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.