Perhaps one of the most difficult questions you will ever encounter at Vacation Bible School has to do with reconciling the character of the God of Love with that of the God of War. As we read through the Old Testament, on the one hand we have God fighting mightily to bring His people into a good land, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Then on the other hand, we have the same God, for the same purpose, driving people out of their lands, destroying their homes, their trees, their possessions–and even their lives.
Yes, it helps when we refer to the latter as “the enemy”. War is very much a part of this earth’s history. Most children are fairly familiar with the idea that, often, in order to protect someone who is innocent, the enemy gets hurt.
(Of course, sadly, the opposite is also often true. Many times, it is the aggressor, who in some perverted attempt to “protect” him or herself, hurts the innocent. Helping a child whose trust has been broken is a whole other issue.)
However, at some point, some child is going to notice that “the enemy” we often refer to are people, too. They had families and sorrows and joys and likes and dislikes…just like the children themselves do.
Have you settled this apparent discrepancy in your own heart? Keep reading.
Seeing the “big picture”
Very young children do not need to be overwhelmed by all the gory details of war, but at the same time, they often need to know the war happened for history to make sense. We can do them a great favor by making sure, from the start, to guide them in looking upon history as a whole story.
What might be terribly disturbing taken out of context becomes comforting when considered in view of the “big picture”.
“The enemy” is not the real enemy
First of all, children need to know who the real enemy is. I am often reminding children (and adults, at times) that people are not the enemy. Satan is the enemy.
Ephesians 6:12 says:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
It is so important that we repeatedly and consistently give children the background of all the sin and suffering in this world. What got us in this mess in the first place? When will it ever end? Doesn’t God care?
The only problem is that, at first glance, the very fact that Satan is the enemy and people are not, can seem to compound the difficulty. “So if people are not the enemy, why was God commanding His people to kill them?” Good question.
Not knowing an answer does not mean there is no answer
The only way to be able to satisfactorily answer a question like this is with honesty. If you don’t know, the best thing to do is to say so. An answer like, “Honestly, I really don’t know, but one thing I have learned for sure is that God is love….”, is a good start.
Let’s face it. There are a lot of things that we do not know. If we all knew everything, this world would not be full of scientists, and geologists, and historians, and engineers, all constantly on a quest for more understanding.
If we are struggling to figure out this earth, which we see and touch and experience every day, how will we ever figure out God?
Romans 11:33 is extremely relevant:
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”
But there is an answer.
Through His Word, through prayer, through walking in His steps, we can see Him and touch Him and yes, experience Him every day. That is how we will get to know Him better.
So what is the answer?
I do not profess to have all the answers. Like most of us, though, I have been through some pretty rough situations. I have been treated unkindly and have had to ask, “Why, Lord?” But through it all, I have known beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Lord is my refuge and my strength.
One of my greatest struggles has been reconciling the God of Love, who sustains me day by day, with the God of War, who commanded that nations be destroyed.
It is easy, in our humanity, to justify punishment of the guilty. If someone is “bad”, they deserve to be punished, right?
The problem is that one of the first things we learn as Christians is that we are all “bad”. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. All our righteousness is filthy rags. We all deserve the death penalty.
That’s where mercy comes in. Christ, while we were yet sinners, died for us–the ungodly, the “bad”, the “enemy” of God, I daresay.
And so, we rejoice in mercy. But at some point, we see that not everyone is rejoicing in mercy. Especially as we look through the Old Testament, we see instance after instance of those whose mercy has come to an end. What is up with that?
Like I say, I do not profess to have all the answers, but in case you have struggled with this same question, I would like to share with you what I have learned.
Mercy will come to an end
The gift of God’s grace is just that–a gift.
To be truly mine, I must accept it.
To be truly yours, you must accept it.
To be truly any person’s at any point in history, they must have accepted it.
And many reject it.
The mercy and love of the God of War
Take a look at the Amorites for a moment. This people will give us a huge look into the mercy and love of the God of War.
In Genesis 15, we read about God’s covenant with Abram. Before Abram even had a child of his own, and generations before Jacob would be called by his new name, Israel, the Lord was making plans to give His people the land where Abram stood. The Lord planned to bless His servant greatly…but notice what he said to Abram:
“And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” (Genesis 15:15,16)
That is profound.
If we jump right into the story at Numbers 21:21, it would be easy to question why God would be merciful to one people and destroy the next. By looking at the whole picture, though, we see that God was merciful to the Amorites. But they did not want His mercy.
The Amorites’ refusal to let Israel pass through their land was not some isolated incident, rewarded with anger. It was God’s last call to their hearts–and, for many people, their last rejection of His mercy.
He held out to them a choice and said, “I love you. Choose life.”
And they replied, “No–we love the ways of death.”
When mercy demands justice
While the Bible does not mention every last detail of the people that were destroyed in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, it does give several hints into what was going on in the heathen nations.
If we had been the judge, we would probably have declared war on these nations long before. “This injustice must not continue!”
But God, in His mercy, gave the people all the time His love could bear; until finally, His mercy demanded justice. He withdrew the protection that the people did not want in the first place, and they paid the price with their lives.
If you doubt that the outcomes of the Israelite wars were based directly on Israel’s dependence upon God, you need only read accounts such as that found in Numbers 14. Israel tried to go to war alone, and their lack of heavenly armor was more than obvious. It was straight man’s strength versus man’s strength, and even Israel paid the price.
God goes out of His way to protect
On the other hand, we see in stories like that of Lot in Sodom and Paul in the shipwreck, that the God of Love will go out of His way to protect those who trust Him and accept His offer of mercy.
God’s mercy is longsuffering
You probably are already thinking this, but God’s mercy is longsuffering. Just look at how much He puts up with before He finally declares, “Enough is enough.”
The enemies which Israel encountered had no hope of turning to God again. They had rejected His mercy so much that His very love had hardened their hearts.
Note that God did not command Israel to destroy every nation they encountered. Take, for example, Edom. Their encounter with the Israelites was very similar to that of Amalek: they refused Israel passage. However, God had commanded Israel to leave the Edomites alone, “wherefore Israel turned away from him.” (See Numbers 20 and Deuteronomy 2.)
Only those who had firmly and decidedly rejected Him were removed from His mercy and protection. Those were on their own.
The other side of God’s mercy
You might question why God commanded His people to so utterly destroy the nations: man, woman, and child; every house; every grove; every idol. “Do not keep it in hopes of transforming it into something better,” He basically would say.
But why not? The answer is quite simple–and it shows us yet again God’s mercy:
“And thou shalt consume all the people which the LORD thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them: neither shalt thou serve their gods; for that will be a snare unto thee.” (Deuteronomy 7:16)
In His great, Fatherly love, God was watching out for the future welfare of those whose hearts were still open.
The enemy was so steeped in sin that they had no hope of return, no hope of ever reflecting the loving image of God. Only God knows when that point comes in a person’s heart.
God’s people, on the other hand, still had that hope. There was still an inclination to seek Him. His call to them was, “Ask for my mercy, and I will gladly give it.”
Should they surround themselves with corruption, however, it would only be a temptation and a snare to them. It must be destroyed, lest they be destroyed.
The detailed example of longsuffering mercy
Would you like a detailed example of God’s longsuffering mercy? Just read through the history of the Israelites. They were far from perfect. In fact, it is not uncommon for them to be referred to as “stiffnecked”–that is, stubborn and rebellious.
Some of them did reject God’s final call to their hearts, and they suffered the same fate as the heathen nations about them. God is no respecter of persons.
All the way up to the point where His own people crucified His Son, God offered them mercy. For decades afterward, He continued to plead with them. But finally, it was done. Enough was enough. They, too, had rejected God’s last call. And they were the ones who became the enemy.
God is love
So what is the point of it all? The point is that God is a God of love. God is love.
By taking a look at the big picture, it becomes obvious that the God of Love and the God of War are one. It also becomes clear that we each have an individual choice to make. The company we keep matters. The choices we make matter.
Each day and each moment, we are either choosing to accept God’s mercy or to reject it.
Accepting His mercy is to accept His love and protection. The enemy does not love us. He does not care if we die. All he cares about is getting revenge on God–and destroying those who were made in God’s image is a great way to do that.
But God is different. That’s what we want the children to see.
How do you reconcile the apparent differences between the God of Love and the God of War? Have some other verses or Bible stories been helpful to you? Has life taught you the answer? Feel free to share in the comments!