Recently, (January 2014), an otherwise unknown and unremarked local town councillor gained brief notoriety because he wrote to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to tell him that the recent severe floods in the south of England were divine punishment for his having legalised gay marriage.
This was the cause of much hilarity and much lampooning in the press. The councillor’s political party took pains to distance themselves from him, his local council are undertaking disciplinary measures against him, and even the councillor’s own church were quick to step back from his position.
All of which, due to my contrary nature, encouraged me to think about whether the man could be right? Does God still do that kind of stuff? Do nations nowadays have to pay a price for flouting the divine will? Is blasting and pestilence still the divine response to human wickedness?
The Old Testament contains quite a lot of that sort of thing. Although, it must be noted that the people of God are the prime concern of God, the surrounding nations seem to be less targeted. Which is only logical. Only Israel was in a covenant relationship with God and this covenant specified very clearly that there were certain blessings to be expected for obedience to the divine will and that certain curses would be the divine chastening response for acts of disobedience, and all these were to be experienced at a national level (Leviticus 26).
The surrounding nations seem to be a target for divine judgement more in view of how their behaviour impacted upon Israel, which, again, has a certain logic in the divine history of revelation and redemption.
In general terms blessing and cursing seem to be both the natural consequences of certain actions and also a divine response that goes beyond what might be expected. The Levitical regulations for social organisation contain directives about access to justice, limitations on the powerful, protections for the weakest members of society. One might naturally expect that a society which embodies these positive values might be harmonious and thrive – which would be a natural blessing for obedience to God’s will. However it is clear from the list of blessings that they go beyond this naturalistic effect.
Similarly a society that embodies all the various behaviours that God condemns would be riven with dishonesty, injustice, oppressive and one might well expect it to implode socially, politically and economically. However, once again the divine curses for this kind of behaviour go beyond this.
Thus there are clearly two interrelated mechanisms in operation – a naturalistic cause and effect and also an over-arching divine response which amplifies, or goes beyond what is simply natural.
It must also be noted that the cursing / blessing mechanism contains many anomalies. The book of Jonah recounts the clearest of these. The violent, oppressive and bloodthirsty nation of Assyria is not to be destroyed as would be expected, but rather to be the recipient of a divine invitation to repent.
Even within Israel, the blessing / cursing system seems to be somewhat inconsistent in application. Indeed many of the psalms are based upon the painful experience of this. The psalmist cries out to God asking why he, a devout, God-fearing man, is experiencing disaster and shame whilst the wicked prosper (Psalm 73)?
It is these texts that give us the key to the problem, as the psalmist finishes by remembering that he has not yet seen the end of the story. That justice will be done ultimately, even if not in this life-time.
“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me,
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16-17, NIV)
It is this idea of present incompleteness that Galatians 6 picks up on.
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction;
the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Let us not become weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9, NIV)
But where does this leave us regarding our current problem?
We note that the New Testament is devoid of divine activity at a national level. Jesus was ambivalent towards the occupying (and brutal) Roman army (Matthew 22:21), much to the chagrin of the messianic currents in contemporary Judaism. We have no prophetic words in the New Testament addressed to nations warning them of the consequences of rejecting the divine ordinances for behaviour.
Judgment is strictly limited to the people of God – the Church. We see many instances where divine blessing and divine cursing is directed towards congregations and towards individual Christians (Acts 5, 1 Corinthians 11:30, Revelations 2-3).
This is what we would logically expect if the Church has indeed become the locus of divine activity in the same way that the Jewish nation was under the old covenant.
Now it is the Church, individual congregations, Christians who are the focus of God’s activity. It is we who represent him on earth, it is we who are charged with accomplishing his will, it is we therefore who are under his discipline and will experience his gracious blessing on our obedience and his fatherly chastisement when we go astray.
Again, as in the Old Testament, this will not be experienced in a mechanistic idealised manner. God is gracious and gives us time to repent, therefore wrong decisions, or actions do not release an immediate response. Also God often works in our lives through hardship and difficulty. Thus not all negative experience is a result of divine displeasure. (It must also be noted that neither can success and ease be correlated in a simple manner to divine blessing).
So what about the issue of the “Gay Floods”? Can we now make some definitive statement about that?
I think the first thing to say is to repeat the oft-quoted phrase that judgment starts with the house of God.
For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household;
and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)
It is the Church that is God’s primary locus of action, it is the Church and churches that will therefore be the first to experience God’s blessing and cursing upon their actions.
When prophets rise up to condemn wickedness, it is the Church that they address first and foremost. It is the people of God, we who have sworn ourselves to God’s worship and service, who have chosen to join ourselves unbreakably to him and for eternity, it is we whose behaviour is under divine scrutiny.
That said, to the question “Do nations still experience curses for their disobedience to divine ordinances?” I would reply “Absolutely”.
The naturalistic effects of choosing to operate in a way that is opposed to God’s will must always bring negative consequences.
One can look at the rejection of marriage as a permanent institution and see that the consequences have been negative – for the individuals concerned (studies show that long-term people are no happier and that they are economically impoverished by divorce) , children (studies show they tend to do less well in terms of schooling, studies and their own relationships tend to follow the model of their parents), society (a large proportion of households have to be supported by the state due to the impoverishment that occurs – particularly for women).
We can look at the connected issue of sexual morality and see that the social consequences have been disastrous – teenage pregnancy and the concomitant effects in terms of economic and personal achievement that often follow; an explosion in sexual disease and the infertility issues that can result.
We can look at the rejection of honesty and integrity as essential elements in business life, political life, and general social interaction and see that the results have been disastrous. There is no longer any element of trust or confidence in anything other than legally binding agreements; politicians are scorned and treated with contempt as their words are almost never trustworthy, we have even invented a new form of lying called “spinning” especially for this. We are having to try to bring in more and more legal regulation of areas of economic and political life in order to thwart such behaviour e.g. politician’s expenses, banker’s salaries and bonuses.
The moot question is therefore not do we experience cursing for disobedience – we certainly do and are – but rather does God act beyond these naturalistic effects?
This I think is less clear. Nations do not seem to be the main locus of divine action – the Church is.
Certainly God can and does control the fate of humankind and the nations form part of this and, as such, they rise and fall at his command.
I can’t help wondering that if God were to decide to punish a nation for disobedience, what would that look process look like?
God would certainly send a prophet to warn the nation beforehand.
From the experience of Old Testament history, those prophets would certainly be mocked, derided and held up for widespread contempt.
Rather like what happened to a certain town councillor.