As a parent of a three-year-lld, I’m learning a thing or two about tough love. My daughter has a way of making me feel like an awful person when, after having a frank conversation with her father about coloring on the wall, she cries and says “It’s all my fault!” When I exercise my parental authority in the home, and the outcome is anything less than sunshine and butterflies, it can be hard to feel as though I’ve done a good thing.
Pastoral efforts produce similar feelings. There have been times while in ministry where I have had to engage in difficult conversations with folks over varying issues, often related to certain behaviors. It comes with the job. Whether I’m on the giving or receiving end, frank conversations about behavior are never, ever accompanied with sunshine and butterflies. To be sure, we can never claim responsibility for the choices made by other people. But we can (and should) refuse to let a person engage in destructive behavior if there is anything we can do to help. “Here’s where your behavior will lead you.” “What you’re experiencing now is the result of [insert destructive behavior here].” This is the approach that God tends to take with us, a sinful creation, and it is the approach described in Romans 1:24-2:2.
Sometimes tough love comes in the form of what theologians call “judicial abandonment.” This is what happens when, after telling my daughter not to leave the lids off of her markers, I choose not to put them on myself. Instead, I let the markers dry out and let her disappointment the next day do the teaching. “Daddy my markers aren’t working” is now met with the realization that her negligence and disobedience has resulted in the current unpleasantness.
While some see the concept of judicial abandonment as passive, others (including myself) see it as actively engaged. In Romans 1:24, to describe this tough-love action, Paul uses the same Greek verb (paradidōmi) that was used in the Gospels to describe Jesus’ turbulent road to the cross. He was given over by Judas (Mk 14:10), to Pilate (Mk 15:1), to the mobs (Lk 23:25), to the soldiers for crucifixion (Mk 15:15), and then on his own, he “gave up” himself to death (Jn 19:30). God’s “handing over” of humanity to their sin is not a hands-in-the-air sign of frustration. It is pointed at the specific purpose of redemption.
When a puppy is being house-trained, many people use a crate as part of the training process. In most cases, the puppy stays in the crate overnight, as well as when the family is gone during the day. For awhile, the puppy will soil the bedding in the crate during these times, forcing herself to stand, sit, and sleep in her own waste until her owners come home and inevitably scold her and give her a bath. This will go on until the puppy makes the connection that she can hold it, wait to be let out, and receive praise for doing her business in the yard. Furthermore, her own environment – the crate – becomes much more pleasant to rest in.
This is not unlike the judicial abandonment we experience with our Creator. When we refuse to admit the wickedness of our sin, we force ourselves to lay in our own spiritual waste. Of course, idol worship extends into our day and age far beyond the worship of carved images. We worship the creature rather than the Creator. We value our possessions instead of the Provider. We want recognition from our earthly friends instead of love from our heavenly Father. We demand rights for ourselves instead of justice for the oppressed. We serve our jobs, our prestige, our reputations, and our bank accounts, and we feed the beast with coping behaviors like work, drugs, alcohol, sex, food, materialism, and status updates. Every day, our deeds show us to be gossiping, slanderous, God-hating, rude, egotistical, smug people who are always coming up with even more dreadful ways to treat one another (1:29-30).” Every day, we soil our environment with these things, and every day, our sovereign God judiciously hands us over to the consequences of our sin. We are not only punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins.
The crux of the matter is that God and His creation stand at opposite ends of the holiness spectrum. Whose fault is it? Judicially speaking, it is our own. Truth be told, we have rejected God. By accepting a life of sin, we have rejected the life of holiness presented to us by our Creator. We have willfully put ourselves in a position that is, at the present time, temporary (we can turn from our sin any time). But there will be a time when the sinner’s separation from God will be much more perilous.
By the grace of God, though, we can be like the kid who learns to re-cap her markers and the puppy who learns to hold it in. We can learn from the unfortunate circumstances we create for ourselves and turn our eyes upon Jesus. If you find yourself constantly surrounded by conflict, scandal, controversy, or other problems, consider what you might be able to change about your behavior, because you might be surrounded by your very own spiritual waste. Whether we realize it or not, living apart from God is the worst way to live.