Is God Petty?
There are lots of sins that don’t tempt me. Not even a little bit.
What a change in emotions we students saw. He had just been laughing it up in the back of the class. He’d stuck two pencils up both nostrils. We were watching with interest because it was more entertaining than drilling the 9’s in the multiplication tables, or whatever we were supposed to be doing at the moment. He kept it up until the teacher caught on and called him to the front of the class. The teacher made him stand in front of the class with pencils up his nose for an uncomfortable span of silence. Embarrassed, he started crying. It wasn’t just a glisten in the corner of the eye; tears tumbled down one after another. The teacher cut through the silence with something to the effect of, “Look at the tough kid crying.” More silence. Finally, the teacher sent him back to his seat.
Before that day, I was already germ-conscious enough to know that I would never booger my pencils or defile my nostrils in this way. Since that day watching the class clown cry, the level of temptation has dropped into the negatives.
So I obey the lesson I learned from the teacher. My behavior complies. And yet . . .
To this day I cringe—not because of what Class Clown did—kids of any age do idiotic things from time to time—but because of what Class Clown had to do because of what he’d done. Tears of shame for acts of silliness? Humiliation for hamming it up? My heart beats out of sync with the teacher, even as my obedience marches in step.
I don’t hate gross pencil tricks. I doubt I should. But I should hate sin. I believe that, to be a rational and righteous person, I should seriously hate sin. I should. And, yes, by God’s grace, I try to abstain. By God’s grace, I don’t join in the stupidity. But is that enough? What happens when my heart is out of sync with God’s hatred of sin, even if my behavior marches in step with His commands? What happens when I look at God’s reaction against sin and cringe at His reaction more than at the sin itself?
Do we get a passing grade when God thinks of us, These people honor Me with their behavior, but their hearts are far from Me?
I recall the first time I read about the youths making fun of Elijah (“Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!”) only to be torn apart by two she-bears. Crazy, huh? You’re almost tempted to laugh. But then you realize that it was the youths’ laughter at Elijah that got them mauled in the first place.
And yes, the story is also sad. But turn the story upside down and shake it until all the tragedy falls out, and what’s left? Something that strikes me as funny. Why? It used to be because of the bald joke. Now that I’ve entered middle-age, this is no longer quite as funny. Still, I might mention that the gang’s taunt (“Go up, you baldhead!”) reminds me of something my 3-year-old said, totally randomly, to the delivery man when he carried in our dishwasher: “What are you doing there, old man?” Even after we shushed her, she said it two more times. “What are you doing there, old man?”
Here’s what can make the story humorous for anybody, regardless of where the hairline lies: The punishment exceeds the crime in comical proportion. True, there is a good chance that these were less a group of playground troublemakers, and more a gang of potentially dangerous young men. All the same, torn by teeth and clawed clean? The punishment seems . . . petty.
Petty. I know where I’ve heard that word before. That’s Richard Dawkins’s word.
When the atheist comments on how God deals with sin, he uses the word petty. He writes in The God Delusion, “Why should a divine being, with creation and eternity on his mind, care a fig for petty human malefactions?” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 270).
And, says Dawkins, a petty God makes for petty worshipers. Speaking of early Christians’ preoccupation with sin (such as Augustine’s fretting over his boyhood theft of pears), Dawkins writes, “They could have devoted their pages and their sermons to extolling the sky splashed with stars, or mountains and green forests, seas and dawn choruses. These are occasionally mentioned, but the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin. What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 285).
It’s one thing when an atheist accuses God of pettiness for God’s response to sin. That’s to be expected; guys like Dawkins have said way worse. Doesn’t bother me. Yet there is something in what he says that does bother me. Because I’ve too felt that, when it comes to some sins, God has made much ado about nothing.
If I don’t find myself hating sin as God hates sin, then that leaves me too secretly thinking God is petty.
If I don’t hate sin, I find myself nodding with Dawkins. And the only real difference between Dawkins and me becomes that I’m scared enough of God to admit what I’m really thinking. Not exactly the trust relationship Jesus invites us to.
The Bible says the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. To those who don’t make much of sin, the Cross is unnecessary and overblown and insulting. Unsurprisingly, the same atheist who calls God’s preoccupation with sin “petty” elsewhere uses the same word for the Cross.
Why go to all the trouble to have His Son crucified to save us from a problem that wasn’t even a real problem in the first place?
Here’s something I might as well write in stone. Might as well preprint it on my tombstone, because I’m never budging on this: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
If I start seeing sin as petty, and then God’s response to sin as petty, then I begin to fold my arms at the foot of the Cross and yawn. Since that’s an apathy I abhor, I had better get to seriously hating sin.