November 10, 2006

Fish Tanks and Fire

2006 1532 page13 capot long ago I opened an e-mail from a young person preparing for baptism. She asked the following question: “How do you explain a God of love destroying the world by fire? Doesn’t that seem harsh to you?”
Sitting wordless at my computer, I began to think. Those were good questions, but in my youth I had never thought to ask them. Yet, as an adult, I sensed that at some level they might not be answered convincingly for me, either.
I tried to screen out my preconceived reaction and gut response to these questions and look at them from an adolescent point of view. I could see how the words “fire,” “destruction,” and “harsh” could possibly grate against the spiritual sensibilities of a young person whom we as a church have intentionally sought to ground firmly in an understanding of God’s grace. Did she comprehend God’s big-picture plan?
I was sure that God wanted her to have an answer that would bring peace to her heart without me rewriting the Conflict of the Ages series, or her getting overwhelmed and clicking the “shut down” button. But did I, in my own spiritual arsenal, have an answer that would be personally genuine, as well as true?
2006 1532 page13I sat back, prayed for insight from the Holy Spirit, and began clicking the keys on my keyboard:
“Satan’s main job on earth is to get us to think that God is harsh, judgmental, and unloving—everything He isn’t. Satan wants us to think these things about God so we won’t trust Him to save us from the yuckiness of sin.
“Here is one way to think about why a God of love would cleanse the world with fire.
“Imagine that you spent lots of time and money creating the most awesome fish aquarium you could. You got everything set up just right—plants, statues, decorations, rock formations, etc., then bought some exotic fish to put in it. You enjoyed watching them swim around their beautiful tank, and you didn’t feel so alone when you were in your room doing your homework.
“But, let’s also imagine that you have a really pesky younger cousin who is out to ruin your life. Every time he comes over to your house he puts nasty stuff in your fish tank when you aren’t looking. It starts to cloud up the water, stick to all the pretty things, and make the fish sick.
“So you get one of those little net things and try to catch all the fish so you can get them out of that awful environment and save them until you can make a new, clean home for them. You are able to get some of the fish—the ones that will let you pick them up in your little net and save them. But a few just avoid your net and won’t let you catch them. They hide behind the yuck-coated scenery.
“Finally, you have to call your rescue mission to a halt so that you can dump out all the slimy decorations and foul-smelling water (and the few fish who won’t let you catch them), scrub the tank with special cleaners, and start all over to create a beautiful home for the fish you rescued.
“Imagine if some of the fish kept swimming around out of the reach of your net, saying, ‘I hear that mean old girl who set up this tank and put us here is going to clean it out with bleach and destroy us all. How can someone who pretends to love us do something like that? Isn’t that kind of harsh?’
“What would you tell that fish if you could get through to it?”
The computer keys stopped clacking, and I sat back to ponder. I had just preached a sermon to myself. Sure, I had never thought to ask those questions when I was an adolescent. But now I asked myself how much of my adult life has been spent swimming around the idea of a God of judgment who is watching to see how and when I will mess up again? And how often have I forgotten about the sad tears of a loving Creator who doesn’t want to miss any little fish when He dumps out the tank filled with sin?
Kathy Beagles is editor and curriculum specialist for the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.