When God Lets Us Go
The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by His messengers because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, till the wrath of God rose against His people, till there was no remedy. II Chronicles 36:15
The account from the Book of Chronicles tells the story of the final events in the pre-exilic history of Judah, after which in 586 the nation would be taken captive into Babylon. The history of Israel account in the concluding chapters of Chronicles is a particularly grizzly tale of national apostasy, idolatry, and the rebellion of the kings. After good king Hezekiah came Manasseh, who built altars to the hosts of heaven, listened to sorcerers and wizards, and burned his sons as an offering in the valley of Hinom. The story ends with the faithlessness of Zedekiah, who, refusing to hear the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. God “stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord. The leading priests and people likewise were exceeding unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations, and they polluted the house of the Lord which He had hallowed in Jerusalem” (Chronicles 36:11-14). Even then because He had compassion for the people and for His dwelling place, He “sent persistently to them by His messengers . . . but they kept despising His words and scoffing at His prophets, till the wrath of the Lord rose against His people.” So God sent Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans, and Israel went into slavery in a far land.
As it happens we have Jeremiah’s account of his prophecy to Zedekiah: “It is I who, by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me. Now I have given this land to Nebuchadnezzar” (Jeremiah 27). Nebuchadnezzar was a notorious tyrant, a worshiper of false gods, but, like every circumstance of history, an instrument of God’s providence. In His omnipotence and omniscience God had used circumstance to punish and chastise; when those He loves despise His words, He may withdraw for a time the hand of His blessing and give them over to evil.
It is possible to decline God’s message, to walk away from His commandments, as did Zedekiah and Israel. In the New Testament the rich young ruler did just that. He wanted to enter the kingdom, but when Jesus told him to sell his goods and give the money to the poor, he walked away (Matthew 19:21). When the philosophers on the Areopagus heard Paul’s preaching of the resurrection some believed but some mocked, and others suggested politely that such a weighty matter should wait for another day (Acts 1:32-34).
God may punish by sending the Chaldeans; He may also punish by allowing us to walk away. In the New Testament Romans 1 is an account of the destruction of those who will not hear the messengers God has sent, but in the text of Romans the messenger is not a prophet, although Paul himself could be considered such, but is rather the twofold witness available to everyman always: the witness of the world of nature around us and the witness of conscience. After an introduction in which he praises his host, the Roman Church, Paul turns at once to preaching the Gospel with power, beginning with his great principle that “He who is righteous through faith shall live” (Romans 1:15). Paul then offers a warning like that of John the Baptist, who called those he addressed a brood of vipers, challenging them to produce fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:7-8). And there is urgency in this: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18). Paul writes “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in things that have been made” (20). Augustine would later write, “The very forms in things cry out, God made me,” and great tradition that would exegete nature as evidence of God’s existence, culminating in the famous expositions of Saint Thomas Aquinas was off and running.
Once it seemed evident that nature attested its Maker’s existence, but perhaps not so much now. It has been a great work of the Other Side to encourage the view that because nature can be understood and its causalities patterned, its existence is obvious and its presence evidence of nothing beyond its surface. The proofs for God’s existence from the contemplation of nature are irrelevant if the question “Does God Exist” does not arise. Such questions as, might there be nothing? or why is there anything? or why is there pattern in being? or why are some things more perfect than others? Such questions are themselves significant parts of a common tradition that was once enjoyed by philosophers and poets, by everyman, questions that can be awakened. Asking them is not so difficult among those who do not dominate but who serve nature, physicians and gardeners. Children find them easier to ask than grown-ups, and there is good reason why Jesus taught that to enter His kingdom we must imitate their openness. Often the question of God’s existence and power emerges when the project of dominating nature fails, when sickness or catastrophe strike. But that is not the ideal condition for the emergence of the great question, which is best asked when one looks out at the world. The great English philosopher Austin Farrer wrote in a text oft quoted but seldom surpassed for depth of insight:
The chief impediment to religion in this age is that no one ever looks at anything at all, not so as to contemplate it, to apprehend what it is to be that thing and plumb, if he can, the deep fact of its individual existence. The mind rises from the knowledge of creatures to the knowledge of their creator, but this does not happen through the sort of knowledge that can analyze things into factors or manipulate them with technical skill. . . . It comes from the appreciation of things which we have when we love them and fill our minds and sense with them, and see something of the silent force and great mystery of their existence. For it is then that the creative power is displayed of an existence higher and richer and more intense than all.
Presumably it was easier for the citizens of Paul’s world at least to enter into the wonder that encouraged them to believe that God exists. Then the heavens were at their fingertips, so that they might say with Paul that there is a terrestrial glory and a celestial glory, that there is one glory of the sun, another of the moon, yet another of the stars, that even then one star differs from another in glory; that a grain of wheat must die in order that God can give it the fruit and flower appropriate to it (I Corinthians 15:36-41). But it is part of Paul’s point that one may know all this, the evident power and divinity of the creator, and yet not honor Him or give Him thanks. For those who will hear nature is a messenger not unlike the messengers, Jeremiah and the prophets, sent to Judah in the days of Zedekiah, messengers whom they despised and ignored. Paul wrote that when his fellow Romans, having knowledge, failed to honor god and thank him, so God gave them up. There is more than one way that the Lord of every nation can bring rebels to Himself. One is through the agency of the Babylonians, through the harsh punishment of slavery and captivity. Another is through his abandoning us to our own willful ignorance. Remarkably, Paul points out that when we will not hear the testimony of nature and follow its evidence into thanks and gratitude, He will withdraw the very forms of nature from us. For Paul this meant the abandonment of the rebellious will to attacks on nature itself, the giving over of the most basic affections of the will to the frustration of God’s purpose in making the human race male and female: “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, He gave them up to a base mind and improper conduct” (Romans 1:28). Willful ignorance is punished with moral blindness. Paul goes on to say that this blindness is but the beginning. Thus those who will not hear God are given over to the enemy as surely as Judah was given into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.
And if the evidence of the mind gained through the contemplation of nature, the first great messenger, were not enough, the second, the voice of conscience, would suffice. That a sense of right and wrong is innate to the human person should not require argument, for it is self-evident that at our worst we believe unshakably that we are right, and not only that we are right but that we are right in such a way that other reasonable persons should recognize our rightness. The tax assessor has been unjust and our colleagues have been unfair in assessing our efforts; these are truths that court acknowledgement as more than opinions. And this is rooted in that second universal messenger, a voice accessible, says Paul, even to gentiles without the law, as is evident from the fact that they assess praise and blame, culpability and ignorance, on the basis of a presumed knowledge of what is right.
On the accounts of Jeremiah and Paul, what kind of world should be expected when the messengers are ignored? This is Paul’s description: “Filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decrees that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:29-32). Nobody can practice all these vices on the same day, but are not Paul’s words descriptive of what might be called the default position of a world reluctant to hear God’s messengers, and therefore destined for captivity worse than slavery in Babylon, that slavery of the will that refuses to hear the testimony of nature and of conscience?
It is noteworthy that Paul, having finished his catalog of the world of moral decay he addresses, reminds the reader that he is not reciting with alarm the sin of those outside the reach of his apostolic mission, but is addressing his contemporaries, hearers of the word, members of the Roman Church, who should remember that, being themselves sinners, when they condemn those who fall into those sins, they are condemning themselves, that God asks not revulsion and self-righteous condemnation but repentance. The abject failure of Judah under Zedikiah was not the end of the story, for after the nation’s return from Babylon, after long years of small things ennobled by flashes of courage, “when the time had fully come God sent forth His son, born of a woman . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4).
One may wonder why, given such a large Mediterranean world and so little time, Paul did not give in to the discouragement he sometimes felt. He did not because he was not a promoter or a salesman but a herald and he did not try to out-reason God. After he had done what he had been commissioned to do, his task was complete. He was not commissioned to effect the Constantinian imperium or the medieval synthesis; the future was in the hands of God, just as today Christians are not called to make America moral again or to make our religion effective in cultural terms, but to bear witness.