We continue looking at the “appearance” theses with Thesis 4, this time looking at when things look bad but are actually good.
Thesis 4 - Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless eternal merits.
In thesis 3, we talked about how the seeming good works of humans are tainted mortal sins, today we flip our instruments around and take a gander at how God’s works, according to Martin Luther, “always seem unattractive and appear evil.” Yikes! Always?
We’re not used to that kind of talk about God, especially in Evangelical America. We’re used to a God of power, and awesome God (who reiiiiigns, in heaven above, with wisdom, power, and love…). We’re used to a God of blessing, especially when those blessings roll out upon those whom we think they should roll out upon - namely, me, and maybe people who think like me…maybe.
So when Luther says that God looks evil and unattractive, we’re not quite sure what to do with that. Besides, what is an evil and unattractive God anyway?
Let’s take a look at “evil” gods first. When I think of “evil” gods, a short list pops up into my head of at-least-semi-divine creatures from literature and culture: Satan, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Kali Ma from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. What makes these “gods” evil? Kali Ma gets humans (especially their hearts) sacrificed to her, Voldemort is a power hungry murderer, and Satan…well…there’s a lot to Satan, but traditionally we’ve affixed to him a lot of the power of temptation (oh, look at that! Somebody’s actually using the Bible…)
So, if those are “evil gods”, are we to deduce that Luther is trying to tell us that God is good, despite looking like Kali Ma, Voldemort, and Satan all rolled into one? Well, sorta. I mean, we’re talking about God’s works and not God Himself…but there’s still some lines to be drawn.
Luther also tells us that God’s works appear unattractive. Now before you start thinking about the ugliest person that you know and how God’s works might look like that person, hold on a sec and look at the word “unattractive”. Unattractive means simply “not attracting,” not “bringing closer.” Biblically, this matches what we find in Isaiah 53, that the Messiah “had no form or majesty that we should look at him.”
When Jesus loses something like 1500 followers in one day when He tells the disciples that “My blood is true drink”, that’s not “attractive”. When He says that He speaks in parables specifically so that some people won’t get it, that’s not “attractive”. God’s work, therefore, is not attractive. But it IS inclusive. God is not seeking people who will, of their own volition and precept, be attracted to Him. He is seeking people that He can include.
But what about the “evil” stuff? Well, Luther’s definition of “evil” has less to do with Kali Ma than mine does. In fact, the Hebrew word for “evil”, has a less sinister tone to it than our normal hearing of the word. We hear “evil” and think “villain”, but the Bible writes evil with more of a “cataclysm” notion to it. Something bad happening that is fully outside of the realm of our control or anyone else’s. So earthquakes and hurricanes are “evil”, as are terrorist attacks. They are transcendent experiences because they make us ask the “Why God?” questions. Why did God do this? allow this to happen? etc. So when God’s works are appearing evil, they are appearing to be cataclysmic events that cause us to transcend ourselves and ask, “Why God?”
Luther points to the Cross here. Crosses are unattractive things. Sure, your grandmother has that pretty ceramic cross in her kitchen, but just ask her how attractive the notion of “pick up your cross and follow Me” is, even if it is a pretty ceramic one. Crosses are instruments, and you can bedazzle a noose, but it’s still going to be a noose. Nobody looks at a cross and says, “Yep, looks like fun.” Crosses are also evil things - as are most instruments of death. They are cataclysmic devices that take people’s lives. We don’t necessarily say that they are villainous devices, but rather that they are simply devices that do unspeakable acts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer opened up his seminal work, “The Cost of Discipleship” with the jarring line, “when God calls a man, He bids him to come and die.” Evil? In the way that we’ve defined? Yes. Attractive? No. God’s way of working with a sinful world? Yep.
Join us every Thursday as we tackle more Theology of the Cross. In the meantime, Tweet, Facebook, and comment away!
Posted on Thursday, April 17th 2014