One of the most common misconceptions about God is that He's here to mess everything up and that, as a vengeful God, He cannot wait to get His wrath on you and teach you a lesson about how great He is by punishing you for how miserable you are.
People who have this image of God get that picture from the Old Testament, which is basically a series of stories about God destroying things - good things, bad things, things He once loved that have gone astray, things He will love again, things He will love anew. And we see these stories of God destroying, cursing even His own people, and it's easy to think there's a certain danger in being one of God's people.
If you mess up big enough...God might destroy you?
True. Or no.
I was reading a few weeks ago another one of the stories of God vs. God's people in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 28. He is leading them into the Promised Land and in the moment, it's good to be one of God's people. The Israelites are reaping His blessings and His favor, and they are staring at a land just across the Jordan, a land flowing with milk and honey. A land Promised, full of promises. Just before they begin their siege, God takes a moment to remind them of the blessings of being His people...and the curses of turning away.
The blessings and curses were recited among the people. They were to be recited again, standing on separate hills in the Promised Land, so that all among them would hear and remember. This was a generation who hadn't been present for the parting of the Red Sea, who maybe thought manna just happened, who had followed God for forty years but didn't know what it really meant to follow God because it had just been how it had just been. Things in the Promised Land would be different. Decidedly good, but different than these wanderers had ever known. God wanted them to remember that even when they settled down, they still had to settle into Him.
And in the midst of these curses, God tells them what will happen if they forget. Other nations will come against you. You will be slave people. You will not have money or goods or flocks or herds; you will beg for everything you have, and it will not be enough. You will turn against your friends, your neighbors, and your own families. I will turn away from you because you will have turned away from Me. And all of this land, this good and Promised land, that you are warring to inherit in these days will be warred away from you by stronger armies.
But here's the thing: we think when God says all this, when our enemies come to crush us, when God comes to teach us a lesson and convince us to repent from our wayward wanderings, that He just storms in with sword and steel and starts slashing things, crumbling things, tearing stuff down and looting our lives for His glory.
Not according to this chapter. No, in Deuteronomy 28, God tells His people:
The Lord will bring against you a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth. ...They will blockade all your cities until the high, fortified walls in which you trust come down everywhere in your land. They'll blockade all the cities everywhere in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
This was after, of course, the raiding nation would eat all the crops, destroy all the grain, and strip all the vineyards.
A blockade is not a siege. It is not a destruction. It is a desperation. As the enemy blockaded the cities, the supplies on which God's people survive would dwindle. They would eat the last little bits of their food, drink the last little bits of their water, use up the last threads of their cloth....because nothing could go in and nothing could go out. They would find that the walls they had built to protect themselves were now holding them prisoner. By their own making, they had allowed an enemy to so easily hold them. And then, God promises in His curse, the people would turn on themselves.
That is the curse of God. That is His answer when you turn away from Him. He's not about storming the gates and tearing down walls and taking prisoners; that's not His style. It's not love. It's not grace. It's certainly not mercy.
God, when we turn our backs, allows our enemies to trap us in our cities. He blockades our hearts until we are hungry, thirsty, unraveled. Until we are naked and empty, desperate for Him. He lets us be locked in our prisons, in the walls we thought would protect us that we find now only hold us and keep us from the greater Promise, which is beyond this place, although we were once comfortable and confident enough to think this was it. The Promise is the pasturelands, too, and when we're trapped inside ourselves, we cannot get there. Not even for a drink.
God's curse is that we would stay shut inside, agonizing over our dwindling life. Agonizing over the things that are running short, which were so abundant when we had the full land, too. Before we thought this was better. Agonizing, aching over our empty hearts. Hungry. Thirsty. Naked. Desperate. Until inside these walls, we turn on ourselves.
Then, God says, maybe you will do everything that is right, everything that the Lord has commanded you. Maybe you will turn back to Him. And He will hear you. And He will answer. And He will help you tear down those walls, which by this point, is a work you have already begun.
He's not about to storm your city and take you prisoner. That's not God. God shows you your prison, the walls you've built around yourself. He makes you hungry so that it's you who comes back to Him. Because He never left.
And that is mercy. That is grace. That is love.
That is God.