We’ve talked a lot about tools to use when reading the Old Testament in order to truly see the character of God revealed, but before concluding it is important to define two “biblical” terms. The struggle in the bible often seems to be between the love of God and the wrath of God. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to view these as two separate things that God does or two separate emotions he feels toward his creation. But is this a proper understanding?
One of the popular new(er) hymns written in the past two decades is “In Christ Alone”. This is an absolutely beautiful hymn, but in the midst of a wonderful picture of Christ’s work on earth, we have the lines;
“‘Til on the cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied”
What we have here is an image of the Son of God taking God’s wrath upon himself. It is as if God’s wrath were a bow aimed at humanity and Christ intercepts the punishment directed at us. Some may view God’s wrath in this way, but I am asking you to read on and at the end of this discussion you can decide for yourself if this is an appropriate image.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many people look at God’s love and grace as having zero requirements. God is a good God and would never impose rules, he would never discipline someone for acting in ways that are ungodly and there are no expectations of works or obedience required to earn his love. Essentially, they can do whatever they please and act however they want because God has already forgiven and the work is complete. Their opinion seems to be that what we do in life is inconsequential. Again, this definition may sound nice and work for some people, but is it true?
Let’s explore …
The wrath of God is one of those subjects in the bible that people who believe in salvation by grace alone have a tendency to want to ignore. On the other hand, people who strongly affirm the “holiness” of God seem to view his wrath much in the manner of the famous American preacher Jonathan Edwards, who in his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, expressed God’s wrath in this way;
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”
Now some may say it bluntly like Edwards, while others may try to soften it a bit more, but the point remains the same. Sin causes God to look at us with disdain. He cannot tolerate sin and must punish it, so we either repent or will be eternally punished for the choices we make in what little time we have on earth.
Fortunately (at least I would say fortunately), this is not a good perspective of God’s wrath. But at the same time, there truly is something called God’s wrath that must be acknowledged.
So, what is God’s wrath?
To begin to answer this question, I need to jump ahead of myself to the discussion we will have momentarily on God’s love.
God is love.
Love is not an attribute of God. God IS love!
“Love comes from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whomever does not love does not know God, for God is love”
Now, if God IS love, this means he can do nothing from any other motivation than selfless love. This is what has motivated absolutely everything from creation, through the Old Testament, to the incarnation and Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is what continues to animate his actions in the world today and is what will bring them to completion at the end of this age.
God is Love.
Based on this, we must determine that whatever God’s wrath is, it is motivated and animated by LOVE. His wrath must be loving. It must be directed by a desire for our good or else it is not from God. It truly is that simple.
My favourite illustration of this comes from Bruxy Cavey:
God is love – everything else is an expression of this love.
With that foundation in place, I believe we can clearly see what God’s wrath is. In my opinion, God’s wrath takes two forms;
- Fatherly “anger” at things that hurt us
- A grieving “letting go”
Let’s start with fatherly anger. Any parent will tell you that showing love to your children does not mean showering them with gifts and allowing them to do whatever their heart desires. In fact, the opposite is true. There are many times you cannot allow a child to do what they wish because it is blatantly bad for them. My own daughter has stated on multiple occasions if she had her way, she would eat as much candy as she wanted. Thankfully, her mother is a nutritionist and is trying to teach her that indulgence is not the best thing for one’s health. At this stage of life it is starting to sink it, but a parent must protect their children and teach life lessons so that when a child is old enough to make his or her own decisions, they will make good ones.
I see the metaphor of God as parent as one of the single best analogies we have been given. God is constantly teaching us and trying to develop within us the ability to make our own good choices. At times, he may have to discipline us in order to show us a path we are taking does not lead to life. This is not “wrath” as we understand it, this is simply a teaching tool motivated by love.
Fatherly anger also comes into play whenever there are outside forces attempting to hurt your children. If anything or anyone were to attack your child, you would not simply allow him or her to fend for themselves.
That would be the opposite of love.
Any parent would jump in and attempt to take the pain on themselves in order to protect their children. The same is true if a child is doing things that could hurt themselves or people around them. For example, playing with fire or running into a busy street without looking. The anger would not be directed at the child, but at the thing that poses a threat to their well-being. Alternatively, it could be directed at the child for putting others in harms way because of their choices. It is motivated by a love for children and the desire to see them mature and so harsh discipline may be needed.
God is the same way. He is angry at anything that poses a threat to our life in him. Even in the New Testament we see Jesus genuinely angry at the religious people who put barriers in the way of the common person coming to God. He got upset with people who persecuted the poor and vulnerable.
The same can be seen throughout the Old Testament, God reacts whenever justice is denied, the poor are mistreated and blood has been shed.
“[This is] A God who sees and hears. A God who hears the cry … the expression of pain, the ouch, the sound we utter when we are wounded … But God in this story doesn’t just hear the cry. God does something about it … God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it… God gives power and blessing so that justice and righteousness will be upheld for those who are denied them. This is what God is like. This is what God is about. This is who God is.” – Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians; pp. 23, 44
This is the first expression of what I believe God’s loving wrath to be. He desires our freedom and actively opposes things that are negatively affecting his creation. In general terms, I would say this takes the form of active opposition to his Adversary and discipline when directed at his creation, much like a father would discipline their children for doing something that would hurt them, their siblings, or others.
The second form of God’s wrath is really an extension of the first, but it is what God does when we use our freedom to make choices that are self-destructive. He will likely patiently correct and discipline for quite a long time, but at some point a parent must walk away and allow a child their freedom. In many cases this is the freedom to suffer the consequences for decisions. To do otherwise would not be properly developing your children to the people they should be. Parents cannot protect a child from the world forever. Eventually children must learn there are consequences for choices and this is why you must choose the best path. Our actions in life have real consequences and eternal effects.
This is the form of God’s wrath we see most often described in the bible. It is a grieving abandonment. It is with mourning that God says, “if you’re determined to go down that path, I can’t stop you forever. I have tried to entice you down this path that leads to life, but if you continue to resist me, I’ll let you go. But don’t think for one second I am happy about what I know will happen to you.”
Throughout the Old Testament we see this in action. The prophets describe God about to actively punish his people, but the prophetic declarations are quickly followed by wording that indicates “giving them over” or “abandoning”. Here are just a few examples, but in almost every passage that speaks to God’s wrath this can be found;
“I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence … For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” – Jeremiah 21:5-6,10 NRSV
“I will pour out my indignation upon you, with the fire of my wrath I will blow upon you. I will deliver you into brutish hands, those skillful to destroy.” – Ezekiel 21:31 NRSV
“The Lord in his anger has covered Zion with darkness. Its heavenly splendour he has turned into ruins. On the day of his anger he abandoned even his Temple.” – Lamentations 2:1 GNB
“My anger will flame up like fire and burn everything on earth. It will reach to the world below and consume the roots of the mountains. I will bring on them endless disasters and use all my arrows against them … They fail to see why they were defeated; they cannot understand what happened. Why were a thousand defeated by one, and 10,000 by only two? The Lord, their God, had abandoned them; their mighty God had given them up.” – Deuteronomy 32:22-23, 29-30
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.” – Hosea 11:8-9
This last passage from Hosea is especially telling because it comes in the form of Hebrew poetry and also shows the pain God has over the decision. In Hebrew poetry, the primary poetic device is repetition rather than rhyme. In this case you see “give you up” repeated in the next verse as “hand you over” and as the poem progresses it is repeated again as “I will not execute my fierce anger” and “I will not come in wrath”. The repetition helps define what is meant by “fierce anger” and “wrath”.
In all these cases and more, I think we can make a very solid case that God’s wrath is seen as God simply removing his protective hand and allowing his creation to feel what life is like when a path is chosen that leads to destruction.
This view of God’s wrath is not limited to just the Old Testament, Paul in Romans provides one of the most definitive statements on what God’s wrath is;
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness … Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions … And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” – Romans 1:18-19, 22-24, 26, 28
If that wasn’t enough evidence, I think the cross, as usual, reveals things perfectly. While the song writer above says that on the cross the wrath of God was satisfied, this statement is not found anywhere in the bible. Rather, we see, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”.
When Jesus takes on the sins of the entire world, we don’t see wrath pouring out like a weapon upon Jesus, rather we see divine abandonment. To make this even more interesting, read this in the light of the following words from Isaiah 53:4 (which we have read in detail earlier, but here the emphasis is mine);
“But he lifted up our illnesses,
he carried our pain;
even though we thought he was being punished,
attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done.” – NET
“He certainly has taken upon himself our suffering and carried our sorrows, but we thought that God had wounded him, beat him, and punished him.” – God’s Word Translation
Here are two different translations that help bring out the point better than words such as “stricken” (which is found in many translations). In this passage describing the cross in Isaiah, we see that from a human perspective, it would be assumed Jesus was being punished by God; attacked and afflicted. In many denominations, this remains the dominant view of what God’s wrath is.
But on the cross, we see Jesus cry; “God, where did you go? Why have you abandoned me?”
This is a world of difference and is an important thing to understand. God’s wrath is not vengeance, anger or hatred. It is not punishment directed at people he cannot stand because his holiness will not tolerate their presence. Rather, it is the picture of a father grieving as he must allow his children to make their own choices, even if it leads to destruction and death. God does everything out of love for us and knows the only way to truly win our hearts is sometimes to let go and let us destroy ourselves. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, he lets his son run off on his own, knowing it will bring him to ruin, but hopeful that this may eventually lead him back to the right path. And when he sees the glimmer of hope in our steps, he runs to meet us and fashions a new path out of the mess we have made.
When we see wrath in a more accurate and faithful perspective, it sounds a lot like love, but that shouldn’t be surprising because God is love!
We’ve already touched on the most important thing we need to know in this section and that is that God is love. By this point in the chapter, this must sound a bit repetitive, but it is an essential truth. Absolutely everything about God flows from love. From eternity he has been love and creation itself was the result of love’s overflow.
Now read this famous passage, understanding that every word is describing God;
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Pursue love … ” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13-14:1
While these are all things that we can strive to achieve, my main point here is that these describe the very nature of God.
He is patient.
He is kind.
He is humble.
He does not insist on us following his path, but allows us to choose.
He is not at all pleased when we wander off the path that leads to life.
He loves truth.
He bears our sins, believes in us with ridiculous confidence and endures our failures with unending patience.
He can be trusted and counted on.
That is love and that is God’s nature. Everything he does is motivated by love and is done in love for the benefit of others. He is always seeking our good, despite the hardship and pain it may cause him. But love does not mean allowing people to do whatever they want.
As mentioned in our discussion on wrath, God disciplines his children and sometimes has to walk away and let us face the consequences of our actions. If he did not do this, he would not be loving.
Because his love is perfect, he knows exactly what we need and what will provide the best for our lives. If that is blessing, he will bless us. If that is encouragement to stick with something even though it is hard, he will encourage us and send people to help us. If that is discipline to get us back to where we know we should be, he will discipline. And if it means walking away and patiently waiting for the right time to pursue once again, he will let us go off on our own.
In every situation and with every action, his love is directed toward producing fruit in our lives; fruit that is eternal and not fleeting like vapour that is here today and gone tomorrow.
God wants to shape and develop us into people who are ready to rule with him in the ongoing and everlasting creation. That is the goal. We are to be heirs with Christ to rule and reign with him. He lovingly, patiently and graciously invites us daily to join him in our eternal development. That is his plan for us and it is 100% motivated by love.
Simply put, that is all he knows.
Next: The Vindication of God
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Checklist Time
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?