Hating the God you love (and loving the God you hate)

I’ve written before about swearing at God, and getting angry with God. But what do you do when, as a Christian, you feel passionate hatred and even revulsion towards God?

I see myself as a worshipper; a longing for God seems to be embedded deep in my being. Expressing love and awe and gratitude to God – and yes, yearning and doubt and even anger – are central parts of my faith and my life. But hate? How on earth does that fit in? Can hate ever be a legitimate element or expression of faith in God?

David, Saul and the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Some context. Last night I was leading our small group discussion / Bible Study on David and Saul, from 1 Samuel chapter 25 through to chapter 28. In these chapters, David is narrowly prevented from killing every male in the household of someone who has refused his soldiers hospitality. To escape being hunted by Saul, he then goes and lives with Israel’s enemies for a year, making friends with the Philistine King. Meanwhile he spends his time in genocidal raiding parties where he and his men regularly wipe out whole towns of men, women and children for no apparent reason, leaving none alive in case they snitch on him.

And then to round off all this fluffy pleasantness, we have the final ruin of Saul, utterly rejected by God – apparently just for not killing all the people and creatures he was commanded to, and for offering some unauthorised sacrifices. God, we hear, has completely turned his back on Saul, is refusing to communicate with him, and is going to make sure he dies in battle the following day – and for good measure all his sons too, including the good-hearted Jonathan. So much for second chances, grace, and the infinite love and mercy of God.

Now, I’m uncomfortable with these kinds of Old Testament passage at the best of times; it’s just so hard to relate them to my own everyday experience and to square them with my deep belief in a God who is loving, caring, generous and merciful. But to make the contrast more stark, the previous night I’d watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – a harrowing and moving story of the friendship between two boys on either sides of a Nazi extermination camp fence. The (apparently) divinely-sanctioned actions of David in the Bible bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the evils of Nazi brutality and genocide portrayed in the film.

In the film, you know that good – and therefore God – is on the side of humanity in the face of brutality. But in the Old Testament, it often looks like God is on the other side, sanctioning and commanding the death and destruction. How can the God I love, believe in and worship be the same God who oversees such merciless wholesale bloodshed? Conversely, how can I believe in and worship – let alone love – such a God? Reading these passages from the Bible I just felt horrified; this God seems monstrous, barbaric, tyrannical, unfair, unloving and unlovable. I couldn’t help it: I just felt utter hatred towards him.

Now I know that you can’t just read the Old Testament through modern spectacles, judging it by the standards and morals of our time. I realise that this was a bloody and brutal age; killing, warfare and even genocide were pretty much everyday realities. I know all sorts of reasons, justifications and excuses for these biblical atrocities. But the fact remains – the Bible that I’m asked to view as ‘God’s Word’ records that God commanded and approved mass killings of men, women and children who had apparently committed no crime other than belonging to the wrong people-group and maybe worshipping the wrong gods. (Which I realise did often involve some fairly unpleasant practices, to be fair.)

The God I know and the God I don’t

It’s my habit every night before bed to go into our kids’ room and pray for them (often fairly perfunctorily, I’ll admit). Last night as I tried to pray, I felt such ambivalence. How could I pray to this God? How could I ask him to look after my children, when if the Bible’s to be taken at face value he’s overseen the killing of so many other people’s children?

And yet… and yet; I knew as I looked at my children that if God is real at all, then the goodness and loveliness I see in them comes from him and is a pale reflection of his own goodness and loveliness. I knew – I know – that the total love I have for them comes from him and reflects his own infinitely stronger, purer love. This is the God I know. I simply can’t be more moral, loving or good than God – that is an impossibility.

All children love their parents, but at times they all hate them too. “I hate you!” is as much a legitimate and necessary expression of a child’s feelings towards his or her mum or dad as is “I love you”. You can love and hate the same person, even sometimes at the same time. So I can and do hate God as well as I love him; indeed, I hate him because I love him, just as a child sometimes hates the parents he loves, rather than the stranger he doesn’t.

Hate is not the opposite of love, but rather its corollary, counterpart and companion. The real opposite or negation of love is indifference, coldness, a total lack of care and interest and relationship. In hating someone you actually draw close to them; fighting can be a lot like embracing. If I didn’t love the God I know, I wouldn’t hate the God I see in parts of the Bible and don’t understand. (It feels a bit like discovering that the dad you hero-worship is also an extermination camp guard, as Bruno does in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.)

The bottom line for me is – God is good, God is love, and God looks like Jesus (in character, not physical appearance). God has to be good – or he is not God. He has to be loving, or he is not God.

So the God I read about in parts of the Old Testament is a God I simply don’t know, don’t understand. I accept that somehow it is a picture of the same God (I don’t buy the easy cop-out that Yahweh is not the same as the Christian God), but I have to put it to one side for the time being. That’s not to let him – or me – off the hook. It’s simply an acknowledgement of an unresolved tension, a currently unanswerable question that I need to live with. I can only relate to and follow the God I know at all, however partially and hazily, rather than the one I don’t.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Anger at God, Bible, Controversies, Dark night of the soul, Ethics, Evil, Fundamentalism, Love of God, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Hating the God you love (and loving the God you hate)

  1. Terry says:

    Some good stuff, Harvey.

    I regard many Old Testament texts as theological interpretations of why things happened in the way they happened. No history is without interpretation, but I think in many ways, certain OT texts are a deliberate reflection, even spin, on things. So with Saul, it seems to me that the OT editors at this point are trying to reflect on David’s meteroric rise to power in the context of a theocracy. A bit of a simplistic answer that I can’t back up (yet?).

    Of course, this doesn’t really provide any neat answers, because we still have to wrestle with why the OT editors thought that God was involved in the precise ways they involve God…! And this approach does raise the issue of the editors’ inspiration when editing what is now Scripture.

    I’ll shut up now!

    • Thanks Terry – and please don’t shut up! I think you’re thinking along the right lines, and I’m very interested to hear more. My responses to the Bible are from a fairly uneducated perspective; I’m not aware of a lot of the scholarship that’s been done around these passages. So I’m always keen to hear your more theologically-trained views!

      The whole area of scriptural inspiration is something I struggle with. I’m not prepared to abandon it and say that the OT is uninspired, but I do feel the need to rethink what ‘inspiration’ actually means and implies.

  2. Eric says:

    I think that at least one part of this story is one that really is changed by having a better understanding of the culture and context of the story. You say, “we have the final ruin of Saul, utterly rejected by God – apparently just for not killing all the people and creatures he was commanded to, and for offering some unauthorised sacrifices.” I’d say “just?” Saul has usurped the priestly role from Samuel. That’s not a small matter – neither Saul nor David are Levites, let alone of the priestly line, and so the power of the monarchy will always be held in check by the power of the priests. I’ve argued this case at some length here (http://thejawboneofanass.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/saul-uzziah-and-the-hasmoneans-part-i/) but I think that Saul is attempting to create a traditional Near Eastern theocracy where the king is high priest (priests being a powerful aristocratic class) or actually a divine being himself. In contrast, David always views himself as someone empowered by God who must listen to God’s prophets and support the rights of God’s priests (also theocratic but a decidedly different flavor of theocracy). Saul’s vision of Israel is as opposed to God’s work in Israel as firmly as the worship of the Ba’als and this is so almost exactly because it claims to be what God is doing while not being that.

    I actually think that David’s actions are not always seen as good in the books of Chronicles – David is, after all, prevented from building the Temple because “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth.” (1 Chronicles 22:8) However, David is always willing to accept correction which is what is critical, I think. Under a Davidic style of kingship God can continue to work with Israel. Under Saul’s style the king would oppose God’s work.

    I’d also point out that both Jesus and his apostles seemed to see the work that Jesus did as coming naturally from the Old Testament. Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount is especially instructive in this regard (I think he means you to understand it as a new Sinai) because he prefaces it with the statements about fulfilling the Law which are followed by statements in which the Law is quoted and then reshaped. I mean to argue this more fully as a series of articles but I think that, in general, the writers of the New Testament see the Old Testament as being the first half of a ballistic arc. The ball has been thrown, it’s going somewhere, and it hasn’t gotten there yet. However, given how it’s going we know where it should end up and that is, somehow, obviously Jesus (at least obviously once you’ve seen him). This allows them to assert a strong ethic of love that seems at odds with parts of the Old Testament (because it’s just the first part of the throw) and yet connect Jesus firmly to those narratives (because he’s where the ball lands).

    • Thanks Eric – you make some excellent points, and I look forward to reading your articles. I’ll freely admit that my response to those OT passages was primarily emotional rather than intellectual, and I also realise that in viewing the ancient world through modern eyes I’m not doing justice to the complex social and theological issues involved. Nonetheless, we can only respond to the Bible from our own position and on the level of our current understanding, while realising that we do only have a partial and provisional view.

      I agree that there seems to be a fundamental difference between the character of David and of Saul; that David is correctable and also passionately devoted to God, whereas Saul seems lukewarm and half-hearted at best. Nonetheless, God chose Saul, presumably knowing his character; Saul did not initially seek the kingship and even seemed quite reluctant to take up the appointment. There are times when you can’t help almost feeling that God sets Saul up to fail, perhaps to show that Israel was wrong to want a king.

      However, my main point is not about the correct interpretation of the Old Testament; it’s simply what you do when you feel an emotional response of anger and hatred towards God based on what you read in the Bible or experience in the world, and whether actually justified or not.

  3. Eric says:

    When it comes to that main point I quite agree with you. I happen to be rather passionate (obsessed?) about the ways in which we read the Bible and how this helps or hinders us. The Old Testament always seems to be fertile ground for misunderstanding and my inevitable rants.

  4. Rosie Edser says:

    and on a more flippant note, here’s how that sentence could have ended;
    “and yet; I knew as I looked at my children that if God is real at all, then the goodness and loveliness I see in them comes from… ” the fact that they are currently fast asleep!

  5. dsholland says:

    The honesty in your comments confirms the reality of your faith. To confront those questions demonstrates that you know He doesn’t depend on your perspective to exist.

    When these times come (as it seems they must) waiting on His answer is the key. He gives grace and understanding and (at least in my experience) when it comes it is so blindingly obvious we wonder why it took so long to see.

  6. Drew says:

    I dont know if you have ever read the book Disturbing Divine Behavior by Eric Seibert, but I must say that it was an extremely helpful book for me. Perhaps you might find it helpfjl as well.

  7. johnm55 says:

    Kings and Chronicles are history books and history gets written by the victors. Our mistake is to see them as anything more than a telling of ancient myths and legends, put them on the same shelf as Homer.
    On a wider point humanities perception of god changes with the time and place that a follower finds themselves in. I am reasonably sure that your perception of your god is fairly or even radically different to the perception of a person following the (nominally) same god in a shanty town in Sub-Saharan Africa..

    • Hi John, I take your point – to an extent :-). The interesting thing for me is that, if this is history written by the victors, it’s highly unusual in presenting such an unflattering picture of the Israelite people and their kings, whose very human faults and failures are highlighted in great detail. One explanation that’s often put forward is that these texts were compiled during the time of the Exile, and therefore there’s a need to explain why Israel has apparently fallen from favour. Whether or not that’s actually the case I have no idea – I’d file it under interesting but inconclusive.

      I’m also not sure that Kings and Chronicles are strictly histories; they contain history but it seems to me that their main emphasis is theological rather than historical. They’re not so concerned with the precise details of what happened as with why it happened, and what that has to do with God and their covenant relationship with him.

      I certainly agree that my view of God will be very different from that of the average sub-Saharan Christian. That’s not a problem to me – I’m well aware that I’m probably as far out from the full picture as they are. I can also look at the same night sky as them and have an entirely different understanding; I suspect neither of us really has the full truth though.

  8. David holland says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post a lot, and the thing is hate is personal, like you mention. When we hate it usually involves a sense of loss, something taken or denied. Outrage for an impersonal loss, but hate is close to the bone.
    The things you mention seem to miss that mark. Oh sure it messes up our concept when God doesn’t fit the box, but hate over that?
    Were you trying to say something else, or did I miss the point?
    I feel like we have shared enough so that I can ask without offending. Hope I got at least that part right.

    • I take your point, but for me it is personal – very much so. This is the God who I love, who I’m called to worship and trust and give my all to; the one who promises to care for me and my loved ones. When I read the Old Testament and see a God who – to my eyes – looks like a heartless, even evil monster and a killer of children, I feel betrayed. Simultaneously I feel that this God simply cannot be my God, the God I know and love, and I feel hate towards this being who’s claiming to be my God but (my heart protests) cannot be.

      So I think hate is a perfectly valid response; it’s certainly what I feel, and I’m learning that there’s little point denying your feelings, even if rationally you know they’re unfounded. As I said, children often say (and for the moment mean) ‘I hate you’ to their parents when they feel that their parents are being unfair or harsh or unkind; that’s simply how I’m responding to the God I see presented in these passages.

      As you’ve probably seen, I’ve just posted a follow-up piece presenting a more rational response.

  9. David holland says:

    The child who asserts hate is being childish, and (IMO) selfish. Their perspective (at that moment) is entirely self-centered. If your emotion parallels the child’s then does your perspective?

    Feelings and emotions are absolutely real, part of maturity is recognizing when they are valid (justified).
    I guess I need to read the next post.

    • Hey David, I’m wondering if I’ve slightly stepped on a raw nerve here?

      I don’t agree that a child asserting hate is necessarily being selfish. They’re simply responding at the level of their limited understanding to a situation in which their parent is apparently being (as my daughter would put it) ‘mean’. The parent of course knows that they aren’t being mean (well, to be fair sometimes they are!), and that they’re generally acting in the child’s best interests or according to some larger agenda. But the child can’t be expected to understand or appreciate that.

      I do agree – to a degree – that recognising when feelings are valid is part of maturity. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to acknowledge them, even if you know rationally that they are ‘unjustified’. Usually they’re still telling you something important, if only about yourself.

      Furthermore, I do think that it’s not only valid but right to hate and oppose a god who behaves monstrously – and to do so in the name of Christ. However, the question is whether the Old Testament God actually is such a monster, and I argue strongly in my next post that he isn’t.

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