4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ [The manna] 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
I hate myself most of all
I still remember the shock that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world." I was not quite able to see the implication of my response to this verse some forty years ago, which was that I had somehow internalised the idea that God does condemn the world. Informing and colouring everything else was an underlying instinct that God does not really like us; that God barely tolerates us. It was as though this subliminal text ran between the lines on every page of my bible: You don't deserve this. God does not like you.
We speak of God's love, yet the way we see and feel this love is shaped by a fear or instinct that, in truth, at base, God does not love us or, at least, not me. God's love is very conditional.
Does this mean that God is not to be trusted? Do we hate God for this? Is God one of those wowsers (an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder) who, no matter what we do, or who we are, will always find something to condemn us with?
20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
Do you see how we read this verse as a moral fault on our part? We hate the light, therefore we are evil, is the way I have long read this verse. Might it, in fact, be that I still do evil because I hate the light, because who knows what the God who does not like me, might do to me if (he) sees me in my fullness? Of course I flee to the safety of the dark! If only I could get beyond this fear and walk into the light, into the fullness of life which John characteristically calls 'eternal life!'
In my forty years of wandering I have come to understand, and even experience in some degree, that God does not hate me. Indeed, God simply likes me. As an Australian male, growing up with the sense of being disliked, I cannot express how this overwhelms me. I have been shocked in (far too recent times) to discover that there are people who simply like me, regardless. The thought that God might be the same leaves me— I cannot say…
James Alison adds something profound to this.
God likes us. All of us. God likes me and I like being liked. It has nothing to do with whether we are good or bad, indeed, he takes it for granted that we are all more or less strongly tied up in the sacred lie. In teaching after teaching he [Jesus] makes the same point: all are invited, bad and good. [Bad and good] are our categories, part of the problem not part of the solution, not God's category. God's 'category' for us is 'created' and 'created' means 'liked spaciously, delighted in, wanted to give extension, fulfilment, fruition to, to share in just being.' (On Being Liked pp15)
Judgement is something we do. Condemnation is something we do. To ourselves, and to others. They are our categories. We pretend they come from God. We fear they come from God, because we imagine that God hates us or, at best, tolerates us. But God… likes us. Expanding the points Alison makes in this part of his book, I think we often hear "the love of God" as something like the love of the parent who is doing the right thing for a recalcitrant, wicked child out of duty; that child they don't really like; the child they regret but who, after all, is their child, so they have to do something. That's not the love of God. God actually likes us.
So "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world," but to show us that God likes us so that we can enter into the fullness of life. (cf John 10:10) It is we who hate. It is we who condemn, not God.
I know about hatred. I was devastated, and am still stalked and driven by, the teasing and bullying of kids at school. I was formed by that. Catch me in a weak moment, and I will respond not to you, but to the memory of a school child who, as far as I could tell, hated me. And my best moments still have that formation in the background.
With older eyes, I can see something more. The kids who made my life a misery, especially the earliest ones, must have felt I lived in a kind of paradise; we can smell where other folk come from, even if we don't have the words to spell it out. Once a target at school, a lot more kids join in, but the early tormenters came from what I now recognise to be impoverished situations; I recognise symptoms of abuse, and the recognition by kids of their already limited horizons. I saw dirt floors, and cold hostility between parents. I realised, years later, that another group of kids had left me alone; indeed, although I could not see it, I suspect some of them liked me! But they had little for which to envy me; comfortable houses, loving parents, and safe lives, were also theirs.
Wearing the cost of this envy, I accidentally came top of the class. What I mean is that I hadn't realised how easy school was for me; I wonder if envy of that ease did not provoke some of those who seemed to hate me. I had an easy relationship with adults, which included teachers, and learning came naturally to me. When I came top, it gave me a huge ego boost, and I began to realise that being clever and on good terms with adults was a potent weapon to even up the school accounts.
I worked at my superiority. I was more class conscious than the child of an English lord was. And I used it to hate back: I was not like them. I was better. More clever, better behaved, morally superior. I judged and condemned.
But most of all, I hated myself. I had learned a deep, unspeakable hatred of myself. Such hate can't be contained; it has to come out. So I deflected the hate onto others. I did it with considerable sophistication and power. Words are quite secondary; actions and attitude speak louder. I fear I was as brutal as the roughest kid in the school, but effortlessly aligned with and protected by the forces of power (the teachers,) absolutely sure of my superiority, and unconscious of most of what I was doing. I gave another damaged kid an excuse to lay into me once. I suspect now that the beating had little to do with the subject at hand, and that he was retaliating for years of contempt.
What I have been trying to lay out in these last paragraphs is the environment which formed me. Which is to say, the environment which dictates how I see the world. And which profoundly influences how I read and hear scripture.
This is not just me. The most pervasive pastoral issue I have encountered as a minister, is self-hatred. Much christian 'humility' seems to me to be an often poorly disguised self-hatred. And the self-hatred comes from our perception, often correct, that others hate us. We seek to deflect hatred; the point of a scapegoat is that the bad we ascribe to them lets us believe we are not so bad after all. But I think we can never quite believe ourselves. Deep down we "know" we are the really hateful one. We have learned the lessons.
When times are anxious, hatred explodes all over the place. The notion that God only loves, and does not condemn; and suggestions that hell might not be real, but is an imagination of our making, are either met with bemusement: what was the point of Jesus dying, then? Or are met with a surprising rage; look at the comments under any article on universal salvation.
I've written about my experience in some detail to indicate how deeply entwined we are with hatred. I don't think this is just me seeing hatred everywhere because of my personal wounding. Walter Wink said we live by the myth of redemptive violence. We believe hate will save us. Violence is not an impartial given; it is a striking back at something, and its fuel is hatred.
Where is all this going?
In more formal language
judgment is a self-judgment of choosing to live in darkness rather than light. Jesus comes to reveal to us the light of a God who doesn’t judge us in the fashion of Satan the Accuser. In fact, in Jesus God sends us the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused. But we don’t seem to want live in that light of grace. We trust the ordering power of Satanic judgment more than the grace of Jesus, and so we continue to choose to live in the darkness of ordering our human community according to the judgments of the Accuser. We bring judgment on ourselves by continuing to live by that judgment. (Paul Nuechterlein)
To put it bluntly, judgement is what the refusal to trust God (because we think God hates us) does to us. Nuechterlein says of the story in Numbers where the people complained and the serpents came,
No individual is named as the culprit in this story; it is about the community’s collective complaints, shared horror, and communal redemption. (Ibid)
We are formed by our community, and we are a part of it. He says of that community
Salvation in this story comes not as an omnibus cure for spiritual ills, but as a way of reckoning with the structural evil of rejecting God’s provision. The people were required to look directly at the result of their unwillingness to accept God’s provision. (Ibid)
We have been bitten by our unwillingness to accept God's provision, by our insistence that God hates us rather than loves us. It is that we need to look at; the thing which bites us.
If the elevation of the bronze serpent interprets for us the elevation of Christ on the cross, salvation includes our own reckoning with how we either accept or reject Jesus as God’s provision. And the cross, of course, is not merely a device for elevating something so that all can gather around and see. It is an instrument for inflicting torture, in order to overcome enmity through violence. That is the sin we must gather to see, to look square in the eyes, and with which we must reckon. (Ibid)
To look at the thing which has bitten us, is to look at the hatred; to see that our hatreds are little crosses wielded by us in the hope of overcoming enmity. And to trust Jesus when he says this does not work, and that the only way is to cease the violence and hatred. This is something which I can tell you I am unable to do. I am not able to stop hating; hate is woven into the paper on which my life is written.
But trusting Jesus that God likes me, and is not out to get me; trusting Jesus enough to live with compassion, standing alongside others, somehow breaks the cycle of hatred. I find, here and there, that I have simply stopped hating and fearing. And that, in some places, I stop hurting. With no effort on my part.
We don't try to change ourselves. We seek to love and let ourselves be changed. This actually happens; it is of God.
I think that's a way of speaking about Grace, the experience that God so loved the world, but I have no idea how it works. It just does.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
John 3:14-22 - Standing in the Good Wind
Also at One Man's Web are a number of articles on John 3:1-17. They are listed here.
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