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Suffering, Justice, and Knowing God

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The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
Isaiah 1:3

Faithful worship must embrace not only God’s highness but also his compassionate presence. It must celebrate not only God’s might but also his mercy in the midst of human sin and misery. We tend to choose between the Lord’s grandeur or his mercy, but we must consistently resist this choice. Simply put, a faithful theologian is someone who—like the psalmist—knows that God’s glory is gracious and that his grace is glorious.

Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
Praise the name of the LORD!
Blessed be the name of the LORD
from this time forth and forever more!
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
the name of the LORD is to be praised!
The LORD is high above the nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Ps 113)

Claus Westermann described Psalm 113 as reaching from above the impossible heights of the heavens down to a little room in a little house where a mother rejoices over her child.1 Divine splendor and holy tenderness perfectly come together in this psalm as it calls us to praise God for his beauty, the beauty that bends from above. The main point is not God’s holy exaltation or his stunning condescension considered separately, but how together they inform our praise. The psalm contradicts the common mistake of thinking that greatness and compassionate presence are mutually exclusive. Our God shows his greatness in his compassionate presence, and thus we praise the Lord!2 This psalm anticipates what will be most clearly manifested in the incarnation of the Son of God.

Such a dynamic must inform our minds and hearts.

Since it speaks about God, faithful theology leads the theologian outward to consider God as he is revealed in his words and actions. Thus, theology must reflect God’s compassion and care for us and for our neighbors. If we are to pursue theology faithfully, we must contemplate the value God places on those who are most vulnerable and in need. We must be, in a word, anthroposensitive. Knowing and loving God leads us to love those he loves and to think and write theology accordingly.

But what does it mean to know God? Biblical knowing, as we have already discussed, includes, but also goes beyond, the acquisition of information. It is emphatically and deeply relational. And, when we come to the question of knowing God, the Bible plunges us into caring for those he cares for, and thus into living with a concrete concern for the poor, the weak and those who suffer.

The prophet Jeremiah embodies this point in a pronouncement against King Shallum, who had failed to follow the good example of his grandfather Josiah. The Lord commends King Josiah with these words: “ ‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (Jer 22:16 NIV, emphasis added). Knowing God gives the knower a concern for the vulnerable. To know God is to love God, which results in the transference of his interests and concerns to us (1 John). When God’s people lose this concern, God declares their theological talk and religious services empty, even offensive. This observation should sober all theologians, professional or lay: God judges our theology faithful or false by our attitudes and responses to those in need. Theology that lacks compassion and action is no theology at all.

James reminds us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27). What I always find so startling about this statement is that the text puts caring for those in need with the call to be “unstained from the world.” For in truth, we in the church sometimes seek to be “unstained” by distancing ourselves from those most troubled in society, those in most need. They absent not only from our churches but also from our thinking, and this does affect our theology. Unlike the hypothetical orphan on a poster (“send your contribution to the following address . . .”), the real child without parents has lots of difficulties, complications and messiness. Most of the time we cannot help that child without getting ourselves messy too. Connecting ourselves to the vulnerable, the oppressed, the damaged and the suffering will connect us with their pain and trouble. Look at Jesus—he went to the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the outcasts, and it raised serious questions about his reputation. It raised questions about his theology! It should also force us to ask serious questions about his Father, whose truth and love his Son embodies. But Jesus remained unstained by taking to himself our chaos and sin.

Paradoxically, his blood cleanses us. Such a vivid image is often lost on us because we are so familiar with it—but stop and understand: we are made white as snow through the redness of his blood. This is uniquely his work, and we do not atone for others’ sins. Yet we do follow the Savior, and we do follow his cross by laying down our lives for others. We are kept unstained by the world as we follow Christ, by our words and deeds, into the pain of the world. This should not simply flow out of our theology but also inform it.

Entering into the world of those who suffer inevitably brings sweat, tears, dirt and sacrifice. The paradox here is that unless we get involved in the messiness and brokenness of others, we risk becoming stained by the world we seek to avoid. We respond to Jesus’ call to purity not by ignoring or retreating from the sin and suffering of this world but only by confronting the sin, loving those who suffer and watching God’s grace bring healing and hope amid the grief, loneliness and pain (Jn 17:15-19; Phil 2:15; 1 Cor 1:25-31). Such compassion is not just an important civic virtue; it is at the heart of our pursuit of God because it cultivates, sustains and protects us against false worship. There somehow seems to be a connection between compassion for those in need and our understanding of God’s relationship to us. Active concern for the poor and needy is a core concern of our theology.

The book of Isaiah opens with words that Yahweh aims at Israel, and especially toward the religious leaders—the professional theologians of the day:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.” (Is 1:2-3)

What is it that God’s people do not know or understand? How have they failed so seriously that God calls them “sinful,” declaring that they “have forsaken the LORD” and “despised the Holy One of Israel,” for they are “utterly estranged” (Is 1:4)? God cannot even tolerate their offerings, their incense, their religious assemblies and feasts. All of their acts of devotion, even with an impeccable outward appearance, have become a “burden” to him, one that he is “weary of bearing” (Is 1:13-14).

Why? Because this worship comes from a people who have divided hearts and divided minds. Although their liturgical words and temple exercises technically conform to the patterns that God had laid down, their words and actions outside the temple do not.

This implies one of two life theologies: either God is lord of religion but of nothing else, or God does not care about anything else and finds their everyday lives acceptable. Yet God tells Isaiah that such a lived theology insults and disgusts him. It renders all their religious conformity and orthodoxy offensive. They have misunderstood Yahweh by not mirroring his heart, thus turning all their actions and words into corrupted religion.

God calls on the people of Israel to repent, starting with the priests. This included changing not just their lives but also their theology: they needed to acknowledge that God is the gracious and loving Lord of all of life, not just of temple performances. And this concern is most clearly manifested by God’s call to care for those most vulnerable:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause. (Is 1:16-17)

Listening to this, we might conclude: “Well yes, concern for the poor and justice matters, but that is something practical that comes only after we have done our theology; it is more a rational discipline, not meant to deal with such pragmatic concerns.” But we cannot maintain this position because God himself will not abide such an artificial attempt to exclude ethics from the rest of theology.

Rationality and compassionate concern for others are two indispensable aspects of theology. We see this in the admonition, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD” (Is 1:18). How often have I heard this verse quoted for apologetic debates, urging readers and listeners to value sophisticated philosophical responses to unbelievers’ concerns? It is used as a defense for the legitimacy of rigorous logical inquiry and the supremacy of Christian arguments over against the atheist. Yet God’s invitation to be reasonable here does not direct us to academic argument with an atheist—it concerns a debate about whether Israel has properly ordered its lived theology. Isaiah is not setting out proofs for the existence of a divine Superpower. Not at all. God calls us to exercise reason that acknowledges the organic connection between our pursuit of God and our pursuit of those he loves, those who are most vulnerable. To miss this in thought and action is to miss God.

Israel claimed knowledge of God and thought they had their theology in order. They offered appropriate sacrifices according to the law, and they even fasted; yet their neglect of what mattered to God provokes him to reject their prayers and attempts at self-constructed humility (Is 58:3). Truly God-ward spirituality, the knowledge rightly lived, comes not simply through the repetition of religious exercises but by taking up God’s concern for those who suffer. Neglect of love for our neighbor confines theology to a pursuit of personal peace, self-improvement and detached spirituality. God equates this with adultery (Is 1:21).

Good theology is public theology. God calls his people to understand and live in his extravagant love, and this inevitably includes concern for others in the public places.

Just as God has set us free from the stranglehold of sin, so truly knowing God will cause us to loose the “bonds” and “straps” of the “oppressed” in order that they also may go free (Is 58:6). Spiritual bondage and physical oppression can be two sides of the same coin. Israel’s theology meant that they should care for those who suffer and are disadvantaged: “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Is 58:7). Such a response displays God’s glory as compassionate, revealing him rightly to his fallen world. The majestic God is never above concern for the poor—his exaltation and condescension are bound together. As God’s people pour themselves out for the hungry and afflicted they are continually guided by the Lord even as he satisfies their own desires to know and worship the true God (Is 58:9-12).

God’s concern to deal with sin is inseparable from his concern for the weak, hurting and lonely. Sin, sickness and isolation are all oppressors that Christ has come to free us from. Isaiah anticipates this as a key identifying mark of the Messiah’s coming (Is 61:1-3; 42:7), and this expectation is fully fulfilled in Jesus’ person and work. Christ reveals that his Father has a passionate love for the poor; thus his message is distinctly good news for them (Lk 4:18-21; Mt 11:5). A major theme throughout the synoptic Gospels is the compassion of Christ, and in this way he reveals the truth of his Father to a broken world (e.g., Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mk 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Lk 7:13; 10:33; 15:20). God exercises his lordship in a particular manner by showing special concern for the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned and physically wounded and for sojourners, widows and the fatherless. That is the character of God’s reign and the cause of his praise (Ps 146). This is how we can test claims about knowing God and truth, not by a written exam but by examining one’s compassion for others.

Nowhere is this point driven home more powerfully than in 1 John. The author has heard, seen and even touched God incarnate—Jesus, God with us (1 Jn 1:1-2; cf. Mt 1:23). It is Jesus whom he proclaims: through the Son we can have fellowship with the triune God (1 Jn 1:3). This is wonderful news; it is the truth John offers as the only hope for forgiveness, life and grace. Yet in his proclamation of God’s mercy John also warns us that some people claim to know God, but their consistent neglect of those in need betrays an ignorant hardness toward God himself (1 Jn 3:10). Genuine concern for theological truth brings with it a concern for one’s neighbor, because the true God is known by love.

Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.

By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

(1 Jn 4:6-8)

Love is the hallmark of faithful worship. “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:19-20). For those who know God, love is the manner and context of all knowing. Speaking of God as if one were merely conveying cognitive data betrays and falsifies the speech.

God’s love has a particular bent toward those most in need: by extending ourselves toward those who are vulnerable we reflect and replicate the love that met us standing empty-handed before God. We are the poor, the wounded, the needy. When others look more poor, wounded and needy than we, we may perceive them as an inconvenience or threat. But if we neglect them in our talk about God—well, what more emphatic way is there to condemn ourselves? We are prone to lose sight of this in our theologizing, even as much as we talk about ourselves as sinners.

It would be an equal error in the opposite direction to use the importance of compassion as an excuse for reducing theological method to political posturing. Nevertheless, we are not permitted to omit this concern, lest our theology and worship become unfaithful. When we are indifferent to the oppressed we display a fundamental misunderstanding of God and what it means to know him. As theologians, therefore, we must integrate this concern into our theological reflections, allowing the call for sacrificial action to reshape our theology. A theology that contemplates Jesus will always be mindful of the depth of our own needs, and that should prompt us to “remember the poor,” not as an optional extra but as a central aspect of our theological knowledge.

 

Taken from A Little Book for New Theologians by Kelly M. Kapic. Copyright (c) 2012 by Kelly M. Kapic. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com 

 

Endnotes

1 Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980), p. 88.

2 Thanks in particular to Justin Borger for his help on this opening paragraph.

Kelly Kapic

Kelly M. Kapic is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA, USA.

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