When something bad happens, there are those who take delight at looking at the horror and pronouncing that it is a judgment against the people who suffered. Of course, during every hurricane season, this is performed in a schizophrenic way. Somehow the hurricanes must be a judgment against the current administration, or against US policy here or there, or because we tolerate homosexuals, or pornography, allow people to own guns, don’t tax the rich enough, or some such thing. Odd, really, given that Washington DC wasn’t washed away when, say, Katrina hit New Orleans. And I don’t think that one can demonstrate that the majority of our nation’s gay population suffered from what happened along the Gulf Coast, nor, after a quick googling, have I been able to tell that there is any less pornography or less rich people available post-Katrina.

So if God is judging those particular sins which we might object to, are we going to also argue that God’s aim was off and instead of hitting the guilty people, instead of making the wicked homeless or drowned, it was, instead, a bunch of generally poor, sick and disadvantaged people who suffered in New Orleans, people who were already mostly living on the sucky side of life? God was just drunk or something, huh? And meanwhile, the wonderful people who brought us 911, suicide bombers blowing up old women and children, and sawing heads off slowly with dull knives while video tapes roll, dance with glee and point their fingers, informing us that God is indeed damning the infidel for his horrible toleration of Jews, gays, and uppity women.

You know what? If God is as powerful as we theologians like to point out, and as all knowing as we also argue, then don’t you suppose if he were judging whatever thing you imagine is most vile in American society, that he could do it without causing collateral damage? I mean, our own military has smart bombs that they can shoot down a stove pipe. Don’t you think God’s tech might be up to that sort of challenge?

In one of the stories of the Bible, Job’s friends watched bad things happen to him and then blamed him for his own suffering: “if you weren’t such a wicked sinner, none of this would be happening to you. Fess up. What have you done?” And the more poor Job argued for his innocence, the harsher his friend’s condemnations of his imagined sins became.

Of course, if we pay attention to what’s going on in the story, we will discover that Job’s friends had a bit of a problem: their theological understanding of God and how he works was identical to that of the Devil. Which should serve as a clue that there’s something wrong with what Job’s friends are arguing.

And what exactly is their argument? They believe that if you’re good, then God will bless you and if you’re bad, God will smack you. That’s what the Devil believed, too.

But you see, according to the story of Job, God doesn’t operate the way the Devil or Job’s friends think. According to the story of Job, even though just about everyone believes that God has a list, and even though most believe that if only they can find it, memorize it, and follow it to the letter, then all will be well—in reality, such a belief is mere superstition.

So why, then, do we do find lists in the Bible that are very specific about what things are good and what things are bad? Why does the Bible encourage us to behave?

But here’s a radical question: why do we think this listing of ethical and unethical behavior has anything to do with our relationship with God? Why do we imagine a cause and effect between our behavior and whether God loves us? What was it that Jesus did on the cross for us? Wasn’t Jesus already judged in our place?

Remember what Paul wrote: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11) TNIV

How many of us have someone in our life whom we are constantly doing stuff for? It seems like they are always in crisis, always having a flat tire, always needing a sink repaired, a computer hard drive defragged. We’re always watching their children, or lending them “twenty bucks till payday”. We’re always there for them.

But the first time we ask them to do something for us, they can’t help. “I’m sorry, but I’m all out of cash just now.” They’ve made plans. They are too busy, not interested, or something came up. They are never there for us and they always have very reasonable excuses for why they didn’t get back to us. We find ourselves forever giving and never getting anything back. We wonder why they have no problem asking us for help, while it is unreasonable to even hope for an acknowledgment, let alone a thanks.

Kind of like how it is when we take care of a baby, eh?

We get up at three in the morning, but when we ask them to mow the grass, they just cry and insist that we feed them or change their diapers instead.

Or how about this: our friends that keep a running tally on who’s done something nice for them? If we invite them over, they feel obligated to invite us over. In fact, they have a list of all the things we’ve ever done for them, and they keep a list of everything they’ve ever done for us, and they work hard at keeping the lists the same length. If we do something for them, they do something for us. They are always keeping track, keeping count, keeping a balance, as if they are a borrower and we’re a creditor. They don’t want to fall behind or feel indebted.

Is that a good way to live? Is that a fine way to relate to our friends? Do we relate to our parents that way? Is that what we expect of our kids? “Okay kid, I diapered your bottom for the last two years, now it’s your turn” or “you know, I’ve seen to it that you had food three times a day for the last eighteen years. I’m expecting payback real soon now.”

That sounds ludicrous, but how many people act that way with God?

“You know God, I went to church today, I put money in the offering, heck, I went twice today and that money…it was a TWENTY! Did you see that? Huh? And how about when that guy cut me off. I didn’t cuss once! And you know Jill down at work? I haven’t had an affair with her yet, now have I? And it’s not like she doesn’t want me.”

So how is it that we’ve decided that if we live good lives and do good things, that for that reason, God must protect us from the horrors of life? Ethics has nothing to do with whether God loves us. He simply loves us, just as we simply love our babies.

It is superstitious to imagine that the reason we lost the basketball game today is because we didn’t wear our lucky underwear. Or, if only we’d prayed more. If only we weren’t such sinners. Then God would have made us win that game. No. That’s all superstitious too. We lost because the other team played the game better.

It’s really as simple as that.

If you build your house on the edge of the ocean, below sea level, it might get wet. If you build your house on an earthquake fault, it might fall down. That’s all there is to it. If you spend your entire paycheck at the bar Friday night, don’t be surprised when you get evicted because you forgot to pay the rent. We make an enormous mistake in imagining that there is a connection between our ethics and whether God loves us or whether we get the blessings of God. God’s love is not dependent on how we behave or act.

If we’re good because we think God will then be obligated to bless us—then we’re not being good at all and, even worse, we’re accusing God of not being good. We’re telling him that the ONLY reason he is nice to us is because he’s getting something out of it. We’re buying him off, earning his favor. Too often, the only reason we put the toilet seat down and picked up our socks is because we think we’ll get lucky. That is not loving our spouses. That is manipulating them to get something from them that we imagine they don’t want to give us. And so the same sort of behavior, no matter how we might try to pretty it up with spiritual verbiage, is certainly not loving God. Instead, it is turning God into our slave or worse. And I really don’t think God is our slave.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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One Response to Judgment

  1. marti weidert says:

    Dear Mr. Nettelhorst:
    I just read your piece “growing up” in the Ridge Rider News.

    I agree with your ideas! I have taught reading to the lowest readers in a 1st grade public school classroom in Shingletown for 8 years.

    My husband and I live in a mountain town (Shingletown) near Lassen Volcanic National Park, a beautifully preserved ecosystem at the north end of the Sierra Nevada range. If you go to Google Earth, and type in Viola (a tiny town in Shingletown area adjacent to the National Park) you’ll see hundreds of non-green shapes which are twenty acre clear cut loggings on private land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. In 5 years, SPI has arranged to go back in and clear cut the green areas between the clear-cuts.

    Clearcutting is an ecologically destructive form of logging where the native vegetation is removed, soil deep ripped, and herbicides often applied. Clearcutting degrades water quality, wildlife habitat, and local communities.

    I lead hikes for the Sierra Club in my town and the nearby forest.
    I came from San Diego and never observed them up close. Rather than clear-cutting,an extreme form of logging, I am in favor of selective logging, where some trees are cut, and the rest are left to mature.

    Sierra Club is in favor of conservation of ecosystems. SPI naturally wants to make a profit. The 2 entities want different things. There is more to the forest than the trees. There’s a whole ecosystem. I am thinking of our grandchildren, and the generations that come after.

    When a forest is clear cut, 6 different types of trees(all growing at different rates) in the natural forest are cut down, and once clear – cut, the company replants just one type of tree, ponderosa pine (fast growing).
    Diversity (essential for forest health) is lost! The forest is the source of 75% of California’s water, as their roots absorb moisture, and in snow season, as it melts, fill the streams with water which flow to the valley. There the water much of it is shipped to farmers and southern Californians.

    Mr. Nettlehorst, would you consider signing a petition to Governor Jerry Brown to stop clearcutting California? If you would like to look it over, I’d be happy to send it to you. One man can make a difference. You write columns. You have a voice many people get to read. What do you say?

    Respectfully yours,

    Marti Weidert (530) 474-4300

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