Digging in Deeper: Amos 4:11

“I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a burning stick snatched from a fire, yet you did not return to me – This is the Lord’s declaration.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

We don’t like to hurt. And that makes perfect sense. Pain is no fun. It is a signal that something is wrong. We don’t like facing up to the fact that something might be wrong…especially if it’s our fault. What’s even harder for us to reckon with, though, is the idea that God might have caused our pain. Yet that is exactly what we find here in the next part of Amos’ prophetic record. Let’s talk about what God was doing and what it might mean for us.

It’s entertaining hearing the stories folks from the Builder and early Boomer generations about how their parents disciplined them. These often come in the context of their hearing about or seeing a young person today behaving in a manner they deem to be disrespectful toward someone else. They often begin with something like, “In my day…” which of course prompts the young person to roll his eyes and mutter under his breath something like, “Okay, Boomer…” The stories, though, usually involve lots of corporal punishment. It may have involved a hand or a belt or a wooden spoon or even a trip to the yard to find a proper switch, but whatever the particulars of the delivery device happened to be, it always ended with a sore backside.

I received a few spankings when I was growing up. I know now and I even knew then that they were all well-deserved. My folks were not prone to be overly reactive to much of anything. Still, my childhood experience was little like some of the stories I hear that border on abuse and probably would be treated as such today. Different parents have different approaches to disciplining their misbehaving children. Some are more effective than others. The goal of all of these different approaches, though, is to convince the child that the consequences of behaving badly (however that has been defined) are more inconvenient than the inconvenience of not getting her way.

One thing most of these approaches have in common is that they involve inflicting some amount of pain. This is often physical pain, but not exclusively so. No parents want to hurt their children. But the wisest ones understand that a small and controlled amount of usually physical pain can be an effective teaching tool if it is wielded properly. Certainly there are improper ways of wielding it, and there is never a justification for abuse. But pain can be a teacher that helps us understand which is the wisest path to take through life.

This particular verse is the last in a longer section detailing God’s describing His efforts to discipline the people of Israel. They had veered wildly off the course of righteousness He wanted them to walk, and He was making a concerted effort to convince them to leave behind their sinful path for the one that would lead them back into a relationship with Him through His covenant with them. The approach He seems to have taken at first was to take away things they relied on to get through normal life. He caused famines and droughts and crop failure. The purpose of this was to get their attention. When that didn’t work, as we have talked about before, He turned up the volume. “I sent plagues like those of Egypt,” He says just before this verse. And, of course, here we see Him claiming responsibility for Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like damage.

Now, it’s easy to read passages like this and react with shock and horror. How could this possibly be the same God who is described as loving and good and compassionate and merciful and kind in other places in the Scriptures? How could this be the same God who is said to have loved us so much that He sent His only Son to die in our place so that by believing in Him we might have eternal life? It is perhaps not so hard to see how some commentators and interpreters over the centuries came to the conclusion that the Gods of the Old Testament and the New Testament must be different from one another.

And yet, before we go down that heretical path, let’s do some thinking for just a minute. When things seem to be utterly falling to pieces in our lives, what is one of our first reactions? Well, if we are being totally honest, complaining about it usually comes first. After that, though, one of the things we very naturally do is cry out to God for help. People who previously had never given God much of a thought will find themselves crying out to Him, however awkwardly, because they don’t know what else to do and at the very worst the crying into nothingness will at least be cathartic if their previous vacant assumptions about His existence were correct all along. At the best, maybe He really is good and gracious like His followers say He is, and He’ll come and help in some meaningful way.

God was allowing the people of Israel to experience some of life’s hardest hardships. And, we shouldn’t think here that God was somehow sitting up in heaven delighting in giving them a hard time. There are times when God’s judgment and attempts at discipline are active and obvious. I am convinced, though, that a great many more times He is able to be much more passive and accomplish the same ends. What I mean is that because of the brokenness of the world due to sin, terrible things happen all the time. As Paul would later note, even creation itself is broken such that things like famines and droughts and locust invasions and crop failures are a natural part of the cycle of life. Yes, the writers of the Scriptures often present God as taking credit for these things, but I don’t think we have to see Him as causing them so much as allowing them to happen. Yes, God could have actively hit the people with a drought. They were certainly due such judgment because of their unfaithfulness to Him. But He could have also simply allowed the brokenness of creation to unfold naturally such that the drought came when it did. His exhaustive knowledge of the entire timeline of creation and all of the details of its unfolding gives Him the wisdom to not act at just the right moments so that we experience the consequences of sin and are – hopefully – motivated to turn to Him amid the chaos.

The point, though, whether we ascribe the judgments here to God’s active intention or His passive allowance, is that God was causing the people to experience a series of painful hardships that were intended to get their attention. Over and over in this section, after describing the various judgments, God declares: “…yet you did not return to me.” As a result, He finally throws His hands in the air with all the frustration and exasperation of a parent whose child simply refuses to respond to her patient discipline, “Israel, prepare to meet your God!” And just so we’re clear: That wasn’t going to be a friendly meeting.

Now, as I have said over and over in this journey and as we have spent time in the Hebrew Bible generally, our relationship with God is not the same as Israel’s was. We shouldn’t read this and fear that God is going to strike us with famine, drought, blight, infestations, plagues, and destruction if we sin. What we do see here, though, is a reminder of the consistent character of our God. His love for us really is so great that He is willing to go to extremes to encourage us to walk the path of righteousness and life instead of the path of sin and death. As the writer of Hebrews noted in chapter 12, He will bring discipline to our lives when He knows we need it. And that discipline isn’t going to be fun. It will be painful. But the pain is intended to be a teacher. Whether or not we learn from it is up to us.

If you are experiencing something hard or even painful in your life, don’t just complain about it. Don’t even merely cry out to God about it. Take note of it. What is the exact nature of the pain? What is its primary form? What is the source of the pain? Sometimes that’s harder to discern than it seems like it should be, especially if we are the source. If we are the source of our pain, that means we are doing something wrong. But if we are doing something wrong, that means we need to stop doing whatever it is if we are going to stop the pain. And yet, it may be that we don’t want to stop doing whatever it is. So, we’ll find other things or people to blame for the pain we are experiencing. When we respond like this, the pain will continue and get worse until we make the changes necessary to stop it. All the while, the pain is not a signal that God hates us or that He has abandoned us. Precisely the opposite is true. It is a gleaming signal of His love for us. He is working with near desperation to get our attention so that we will stop making the choices we are making and turn to Him with repentance to receive forgiveness and help walking once again the path of life. Let us learn the lesson from Israel and not like Israel.

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