The Severe Face of Love
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In a comment on my post, ‘Love Needs a Champion‘, Peter Kazmier asked an interesting question. I started to answer: but ended up with something that I felt was too long for a mere comment; and was, indeed, very likely to spark off a wide-ranging discussion in its own right. So I decided to make it into a separate posting.
Here again is Peter’s comment, with my response:
“Kevin, sometimes a father with an unruly child, a child that terrorizes the other children, must take strong action to stop the terror. Do you think God faces the same dilemma with us? How might those actions of defense play out? Does love, sometimes by necessity, take on a severe face?”
Yes, undoubtedly. On the human level, an extreme situation could be envisaged where a child has turned rogue (e.g. a violent murderer or terrorist). A situation could then occur where the father might have to kill his own child to prevent an imminent massacre. Or the father, in his role as a judge or ruler of the people, may have to pronounce the ultimate penalty against his own child for the crimes that were committed. Such instances are rare, except in circumstances where the father-child bond of love has already broken down: but if the father’s heart remains set on the child this is likely to be the most agonising choice the father ever had to make.
There’s an almost-example of this in the Bible. One of King David’s sons, Amnon, had a crush on his half-sister, Tamar, and ended up raping her. But David, maybe partly out of a sense of shame over his own previous adultery with Bathsheba and partly out of love for his son, failed to punish Amnon. So Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, killed Amnon before fleeing into exile. David was now torn between his love for Absalom and his duty as a king: so again he dithered. Meanwhile Absalom’s resentment against David increased. He manipulated his way back into the palace, then plotted to overthrow David. 20,000 people died in the ensuing conflict: but David’s greatest personal grief was over the death of Absalom. He immediately went into mourning for his son, until the commander of his army rebuked him, saying, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.” (2 Samuel 19:5-6.)
It was a really difficult call for David: but it vividly illustrates the potential consequences of not taking a tough line when necessary and the dilemma of one who must be both father and judge.
So what about the God level? In the Old Testament there is a passage that specifically addresses this issue:
If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and, though they chasten him, will not listen to them; then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place; and they shall tell the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. All the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones: so you shall put away the evil from the midst of you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear (Deut 21:18-21).
We shudder at the extremity of this sentence. But we need to realise the context in which these words were spoken. Historically, this was the late Bronze Age. There was no social security or police force. People depended upon their family or tribe for support and protection and there was no room for those who refused to pull their weight. So the influence of a son who insisted on staying at home, making his family support him, whilst refusing to work, defying his elders and setting an example of drunken behaviour would threaten the well-being of the entire tribe. Under these circumstances, with the agreement of both parents plus the city elders, his execution was permitted.
But would this have been the outcome desired by his father and mother, or by God? Of course not! Jesus vividly illustrates God’s fatherly desire for all his children in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32).
We can glibly say to ourselves, “But if God is all-powerful and all-loving, surely he can bring the offender to his senses without being overly hard on him! After all, he converted Saul of Tarsus into a St. Paul, didn’t he? Or why can’t he just restrain evil people from harming others?” To put it very simply – it’s not that simple. Love, moral responsibility, freedom of choice and inter-dependency are so intricately intertwined that the effects of both our good and bad deeds always impact on others, and often in ways we could never expect. As in the case of David, what may seem a relatively small matter, only affecting a few, may actually impact thousands. We only see the short-term implications, whereas God has a much broader and long-term view. But it is also a view that is tempered by his commitment to leaving our choices in our hands as much as possible. Even when Jesus told Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” he still left the ultimate choice to Saul (Acts 26:13-19).
At times, the timing and reason’s for God’s actions puzzle us. But, unlike us, whose limited knowledge of future outcomes forces us to rely on a rules-based justice system, God sees all the ramifications of an event. God feels, and smarts at, the injustices of the world far more than we do (see my article on the ‘Connectedness’ of God). And He has declared his implacable intent that ultimately there will be vengeance on all who persist in doing evil; and restitution for all who have suffered unjustly. But he also understands that to intervene too much or too soon in human affairs is to hinder humanity from reaching its ultimate potential. Tragic though it may be, it is often only as we observe the suffering and destruction caused by our human self-centredness that we are moved to seek the way of love that God has advised from the very beginning. And it is only as we observe both the benefits and shortcomings of those exceptional men and women who have risen in our midst, to become acknowledged champions of truth and justice, that we begin to understand the necessity of a supreme champion and judge who can bring about the ultimate triumph of love over evil.
Page creation by Kevin King
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