Wednesday, March 14 (O.S., March 1), 2018: Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent; Venerable Martyr Eudokia of Heliopolis († 160-170); Venerable Martyr Olga († 1937); New Hieromartyrs Priests Basil, Peter, John, Benjamin, and Michael, Venerable Martyrs Anthony, Anna, Daria, Eudokia, Alexandra, Matrona, Martyrs Basil and Hope († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexander († 1942); Martyrs Marcellus and Anthony; Martyrs Nestor and Tribimius (3rd C); Martyr Antonina of Nicæa, in Bithynia († c.284-305); Venerable Martyrius of Zelents († 1603); Venerable Domnina of Syria († c. 450-460); Venerable Agapius of Vatopedi.
God is always ready to come to our defense. “Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would set out against them, I would burn them up together.”
Eager to help us though He is, God will not help us against our will. God will not impose His grace on us. Immediately after these verses God says “let them lay hold of my protection, let them make peace with me, let them make peace with me.”
Before God exercises His power on my behalf He exercises it, if I can speak this way, against Himself. God restrains Himself. Or, in St Paul’s phrase, He empties Himself “and takes the form of a slave” (see Philippians 2:7, NRSV).
Even when God does exercise His authority, He does so with restraint. This can be hard to realize because often the Scriptures use images drawn from human warfare when it talks about God defending His people.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is a good illustration of how the image of warfare is used to discuss God liberating us from sin. But such language isn’t used without qualification. To do so would suggest that God was simply one warlord among others when He isn’t.
Referring to God’s response to the sins of Jacob and Israel the reader is asked to consider God has “smitten them as he smote those who smote them? Or have they been slain as their slayers were slain?” The answer is “No!”
Human rulers make war against their enemies to destroy them; God makes war against His enemies to heal them. “Measure by measure, by exile thou didst, contend with them; he removed them with his fierce blast in the day of the east wind. Therefore by this, the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin.”
The false altars are pulled down and, in Christ, a new altar is erected so that we can “worship God in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24, NKJV).
But if God doesn’t impose Himself on us, if He respects our freedom and waits on our response to His invitation why do the Scriptures so often talk about God making war on His people, punishing them with sickness, poverty, harsh weather, exile and even death?
It often feels like God goes to war against me because I’m at war with myself. In my life, I am the enemy God must overcome.
Look at Ham. In exposing the shame of his father Noah, Ham is both his father’s enemy of and his own. I’m Ham. My willingness to harm you harms me. Making you my enemy makes me an enemy to myself.
Solomon condemns the wicked man who “acts shamefully and disgracefully.” While the particulars differ, at one time or another, we are all this wicked man just as we are all Ham.
God doesn’t go to war against me. I have gone to war against myself in my refusal to love my neighbor. Like good deeds to “the slothful,” grace often feels to me like “forced labor.”
Like “the scoffer” I don’t “listen to rebuke,” I refuse to take God’s correction of me to heart. I do not repent of my sins. I war against God and neighbor and so war against myself.