God’s Tough Love

07 - Gate to Heaven (iStock_000005458789Small-Cropped)My good friend, Chris Williams (aka “Wounded Warror“), and I share a common theological heritage. We were reared in fundamentalist Christian circles, which has given us a passion for pleasing the Lord and understanding His Word. Yet, like any manmade theological system, our tradition has also skewed our perspective of God. The same is true of all theological traditions, including Calvinism, revivalism, evangelicalism, and any other “ism” you care to name. Fundamentalism just happens to be ours.

After reading “My Husband Is Having an Affair with Pornography, What Should I Do?” he challenged me with a very insightful question. Because Chris has an impressive syllabus of Bible and theology training, my response reflects both the extent of his knowledge and the depth of his thinking. I also think his question is important enough to warrant an article, rather than a simple comment-level response.

Here is his question:


I am wondering about the separation you describe here by Cloud and Townsend. God does not separate from us in the way most of us think of separation. He says we can never be separated from his love, not the same thing you are advocating for the non-sinning spouse here. I know for me growing up severe separation was a problem, either too extreme or too lenient.

Calling someone into account based on the covenant of marriage seems to work better for me with my separationist background. I draw boundaries that are healthy, but that have nothing to do with withdrawing love or concern (you call it “loving response to sin” which is a great theme to explore, debunking the whole (if someone sins, run!) mentality.

Any helpful thoughts along these lines?

 Probably the most difficult task for this “recovering fundamentalist” has been to set aside notions about God that were handed to me by tradition in order to discover “the God who is there” (as the great Christian philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, used to call Him). I was taught that He is a God whose wrath is tempered by love, that His holiness is perpetually offended by the evil deeds of humanity and, were it not for grace, we would all cease to exist. For all their talk about His love, my well-meaning fundamentalist teachers saw righteous anger as the Lord’s essential nature, with all of His other attributes stemming from that central quality.

Thank God, I struggle less with that image of Him; however, I continually face a new danger. If I am not careful, my perspective will be influenced more by my reaction to fundamentalism than His self-revelation in Scripture. I risk seeing love as His essential nature with all other divine attributes existing to serve it. Unfortunately, this perspective is no better than the god of my tradition.

The fundamental flaw (forgive the pun) of both, the god of fundamentalism and my new designer god of love, is the notion that “the God who is there” can be defined by any one central quality. The Lord can be described, but He cannot be defined. Moreover, as soon as we see any of His attributes as existing in tension, we fail to see Him as He is. His wrath is not tempered by love, nor does wrath challenge His love. Each quality is a harmonious expression of the other. God’s wrath is an expression of His love, and love flows out of His holy indignation.

As we turn to Scripture, we discover a God who loves His creation too much to stand idly by while evil consumes it. Yet He has chosen to honor the autonomy—the gift of self-determination—He granted to humanity in the Garden before the Fall. Therefore, to remain true to His own nature, yet without rescinding His gift of freewill, the Lord expresses His love toward rebellious humanity by “giving us over” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28)—a concept known in theology as “judicial abandonment.” In this way, we are separated from God, though never beyond the reach of His love.

The concept of judicial abandonment (or divine separation) unites concepts of “boundaries” and “tough love.”

Boundaries begin, as I stated, with a clear understanding of who we are and what behavior we find acceptable. God hates evil because it is utterly contrary to His nature; therefore, He will not tolerate it in His presence. Nevertheless, He loves us. Therefore, as an expression of “tough love,” He has “given us over” to our sin—judicially abandoned us, ejected us from His presence—not as humans reject one another, nor as we adopt a “fight or flight” mentality, but as a means of redemption.

This “giving over,” by the way, is an active decision, not passive neglect. He didn’t merely turn His back on us; nor did He flee our presence as we might retreat from someone who has hurt our feelings. God handed humanity over to our sins, not merely out of frustration or resignation, but to accomplish a specific purpose: redemption. He ejected humanity from the paradise of Eden so that we would clamor to get back in. He exiled Israel from the Promised Land, so they would long for their Covenant. Hosea abandoned his unfaithful wife to her life of prostitution, so that one day, she would grow sick of her rebellion and return home. (God used Hosea as a dramatic illustration of His relationship with Israel, which in turn illustrates His relationship with humanity.)

Even today, the Lord judicially abandons individuals He loves for the purpose of redeeming them. For example, a drug addict cannot possibly fulfill his purpose as a human being until he wants to leave the impurity of his addiction behind. So, rather than enabling the drug addict by providing a hot shower and a soft bed, the Lord leaves him in the gutter to lie in his own filth until he decides he wants better.

In this way, God “separates” Himself from us so that we might be reconciled. He cast us away from His presence, yet He also prepared a means of restoration that requires no effort on our part and comes with no conditions but one: repentance. (That is also the crucial difference between a “redemptive divorce” and a conventional, “I’m rejecting you” divorce.) This will become clearer in my next post, in which I describe steps #4 and #5.

While God does indeed separate us from His presence, we are never far from His love.

2 thoughts on “God’s Tough Love

  1. Dear Mark,

    This article is soooo interesting and THOUGHT provoking. When we contemplate the wrath of God, does it not make you wonder why from all eternity God has had the attribute of wrath? I don’t mean to sound funny, but before angels were created and man, God was alone and who was there for God to display His wrath to/on? In other words what purpose did wrath serve before anyone was created? Remember, God is the same yesterday, today and forever. And I know He foreknew sin would enter into the world, but He could have prevented it from happening.

    In other words, God would have the attribute of wrath even if He never created anyone????

    I don’t suspect you have an answer, but it is interesting to contemplate, but I much prefer to think about His love.

    God bless,

    1. Interesting to consider that we will spend eternity getting to know the infinite person we worship. How foolish to think we have Him figured out!

      Great point about His never changing (immutability). His capacity for wrath is a response of His holy nature against evil. As we consider His nature over time, I suppose we would have to say that His capacity for wrath existed in potential only in the absence of sin. But then… here’s a brain twister…

      Time is one of the dimensions that defines and contains our universe. God existed before the universe and exists beyond it, including time itself. Beyond the bubble of time-space that defines the universe in which we live, supernatural beings (such as angels, demons, and the Triune God) do not experience time as we do. The ideas of “before,” “now,” and “after” would appear to be meaningless.

      We can only try to imagine what things are like in His realm. And everytime I do, I get that same feeling in my stomach as when I look over the precupice of a great height with no railing to prevent my fall. My tiny little mind likes the reassurance of gravity keeping my feet planted and the security of time giving context to my perception.

      Okay… enough daydreaming for me. I have a deadline to meet! 😀

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