“Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!”
(A prostitute from Chicago as quoted by Philip Yancey in What’s So Amazing About Grace?)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Am I the only one who didn’t think this Scripture was such great news the first time I heard it? Yes, I know it speaks of an incredible gift God gave so that we would not have to perish for our sins. For us, it is undoubtedly a great thing. But what does it say about God?
When I heard this in Sunday School as a child, my first response was, “If he loved us so much, why didn’t he do it himself?” Admittedly I might have been influenced by the chores I had to do at home: For Dad so loved a well-kept yard that he sent me out to mow it. Dad so loved his vineyard, that he sent me to work in it. Dad so loved an ice-cold Pepsi, that he sent me to the refrigerator to get it for him.
So why didn’t God himself appear in human flesh and submit himself to the most painful and humiliating death imaginable? No, he sent the Son instead; or so I used to think. And my confusion didn’t end there. While I was grateful for the salvation he provided, I had some concerns about God because of the way he provided it.
What kind of Father satisfies his need for justice by the death of his own Son? Couldn’t he have just forgiven us without taking it out on an innocent victim? If someone wrongs me and the only way I could satisfy my anger was to punish someone else as the means to forgive them, what does that say about me?
If the cross served God’s need to be appeased by a human sacrifice, especially that of his own Son, we are left with a host of disturbing questions. Raise them with others, and most will escape answering them by claiming that God’s demand for justice is beyond our comprehension. But I am convinced the dissonant perspectives about God that result from an appeasement based view of the cross, cause many to shy away from the intimate relationship he seeks with us.
Instead the unanswerable questions should invite us to reconsider our distorted view of the cross. Since Adam’s fall we have come to picture God not as a loving Father inviting us to trust him, but an exacting sovereign who must be appeased. When we start from that vantage point we miss God’s purpose on the cross. For his plan was not to satisfy some need in himself at his Son’s expense, but rather to satisfy a need in us at his own expense.
Living by appeasement is a frightful game, especially when you play it with the all-knowing, Almighty God. Though I don’t believe for a moment that God plays it, many of us were taught that he does and, thus, we alternate between trying to do enough to please him or trying to hide from him when we realize we can’t.
The moment Adam and Even ate the fruit, their eyes were opened to see good and evil. The first evil they saw was in themselves. Though they had been naked since they were created, now they were aware of their nakedness and sought a cover-up for their shame.
Evidently what they first saw big enough to cover them were fig leaves. They plucked a few, sewed them together and slipped them on. I cringe at the thought. I’ve been in fig orchards and know how prickly and itchy those leaves are. As material for underwear it was a poor choice indeed, as are most of the ways we try to cover for ourselves.
But the real price of their shame is seen a short while later as God revealed himself again in the Garden. Instead of feeling safe with him, they felt compelled to run and hide. Notice that God neither hid from them nor was he angry at their disobedience. Instead he just showed up to be with them. They were the ones cowering in shame hoping the bushes would cover what the fig leaves couldn’t.
As God came closer they told him of their shame and their failure. In doing so, they still sought cover. Adam blamed Eve; “the woman… gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” No wonder they felt unsafe in their nakedness. They were. He turned on her to justify himself, using blame for the same purpose he had used fig leaves.
Adam’s blame doesn’t stop at Eve. It is not just the woman who tripped him up, but “the woman you put here with me.” Adam even tried to pass some of the responsibility onto God. When God turns his attention to Eve, she blames the serpent’s deception.
The creation was stained, and God parceled out the consequences of that failure. Already spiritually dead in the relational brokenness that resulted, their future physical death would follow. God threw them out of his Garden, not wanting them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in that sinful condition. By preserving eternity in holiness, God prepared a safe haven for their eventual rescue. “The soul that sins shall die,” is a proclamation of mercy, not anger. It means that sin must have an end; and we an opportunity to regain what we forfeited.
TERMS OF APPEASEMENT
Their failure had profound consequences in the creation and in their relationship to their Creator. He could no longer be the friend who walked with them in the Garden, because their own sense of shame would cause them to cower whenever he approached.
Knowing good and evil didn’t provide the joy Adam and Eve thought it would. Because they came to know good and evil outside of their trust in God, they had no power to resist evil and choose the good. They, and all generations after them, have found themselves captive to evil passions, with its destructive consequences and overwhelming sense of shame.
When God did make himself known, even the most righteous people fell on their faces, overwhelmed by their own unworthiness. The friendship he desired with his creation was thwarted. Instead of seeking his friendship, people only thought to appease him—doing enough good to somehow stay in his favor. The Creator had become someone to avoid not to embrace.
This shame so permeates our nature that this appeasement-based approach even emerged in every false religion humanity devised. From the earliest tribal attempts to appease the “gods of the earth” or the “god of rain” to more sophisticated religious systems with idolatry and tradition, the objective was always the same. What can we do to appease the wrath of the gods and find their favor?
He loves me, He loves me not.
Good times led to complacency and bad times to even greater rituals of repentant prayers, sacrificial offerings and good deeds. Their offerings started with small gestures of fruits or grain, but increasingly difficult times demanded ever-greater gifts. Soon animals were sacrificed, and in many cultures throughout the world eventually human sacrifice became the ultimate expression of commitment to their conception of god.
But this is not how the true God wanted to be known.
I WILL PROVIDE MY OWN
If you go to Tel Meggido in Israel today you can stand on an overlook and view an altar used to sacrifice first-born male children to the gods of the Canaanites. Your guide would tell you that that very altar was in use when Abraham came unto the Promised Land. They thought they could appease their false gods with such sacrifices.
Thus it was not so incredible for Abraham when the God who had touched his life had asked him to sacrifice his only son. All the other gods in Canaan did it, why not his? But this God was not a false god like the others interested in human sacrifice. This was the true and living God. He was going to reveal himself to Abraham and wanted him to know this God had nothing in common with Molech, Baal, or Asherah.
At God’s word, Abraham took his son—a treasure born in his old age—and set out for Mt. Moriah. As they got close to the mountain, Isaac noticed that they had no sacrifice. “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
It appears that Abraham’s response was less a brilliant insight into God’s nature than it was a deflection to stave off the curiosity of his son. He nonetheless spoke prophetically the lesson God wanted to show him. “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
Only later, after his son lay tied to the altar and Abraham lifted the knife to plunge it into his son, did he see just how prophetic his words were. “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy . . . Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12).
Abraham had faced the ultimate test in trusting his God. He discovered that God never wanted his son as a sacrifice at all. After God pointed out to Abraham a ram nearby caught in the bushes, he offered it in Isaac’s place. Abraham declared that place “The Lord Will Provide” (Jehovah-jireh), understanding that his earlier words had proved more true than he could have imagined.
God drew a line that separated him from all the false gods men have ever created. The false gods demanded sacrifices for their own appeasement. This God would provide the sacrifice we needed that could finally cover our shame and allow us to know him as he really is.
At Mt. Moriah God foreshadowed to Abraham what he would literally accomplish some three thousand years later on another hill not far away called Golgotha. It would not be the appeasement of an angry God by any sacrifice we could give, but an act of a loving God to sacrifice himself for those who were held captive in sin.
Far from being a blood-thirsty Sovereign demanding sacrifice to satiate his need for vengeance, the Living God spends himself to bring back the banished son or daughter. He did not need a sacrifice to love us, for he already did.
We needed a sacrifice for our shame so that we would be free to love him again. At the cross, God provided the undeniable proof of just how much he loves us. For those who understand that, it opens the door for us to do what Adam and Eve could not do that fateful day in the Garden—entrust our lives totally to the Living God.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. —ROMANS 8:1-2”
For your personal journey
Can you recognize the effects of shame in your own life? What effort will you expend to make yourself look better to others, to yourself, or even to God? In your relationship with God do you think more of what you have to do for him or what he has already done for you? Ask him to show you how appeasement thinking distorts your relationship with him and ask him to free you from it so that you can participate in what he wants to do in you.