Judgment and Grace in a Hungry World
Judgment and Grace in a Hungry World
God’s hand can be seen in the poverty in the world; his judgment is visible. In all our just and right efforts to mitigate it, we do well to remember that. In this second article, I want to clarify this argument and defend it against obvious opposing arguments. In this way, I will also develop a couple of practical conclusions.
In the book of Revelation we see the judgments of God pass over the world as the seals of the scroll are opened, the trumpets sound, and the bowls are poured out.
Characteristic of these judgments, as they are described there are:
- they exceed human measurement;
- they exceed the cause and effect of the laws of the known natural world;
- they are expressions of the wrath of God.
God’s Hand in Violence⤒🔗
1. God reveals his wrath — this is beyond the proportions of human handling and of human society.
This is not always the case. In Romans 1:18 and following, Paul shows how the wrath of God is revealed in human society: he gives them over to unrestrained sin. That is human action. Still, the severity of those actions is bewildering. This is no longer normal, not ordinary. From time to time, we call it inhumane; from time to time we call it bestial. We have the same experience when we analyze the injustice in the societies of the world, the violence, suppression, corruption, and unjust structures which keep people in poverty and deprive them of the wellbeing, development, culture and power available in this world.
A “judgment” is, literally, a lawful sentence. That God is angry with people is, in the first place, explained in the proclamation. God addresses the people as sinners. The proclamation of the Word is done through people, usually ordinary people; it does not always make an impression, it is not sensational. But when God lets us feel what he says and we begin to experience it, then it is arousing. When in Revelation 6 the seals of the scroll are opened, warfare bursts loose with all its misery, violence with weapons, economic misery, hunger, contagious diseases. It is still about human activity “…so that men would annihilate each other”. However, at the same time, it is godly action. This is noticeable in the proportions. God gives people over to the violence of war and people are victimized — who is able to turn that around?
2. The judgments in the book Revelation go beyond the severity of what we call “natural
disasters”. They are not accessible to analysis of cause and effect. They burst the bounds of our comfortable world. A minister, who in connection with a societal problem, an epidemic or a tsunami, wants to preach about one of the seals or one of the bowls out of the book of Revelation encounters difficulty. The plagues described are, on the whole, still different; more horrible in their strangeness. They are images of horror which we, in reality, do not encounter.
In connection with this, Christians have often been moved to say: In the future, the “end time”, in which we obviously do not yet live — it will be much worse than now. This leads to Christian horror stories.
That interpretation is doubtful. There are other possible interpretations. The plagues have a symbolic meaning. The change from water to blood points back to the plagues in Egypt, and thereby shows an alignment to the judgment from God. Demonic powers are also announced and portrayed; they are active in the disasters that occur. In every case, the judgments in Revelation show that God is actively involved with his world. He intervenes directly. Beyond the scope of human and natural factors, we must respect and have reverence for his majesty.
Poverty is more than only poverty. The word poverty is an easy classifier in a world image wherein the economy is central. But there is more involved. We express this in common word associations such as “poor and wretched”, “the poor and oppressed”, “the poor and the marginalized”, “the poor and destitute (indigent), “the poor and deprived” (people who have been robbed, denied justice). Poverty has to do with everything, with a lack of everything: politics, justice, morals and ethics, fellowship, health, room to live, safety, education… On every side disasters repeatedly break out which again lead to more poverty and frustrate development aid. Poverty is contagious: we speak of “sowers of poverty” (those who make paupers). It is disrupting; it is destructive. We do not know how to deal with it. Not only our actions, but also our analysis are broken off at our hands. What is still hanging above our heads, threatening us?
In the middle of the plagues in the book of Revelation, the threefold “Woe” resounds. Fear is forecasted for humanity. When God moves, people stand powerless.
3. Disasters, misery and poverty are an expression of God’s wrath — that is definitely not always
the case. To begin with, powerful phenomenons in nature are expressions of God’s majesty — refer to the last chapters of the book of Job. People who settle in the vicinity of a volcano or in the lowlands close to water, know what can happen to them. You cannot live without risk. And when the inevitable happens, it is not right to blame God.
Poverty can be a direct result of one’s own failings. Proverbs says that the lazy man becomes poor. That is a question of cause and effect; the hand of God does not even come into question in such a case.
The opposite is also said in Proverbs. The hand of the industrious makes him rich; diligent hands bring riches (Prov. 10:4f). Still, this is not a general law. The blessing of the Lord makes one rich; labour does not add to it (Prov. 10:22).
The poor are often the focus of God’s special care. He pities them; he pleads for them over against the suppression of the rich and powerful. He hears their calls for help. Their faith in him is tested, but not put to shame.
Poverty as judgment from God — we cannot apply that individually: a projection which says that the poor are the object of God’s wrath. This is also clear in the book of Revelation. At the opening of the seals, a fourth part of humanity is struck; at the sounding of the trumpets, a third part. It is not said which part; people are struck without discrimination. Throughout the book, those who belong to God are spared. Sometimes this is announced at the beginning of a plague; but in general we cannot gain insight in history as to how this goes and why some are struck and others not. When a fourth part is struck and then a third part, it is a warning that grows gradually stronger for the world as a whole. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2, 3, 5).
This points out that sin and judgment cannot, as a rule, be linked to each other . God’s punishments are not bound to the law of cause and effect. The problem is not that people did not take precautions to prevent the disasters or to mitigate the results of them. The problem is that they continued with their idolatry, murder, sorcery, sexual immorality and theft (Rev. 9:21).
Poverty in an area of the world is judgment over the world as a whole, not especially over social injustice, the injustice of the rich and powerful against the poor and powerless, but over all forms of sin, all godlessness and wickedness.
The final judgment, in the end, comes over Babylon, the rich city — not localizable (Rev. 11:8). It is a compilation of Sodom and Jerusalem, New York and Los Vegas, Rome and Mumbai — the symbol of the riches on earth, the power, the economic might, misused, corrupted, perverted — with its victims “…slaves, that is, human souls” (Rev. 18:13). All the riches will be destroyed in one fell swoop; a paltry bit of rubble will remain, poor, beggarly, miserable, helpless and so on.
Poverty as judgment from God — this does therefore not mean that the poor are more guilty than others. Poverty in a part of the world is a warning addressed to the whole world, also the rich Western world.
A connected cause has been determined: poverty and hunger in the world can be directly connected with human activity. The rich part of the world would be the section where a Christian work ethic has been implemented. Famine would not happen in democracies; there timely warning takes place if the available foodstuffs are not equally distributed. We do not need to speak about such types of analysis here. However, they will serve to demonstrate how God’s judgment and blessings work.
Poverty as judgment from God — that is real. It happens now. However this does not mean that it is now more real or actual than in earlier times. Earlier generations did not live less in “the last days” or “the end time” than we do. The book Revelation was current and applicable when pestilence spread through Europe, when the Turks stood before Wenen, when the Krakatau burst out, and now. The opposite is also valid; although it is true that there is more wealth in the world now than in earlier centuries, and less poverty, this does not lessen the seriousness of God’s judgment. It is also not the case that Revelation 6, 9 and 16 will only come into fulfillment in the future, and that the misery is still easier to overlook now. The extent, or range, and the intensity of suffering of people cannot be expressed in numbers. It is speculative to compare earlier times to now. It is time now to take the book of Revelation to heart.
I have kept the most important refutation for the last. Should we not speak less of judgment and more of grace? The answer is: the two go side by side. Grace is redemption from judgment, from a very real judgment. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Mercy says: yes, indeed, there is judgment, but I know a way in which we might escape it! Both are from God. In his wrath, he thinks of mercy (Hab. 2:3).
God’s righteousness encompasses both: judgment and grace. Therefore you cannot cancel one out with the other. It is discordant to desire to lay the emphasis more on the one than on the other. Judgment without grace holds out no prospect; it would be senseless to listen if it is proclaimed that you can do nothing about it. But the reverse side is: without judgment, grace does not become more wonderful; it fades, becomes cheap, something to take for granted. It would no longer be the message of Christ on the cross; he submitted himself to the judgment. Grace is real because judgment is real.
For this reason we desire so strongly to do something about the fight against poverty. Our motive is more than human pity or feelings of guilt — let alone the feeling of superiority of the arrived, fortunate possessors of the means, enabling us to deliver what miserable poverty stricken people are missing. The love of Christ compels us; the love of the only One who frees us from the judgment of God.
What does this point of view contribute to practical action?
1. When we try to promote the work of development, the fight against poverty, and social justice, it can and may be a deep motivation. It is more than the repair of a section of society. We try to show something of the grace of God in the lives of people who are sighing under judgment.
We respect God’s judgment is ongoing, and that it is not immediately finished. This makes us unassuming in our claims. We are not the ones who implement justice. We are sharing out of the justice that we ourselves have received from God.
It also makes us modest in our aspirations. We come as followers of a crucified Christ, from him who endured God’s judgment over this world. We are not founding a better world. “Justice, peace and wholeness of creation” — those are fine words; they represent a belief and a perspective which differs from a program. It is not about goals that we imagine we will achieve in x years.
But we are deeply motivated. We are not moving from a basis of optimism or “positive thinking”, or self-assurance, but from the basis of faith.
2. Aid in development, demands the preaching of the gospel. For us it is about people being saved from the judgment of God. In the help that we offer to poorer parts of the world, word and deed must go hand in hand. In the past, this was never as self-evident as it now sounds, but over time, it can be viewed as a consensus that has grown about the relationship between the two. (That still leaves enough material for discussion about the relationship with each other). Work in development without the gospel is not wrong; sometimes it cannot be done in any other way; but it is less effective. The goal of developmental work is to help the people obtain room to live, opportunity to hear the voice of the Lord, and to follow it.
3. Now a more specific conclusion. Economic and social disabling comes, as we saw, not just as a result of social injustice, especially in certain areas of the world. It is a judgment of God over idol worship and godlessness across the board, in the whole world; refusal to repent, unthankfulness, contentiousness, quarrelsomeness, sexual sins, alcohol and substance abuse and dishonesty.
Because of this, the fight against poverty and the work of development must not take place in isolation. Christians would do well to let themselves be led less by the hypes of the world. Obedience does not present itself, in the first place, in helping people in poorer countries; then, first, in care of the environment; then again, first, in evangelization. It is not, in the first place, a question of being active in specific programs.
Do we feel guilty when we, as rich people, are confronted with bitter poverty? Why? Perhaps we have not done any injustice to the poor. However, then we are guilty of other sins. And therefore we are, although we are not poor, subjected, with them, to judgment. Also we need to be saved from judgment. If we want to further social justice, we must do more than share our riches and expertise with the poor, more than rise up against oppression; we must repent across the board; and also urge others, discreetly, taking our position into account, to repent across the board. Radical aid in development is a matter of becoming holy. Improve the world; begin in relation to yourself.
4. Together all this will deepen our prayer life and make it more intense. Praying is more than asking for more food and money for the poor; more than asking for God’s blessing over our programs. Praying is, in the needs of the world, sighing under God’s judgments, calling for his gracious salvation in those needs; in faith. LORD, have mercy, come! That is what we pray for the poor in Kenia, Darfur, India, Burkina Faso, or for whomever to whom our heart reaches out. Including for ourselves.
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