this, “For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart” (Isaiah 42). This is contrary to the promises that God will redeem people who have done ill:

“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
(Isaiah 1)

Even in this passage a threat follows, but it is in the passive voice (i.e. an unspecified agent), unlike the passage from Isaiah 42, where it’s “his burning anger.” The threat in Isaiah 1 that follows the beautiful “white as snow” promise is that if the people resist and rebel against God’s will, they will be “devoured by the sword.” Note, it does not say, “his” or “my” sword. Anyone who disobeys even the laws of nature (let alone supernatural guidance) will suffer consequences. If one doesn’t allow God’s protection, one becomes immediately vulnerable to harm, living as we do, among a violent species.

If all I had were those two passages, the violence of God would remain ambiguous. However, the threat of war and destruction is contrary to Jesus who did not break a bruised weed or smother a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12).

Once I heard that the prophets such as Isaiah did not have a way to say God “allowed” something. Consequently, he is described as “causing” evil/violence, instead of “allowing” it. This distinction is useful whenever I encounter wrath in the Bible. Destruction may feel like God’s punishment, but it behaves like the force of either our selfishness or that of someone else falling on us with grave consequences.

Interpreting “wrath” as the absence of God prevents us from seeing God as alternately healing and destructive. It also prevents us from seeing Jesus as the kinder person of the Trinity. What it means is that our species not only is violent at times but is capable of vanquishing God from human affairs—and that, my friends, is the wrath of God.