The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Three
In the previous post, I touched on how our citizenship in heaven claims Jesus and his ways as the lens through which we approach the world. Next, we will dive in to the primary passages that directly addresses how christians are to interact with the government.
Love and Wrath on the World Stage
Romans 13:1-7 is perhaps one of the most contentious passages in scripture. Time and again it has been mangled and manipulated in order to convince the Church that it should prop up inhumane regimes of man. Perhaps the most poignant example is found in Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, but even today we see this same attitude of appeasement in less dramatic fashion. So how do we approach this scripture in order to discover Paul’s true meaning? There are two primary points we need to make: One hermeneutical, and the other theological.
First, we must remember this passage is part of a much larger letter. Sometimes this is so blatantly obvious that we actually forget it, especially in our fast-moving culture that craves summaries and soundbites. The annotations in scripture, chapters and verses and the like, are blessings when they help us locate key passages with ease and divide it up for easier approach; however, it can all-too-often divorce a verse or paragraph from a larger discussion, thus obscuring the author’s original intent.
Secondly, and this is paramount, we must read all scripture through the lens of Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God, and the exact representation of his character (Hebrews 1:1-3). All the law and the prophets were just hinting at God’s final word spoken as His son. All the words of the New Testament are approaching and unpacking that divine Word. This means, difficult as it may be to process, we always favor the character and will of God as revealed in Christ as our compass.
So, it stands to reason, we must go to Romans 12 in order to understand Romans 13. It helps to imagine three mountain peaks in the epistle to the Romans: 5, 8, and 12. All three chapters begin with “therefore”, telling us Paul is summing up the preceding idea and taking us to the next one. Chapter twelve begins the discussion of what it looks like for us to live as “living sacrifices”, not conforming to the culture around us but being transformed to look more like Jesus (12:1,2). I would encourage you to pause and read the whole chapter, and we’ll focus on those last fews lines:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21)
The final line, in particular, becomes our guide for where we go next. This passage confounds both extremes of how we assume we are to approach the political systems of the world; either through passive obedience or zealous revolution. Recall that the church to which Paul writes his letter is one quite literally in the shadow of the Roman empire. They are daily reminded they live in a world where Caesar claims to be lord and savior. Perhaps they feel that unction to stand up against the government as faithful ambassadors of Christ, but they wouldn’t be doing it in a culture that permits that sort of disobedience, as ours does to some degree. Paul must find a way to help them learn what it looks like to allow Love to guide all actions of the Church in the heart of Empire.
So why the mention of God’s wrath, which seems anathema to the call to nonviolent love? Does God hold us to higher expectations in our conduct than He does Himself? This has actually been part of Paul’s longer narrative in his letter, stretching back to chapter one. There, he tells the story of Israel (and by extension, humanity) consistently and consciously choosing to pursue their own desires and passions at the expense of God (Rom. 1:18-32). Three times it says, as a response to mans’ rejection of Him, God “gave them over” (1:24,26,28) to the things they were pursuing, and this is key to redeeming our understanding of wrath. Often, we approach the idea of God’s wrath as something akin to the old pagan images of Zeus, perched upon a distant mountain, ready to zap us with a lightning bolt the first chance he gets. This, however, is not the icon of God we see revealed in Jesus, an image that dramatically shifted how Paul read the old testament story.
For my money, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) may be the most important single passage of scripture (although I often make the same argument for Philippians 2:5-11). In it, we see a narrative dramatically similar to the one Paul lays out in Romans 1. The son, a member of the household, goes to his father and asks for his inheritance early. The father, out of love for the son does not protest, but gives him want he demands. Before long, the son has spent all his money on the things he thought were so important, so much more worth his time and energies than the security of his father’s estate. He finds himself “in a distant land”, destitute and spiritually broken. In repentance, he turns back to his birthplace, hoping the father might take him back as a servant. But what does the father do when he sees him on the horizon? He rushes out the door, embraces the son, pushes aside his excuses and apologies, and garnishes him in robes and rings.
Do you see? It was the wrath of the father to give the son what he demanded. But this is not the retributive punishment we’ve been led to fear, but an act of love that honors free will and hopes for redemption and repentance. If God is love, then all His actions flow from love and must be defined in the language of love.
Wrath is God saying, “I love you so much I’ll let you walk away from me, in hopes that you will turn back to see what I have always offered you freely.”
This is why Paul, in his retelling of the narrative in Romans 1, carries on in the second chapter by saying, “do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (2:4).
God’s wrath and His kindness are inextricably linked.
Scrolling forward to Romans 12 and 13, we can now see what exactly Paul is referencing when he speaks of wrath as it unfolds on the world stage. God works on two levels; both for those who actively pursue life in Him, and through the release and hopeful return of those who are disobedient. There comes a point where God allows the natural consequences of a fallen world to take their full course in order to discipline us to come back to Him. As He moves through time and space with us, working in and through history to draw all men unto himself (John 12:32), God uses the brokenness of human systems for His good purposes. He is able to bring good outcome out of intended evil. And this leads us to another important truth about God’s character, whether on a personal or global scale:
God’s sovereignty is His ability to turn curses into blessings.
Too often we use God’s omnipotence and insistence on sovereignty to create a scenario where He has ordained every movement in history, which then leads us to a scenario where God intentionally makes terrible things happen to humanity (again, that horrific Zeus imagery left over from our pagan pasts). We, as pathetic human beings, are merely acting out the divine play we have already been determined to walk, and this somehow points to His utter control, His glory. Yet that version of God sacrifices love at the altar of sovereignty. It eradicates the defining trait of humanity: our ability to choose in to loving Him and one another. It also paints a picture of a schizophrenic God that does not much resemble the beautiful portrait of Christ.
So if His sovereignty is less about God making things happen as much as it is about His ability to drastically alter the outcomes of brokenness, then God’s wrath met in His kindness is His use of man’s violent systems born out of our free will to cause us to turn back to Him as the true Author of peace (1 Cor. 14:33), and Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Our response then, as God’s people, is to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. We become the kindness of God that awakens our fellow humanity to His heart for us all, even as He uses the broken world to make the same claim for His character. It is the line “overcome evil with good” that sets us up to properly approach Romans 13.
Reflect and Pray:
- How do we approach the words of Paul through the lens of Jesus? Romans 12 is a good example of a passage where we try to qualify such bold statements because they seem impractical or unattainable. This is where our cultural norms cloud the message of Jesus. Pray that God might help you read scripture in such a way that it might dramatically shift your understanding of Truth.
- What have you grown up understanding as God’s wrath and sovereignty? How does that measure up to the picture of Jesus reflected in the gospels?
- You can read a summary of the church’s complex relationship with Nazi Germany here.
- Read Brian Zahnd’s blogs here and here for a beautiful discourse on what God really looks like.
- For a beautiful and heart-felt examination of this story, I would point you to Henri Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.
- I have found the work of Dr. Greg Boyd an interesting contribution to this topic of free will and sovereignty. Find an example here.