John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme. In this article he reflects on how his personal experience changed how he thinks about the nature of the judgement of God.
This reflection on judgment arose from a very personal experience of spiritual and personal deformation and desiccation. As a result of this experience I now recognise which is God interrogates my being and asks that disturbing, loving and yet all-encompassing question: ‘Is that it?’
Walking along the banks of the River Wey one winter’s afternoon I was trying to grapple with what to do with the angry God of Isaiah. My life had recently exploded into hurt and hurting fragments. And I was terrified by the angry God of Isaiah whom I had met in that morning’s Old Testament Reading.
See, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger…
I will punish the world for its evil
and the wicked for their iniquity…
I will make mortals more rare than fine gold….
At the wrath of the Lord of hosts
on the day of his fierce anger.
Isaiah 13, selected verses
Though there are many passages in the Old Testament, and some in the New, which describe an even angrier God, these verses seemed to alienate me even further from the God I seemed to have abandoned but was still searching for. All I wanted the was the compassionate, forgiving God. After all, there was so much to forgive, so many whom I had injured. And what did I meet but a fearsome, loathsome, horrible God coming to torment me. I did not want such an angry, judgmental God. I could judge myself, thank you, and only too well.
As I walked along that Wey of atonement I came to understand that I was projecting my own anger with myself onto that angry God with whom I could not cope. And I began to see that it was all part of my coming to terms with the fact that God’s judgment – at least in this case, and doubtless in many other cases as well – does not come from ‘out there’, it arises from within. In my attempted flight from the angry God I was actually engaging deep down in and with God’s judging activity which God was conducting in me, through me.
The river was swollen; the water was rushing, swirling, eating away at the top of the bank, overflowing here and there making it difficult to distinguish firm ground from river course. And as my thoughts turned inward, no longer wholly in grief, despair and self-pity, I walked the perilous boundary between anger and judgment, between faith and doubt, between God and humanity, and began to rediscover the God who is in the depths, the God who is the ground and source of Being, the God whose judgment arises from within the human person, the God who is the ground and source and purpose of my being.
And if God is the ground of my being, God cannot just be the ground of my being, God must be the ground of all being. This may not be the way round that the philosophical theologians would start their exploration. But for me it was the starting place because it arose out of my reflection on experience. The concept of God as ground of all being took root in my mind at a formative stage in my theological thinking 1 but somewhere along the way had become submerged. At a point of deep crisis, when I seemed to have blown apart everything of value in my life, when I seemed to have denied the very gospel which I had spent my life preaching and teaching and holding out to others, I wrestled with these issues of anger and judgment, and suddenly I found my feet first stumbling across and then coming to rest on this long forgotten underwater rock – that God is the ground of my being.
Now, I have said, the God who is the ground of my being is necessarily the ground of everyone else’s being too. Part of what it means for God to be the ground of my being is that God is also the source of my consciousness of being, of everyone’s consciousness of being. Suddenly the Psalmist’s phrase, “Arise O God to judge the world”, which typifies one approach to Advent, took on a new meaning. For that judgment is not an external judgment. It is a judgment arising from the response of all those women and men who are in touch with their consciousness of being, with their consciousness of God, whose feet are stayed on the rock that is the ground of their being. It is an outcry rising up from within God’s human creatures against injustice and inhumanity, against our lack of love both as individuals and in community.
The cry goes out in anguish or despair or hope or action. It is not content to rest and remain with self-loathing or despair at the impossibility of doing anything about oneself or the world. The cry reveals the inner yearning for what is better, for the good. And it discovers that the reverse face of the angry God is the yearning God. That angry God is also the God who speaks through Jeremiah:
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Lord.
God, the source and ground and purpose of our being, reaches out too, yearning for all that s/he has created, stretching out the arms of love, allowing humanity to do its worst to that yearning love and yet still going on yearning and loving, wanting to breathe on us and into us and through us the gentle breeze, the blazing, cleansing fire, the sweetness and warmth of all in God that is of God’s Being, that can sustain us and make – and re-make – us like Christ, Being-made-flesh.
1. Particular influences were John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology (1966) and Paul Tillich’s wonderful collection of sermons The Shaking of the Foundations (1948).