I guess the fundamental question we were thinking about in our discussion was 'is the God of Amos 4 a God that we can praise?' Is God, as revealed in Amos 4, good?
Why did we have that dilemma? Well look at Amos 4 and you see a side of God that we often don't think about, or at least don't like to. In this quote, the Lord is speaking, and he says:
"I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town...I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away... Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees...I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses..."
How can we believe in a God who would do something like this to his people? Here are a few thoughts:
Firstly, is the fact that God takes sin seriously. God didn't send these things to his people because he gets a nice kick out of it. Throughout Amos you see what the people of Israel are up to - they are living off their success and wealth, and in the process trampling upon the poor people in their society. They take what little the poor people have from them, then take the poor people themselves as slaves when they've got nothing more they can give. When the poor come to court seeking justice, the rich use their influence to deprive them of it. They get fat and rich from the proceeds of their exploitation - awful crimes.
But more than that, they have also been mocking God. They do the religious stuff, they go to church on Sunday, but sit there thinking what more they can do to exploit the poor once Sunday is over. They offer the sacrifice, but with not a thought of repentance - they think they can do the sacrifice and oppress the poor and that's all ok. They fine the poor - take wine from them then go and drink it in the house of God.
Their turning back on the God who created them to be in relationship with him is the worst crime of all. It's because we don't see the seriousness of this that we ask 'how can God judge'? If we really understood just how serious sin is, we'd actually be asking 'why did God let them off so easily?' The fact that I'm not asking that question naturally means that I haven't yet understood just how holy God is, nor how dreadful is our sin.
Secondly, these acts were in fact an act of God's grace. We see that in the repeated refrain "yet you have not returned to me" - it's repeated six times in chapter 4! God could have, and would have been right to, just immediately judged the people and wiped them out. But these were his people, whom he loved, and what he longed for most of all was for them to turn back to him and to find forgiveness. God is saying 'I sent you famine so that you'd recognise your need for me, but you didn't turn back to me'. 'I gave you a slight taste of my judgement, because I wanted to warn you of the far worse judgement that will come if you don't turn back to me... but you ignored my warning'. God is holding back his wrath, showing them a hint of it (the real thing is far far worse!), so that they don't have to face the full extent of it - but they didn't turn back. Rather than judge them immediately God, in his gracious patience, gave them opportunity to turn back, "yet you have not returned to me".
Thirdly, it can sometimes feel like this is how God worked in the Old Testament when he was an angry, vengeful God, but now we live in New Testament times and believe in a loving, gracious God who wouldn't do this sort of thing anymore. Well, let's not be too hasty. Remember the account in Luke 13:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Do you see the point? They experienced the difficult thing not because they were particularly bad? No. What they had to do was see the difficult situation and say 'I too will one day perish without repentance'. The suggestion is that when we see difficult things happening to other people (whether that's by a wicked act of a person or by something seemingly random, like a natural disaster) we don't assume it's because they deserve it and we don't, rather we see it as a warning. We recognise the frailty of life and our guilt, and we use it as a warning from God of judgement to come and we repent, otherwise we too will perish. God is still in the business of warning people today - it's still an act of grace, giving us chance to repent rather than receiving the judgement we deserve straight away.
Finally, we must remember the cross. The Israelites were sinners, and so are we. Neither them nor us deserve to take another breath, yet God allows us to. If we think that God's ways are unfair in Amos (which I hope I'm starting to understand a little bit how they're not), then consider the cross. The only person who has ever lived who didn't deserve judgement at all was publicly humiliated, beaten and killed. He faced the judgement of God which he didn't deserve. We look at the cross and we see the means of escape from the judgement we deserve. And we look at the cross and are reminded that, even if we find some passages like Amos 4 difficult, we can fully put our trust in God. He has displayed there just how much he loves his people, just how much he doesn't want them to have to face judgement, and just how merciful he is.
When we look at the things that we don't understand through the cross, we can be assured that even if we don't understand it, it is right and good, because it's done by the same God who went to the cross to bear my sin.