Tough Love

We all grew up with the image of the “vengeful God” of the Old Testament, as contrasted with the “God of Love” personified in the Word made flesh, Jesus. I used to think that, therefore, God was a) schizophrenic, or, b) had changed, done a heavenly 180 degree turnabout in His outlook. It took me a while, but I’ve finally come to realize that neither is true. God remains He Who Is, who led the Hebrews out of bondage, promised the land of Israel, and made straight their path — or smacked them harshly upside the head when they strayed. God does truly love us — but it is with something we might now call tough love.

One fine example of the Lord’s seeming harshness may be found in the Book of Joshua. Consider this little extract that tells of Joshua’s carrying out the Lord’s commands, and exacting His wrath on the pagans. From Joshua 11:

12 Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded. 13 Yet Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds-except Hazor, which Joshua burned. 14 The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. 15 As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses. (emphasis added)

The Lord doesn’t get much more “vengeful” than this — “not sparing anyone that breathed.” So where is the love? It is in the very ashes of the vanquished idolators: love the Lord, follow His ways, earn the promised land. Don’t do these things, and earn fire.

Fast-forward to the time of Jesus. Some take Jesus’ message to love your neighbor, and to love your enemies, to mean that God is now become love, with no negatives. Members of the Church of the Fluffy Bunny may so believe; those who see only the glories of the resurrection on Easter morn (hence the bunnies), ignoring the suffering on this side of the cross — His, and ours.

In brief, I’ve learned that God’s love is hardly the caricature of love that is too-often portrayed in popular piety. The love that is purely gentle, never harmful. It’s sometimes affirmed with that over-used verse, John 3:16. Or at least the first part of the verse. Even here, however, the fullness of God’s love still includes a form of vengence, people. God’s love is without bound, but it is on us to receive it. The last part of the verse: “…whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall not perish but have eternal life.”

There’s more than the hint that Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Gentle Shepherd, will not save the unrepentent sinner or those who do not go through Him to the Father. It gets worse, culminating in that lake of fire (you may supply your own metaphor) for those who do not choose Jesus as their savior (Revelation 20).

Can’t feel the tough love yet? Jesus Himself lays it down for us in Matthew 7:

13 Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

God’s love is without bound. But, as the old joke goes, you’ve got to meet Him halfway. Brethren, God is most surely love. But a tough love. A love that will purify us in His holy fire. Or not, in which case our souls are on that downbound train.

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