This beautiful psalm is the word of one overwhelming by the practical experience of God’s love. An illness bringing fears of death, the psalmist experiences God break through granting comfort and healing. I imagine as I read this psalm God as like a caring dutiful nurse. I remember being down with fever as a little child and mom coming in to take care of me until I felt better. God is here the One whose presence brings healing, deliverance from fear, and victory over death.
This experience leads the Psalmist to a stunning conclusion — God’s anger is but for a moment but God’s love last a life-time. So often this is not the image of God we learn from our faith. I remember waking one night with a fearful image in my mind of a place full of darkness, pain, and screams. I was a person newly committed to my faith, well aware of my areas of struggle where I did not live up to a Christ-like life. I had too been told not just of God’s love but also God’s justice, which was described as if it was an opposite of love. God had to punish sin and for those that did not overcome their sin there remained a fearful fate – life forever, cut off from God, cut off from peace, cut off from heaven, a life in dark miserable suffering. God’s anger, it seemed, lasted longer than a life-time into eternity although for some love and mercy was forever. I woke in a cold sweat, certain my own shortcomings would win out, that they were stronger than God’s love.
I since have come to realize the Psalmist’s words to be true. I can’t say I know for sure how judgment and the life after will come together, but I know that God’s love is greater than death. As Paul tells us in Romans 8 there is nothing we can encounter – life, death, disease, suffering, persecution, the devil, angels, darkness, height, depth, our successes, our failings – that is so powerful as to leave God’s love broken in a pile in the corner, unable to fight for us in the struggle of this world. No, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
When I began to realize this, my fears of not overcoming my sin began to melt away like winter snow in the rising warmth of springtime. My life was in God’s hands, and my place with God is not of works but pure gift as Ephesians tells us.
I later encountered the words of Martin Luther King, which painted a picture of justice itself as not in opposition to love but as its natural result: “Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic… Power at its best… is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands in the way of love” (King, Martin Luther. “Where Do We Go From Here?” King Papers Project Website. Http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/where_do_we_go_from_here/ (Accessed April 23, 2012)).
Justice is God – and God’s people – correcting everything that stands in the way of love. Seen in this way God’s call for justice and for holiness is not God seeking to condemn, destroy, anyone let alone torture us for eternity. It is God attempting to push away every barrier to us being reconciled to God, reconciled to each other, and entering into the full life God intends for God’s children.
Seen in this way, I do not need to live in fear. God’s ongoing judgment of me, and of others, is aimed not at our destruction, nor our torture, but rather revealing to us those things in our life, our relationships, our society holding us back from fully entering into the life God intends. Even final judgment can be pictured this way. Although the image of judgment for sin has come to be pictured as a dark pit of eternal torment forever this is not the only image Christians have used. Early African theologians from Alexandria, Egypt pictured the “fire” as a cleaning fire, like the burn antiseptic has on a wound. Joining in their stream of thought Asian theologian Gregory of Nyssa pictured judgment like this:
“… since there is a necessity that the defilements which sin has engendered in the soul as well should be removed thence by some remedial process, the medicine which virtue supplies has, in the life that now is, been applied to the healing of such mutilations as these. If, however, the soul remains unhealed, the remedy is dispensed in the life that follows this. Now in the ailments of the body there are sundry differences, some admitting of an easier, others requiring a more difficult treatment. In these last the use of the knife, or cauteries, or draughts or bitter medicine are adopted to remove the disease that has attacked the body. For the healing of the soul’s sicknesses the future judgment announces something of this kind, and this to the thoughtless sort is held out as the threat of terrible correction, in order that through fear of this painful retribution they may gain the wisdom of fleeing from wickedness; while by those of more intelligence it is believed to be a remedial process ordered by God to bring back man, His peculiar creature, to the grace of his primal condition.” (Taken from Gregory of Nyssa. 2010. Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises. Grand Rapids, MI : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Kindle Electronic Edition. Loc. 17660- 17670)
Seeing judgment in all its forms more as God tearing down walls of divisions and applying medicine which, though painful as fire, brings healing, has helped me see God as one whose love endures forever, anger only lasting a lifetime. God’s anger is not God’s desire to punish but an expression of God’s pain to see our suffering.
Such a God is one in whom our lives can be held safe and secure, before who we can join in the words of 1 John that the one perfected by love will not fear the judgment for there is no fear in love; instead perfect love casts out all fear
Let it be so for each of us.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher