This week my pastor preached about Exodus 32 and the Israelites’ betrayal of God. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites felt abandoned. They couldn’t feel God’s presence, so they took the gold that God had given to them in Egypt and used it to make a golden calf. Or as Aaron the dufus put it, “They gave me the gold, I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf!” (v. 24) He’s like the kid who claims he didn’t punch his brother in the face; his brother simply “ran into his fist.” The only appropriate response to this Exodus story is a Homer Simpson-esque “doh!”
Even though I’ve heard this story countless times, something new struck me about it this time. In response to the Israelites’ unfaithfulness, God became angry and essentially slaughtered all the unfaithful. But that’s not what surprised me. What surprised me was the extent of God’s anger even though He knew ahead of time they would betray Him. It’s not as if God was caught off guard when they started worshipping idols. He knew it was going to happen, and yet He responded with the kind of anger of someone who’d had high expectations but had been stunningly disappointed.
And that got me to thinking. The story of Exodus happened thousands of years ago. It continues to happen today. God knows we are going to royally screw up over and over again, but He gets angry about each act of sin and disobedience as if it’s the first time. Why hasn’t God become disillusioned with us? You’d think that at some point He’d wash His hands of the broken human race and walk away. That way He wouldn’t have to go through such pain and depth of emotion each time.
But He doesn’t. In spite of the fact that God knows we will mess up, and in spite of the fact that His justice compels Him to feel betrayal and wrath in response, His love and mercy compel Him as well. He perseveres with us. He loves us unconditionally. He pursues us even though He knows we will forsake Him. He never becomes disillusioned.
For us young people, this is a powerful example. Disillusionment is an attribute that frequently defines our generation. As a group, young adults are generally more idealistic, which also means we’re more prone to get sick and tired of political corruption and religious hypocrisy. In response, it’s easy to wash our hands of it all.
While there’s an extent to which our faith in secular institutions should certainly be limited, there’s no excuse for washing our hands of the church. In view of God’s great mercy, disillusionment is revealed to be nothing but a cop-out. We are not in more of a position to be disillusioned with God’s people than God. If He will not forsake His people, if He will not stop loving them, then neither should we. And more importantly, if God has not stopped loving US in spite of our own infidelity, then who are we to do less for others?
This truth holds me accountable for my attitude and the state of my heart. I do get frustrated with other Christians, and there have been times when I’ve wanted to walk away from it all. But we cannot do so and remain faithful to God. The two options are incompatible. Remember that the next time you hear someone say that they walked away from the church as some sort of spiritually superior move. As 1 John 4 reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (v. 19-20) You can’t love God and hate His church. You can be disappointed with people in the church, even angry at times–clearly so was God–but you cannot walk away, nor can you give into feelings of bitterness or self-righteousness. The love of Christ compels us otherwise.