Shemini & Parah
For the week of March 26, 2011 / 20 Adar 2 5771
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47 &
Bemidbar / Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

When Feeling Bad Is Good

Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezekiel 36:31, 32; ESV)

This week's Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) includes one of the Hebrew Scriptures' predictions of the physical and spiritual restoration of the people of Israel. These portions make it clear that while Israel will suffer serious consequences for rejecting God and his ways, he will not cast them off forever, but rather will restore them to himself and to their land. This restoration will not be a simple reset back to the way things were, but rather to the way God has always intended, though yet has never been experienced.

However this works out, God is the one who does it. The way the Bible references the work of God is not a poetic or metaphorical way of describing life at a human level alone. When we read, "Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt" (Ezekiel 36:33; ESV), God will really do it.

But the fact that God is the one who brings such things about doesn't mean that there isn't a human factor. The restoration of Israel is not something that just happens to the people. As God does what God does, so the people react and respond. In fact the reality of the restoration is that the people will react and respond in a very particular way.

One aspect of that response is contained in what was quoted at the start: "Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations" (Ezekiel 36:31; ESV). When God brings about the promised heart change in the people they will look at their bad behavior and feel terrible about it. And so God says to them: "Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel" (Ezekiel 36:32; ESV). In order to experience the restoration of God, the people first need to be ashamed.

That's not the kind of message I hear these days. What I most often hear is that God wants us to feel good about ourselves. What we're told is that the human problem is low self-esteem and if we only knew how God felt about us, everything would be okay (or, at least, a lot better than it is now). Our problem supposedly is that we haven't learned to accept ourselves. Since, according to this way of thinking, if God accepts us the way we are, then we should to.

But God doesn't accept us the way we are. The reason why the human situation is as bad as it is is because God rejects us in the state we are in. Our acceptance is based on his mercy and sacrifice on our behalf. The good news is that anyone who wants to return to God on his terms will be accepted. But it must be on his terms, which includes loathing ourselves because of our iniquities. Unless we see our sin for what it is, we will never receive the forgiveness necessary to be restored to God. How can we be forgiven if we think we have nothing that requires forgiveness in the first place? To claim to participate in the Messiah's sacrifice but deny its very purpose is to reject it.

It's not as if God wants us to live the rest of our lives feeling bad about ourselves. It's that seeing our wrongs from God's perspective is a necessary part of being restored to right relationship with him. Once we admit the truth about the nature of the evil that pervades our lives, we are in a place where we can receive his forgiveness and experience his acceptance.

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