Friday, November 21, 2014

Why God's Wrath Makes Us Uncomfortable

Wrath. It spans the Bible, from God's curse of Adam and Eve for eating fruit, to the infamous seven bowls in Revelation 16. I really like to pretend it's not there. I can ignore it for a few chapters in the Gospels, but even there it pops up in places like Luke 21 and John 3:36. Is it me or does the God of the Bible have a serious chip on his shoulder?

Next to God, some of my unbelieving friends seem pretty nice. They follow a 'live and let live' philosophy that really appeals to me at times. Isn't God big enough to let these things go. What about all the love and forgiveness stuff I hear preached every Sunday? Doesn't God follow his own advice?

There are a few times that I kind of want a wrathful God. Or at least a just God. When I hear stories of ten year old boys sold as prostitutes to men in the Dominican Republic, or when I hear about the (so called) Islamic State militants butchering whole villages in Iraq and Syria. Then I'd like God to step in and perform some Divine Justice, if you know what I mean.

In fact, the more I think about it, the times I want God to be merciful are: first, with me, and second with people who are like me - people who do the same kind of sins I do, people that aren't so bad. I don't mind God's wrath poured out on the really bad people - people who are very different from me, whom I have judged as worse than me. In this I can take comfort. My pride is justified, because I am not as bad as those bad people. They deserve wrath. I don't.

What we don't want is a God that is wrathful with us. A God that would judge us for every infraction of his arduous Divine Law. Because, when it comes down to it, I don't love God or my neighbor all the time. So when I read, for example, of God pouring out his judgement on Israel for its unbelief, its idolatry, its lack of regard for orphans and aliens, I worry that I could be under the same judgement as them. I've been guilty of those things too. Consequently, I have two choices. I can admit I am evil and deserving of suffering and death, or I can say God is just too harsh. The latter makes me feel better. And like Job and his friends, I attempt to weigh my righteousness against God's as if they were even on the same spectrum.

I will not attempt in these few short words to justify God. He can speak for himself. But I will share a couple things that have helped me get my mind around this uncomfortable side of God.

1) We've hurt God. 

If our evil, really did not affect God, if there was no deep injustice, then His wrath would seem superfluous. We acknowledge, however that God indeed forgives people. But the very statement of God's forgiveness implies a debt that needs to be forgiven. We have done something to wound the immutable God, and must be forgiven of that act. Forgiving always costs something. 

Let's say hypothetically that I borrowed my neighbor's lawn mower.  A friend sees me mowing and asked if he can borrow the mower. I allow my friend to use the mower as well. But as he uses it, he grinds the blade across a massive rock, half-buried in his Southwest Missouri yard, burning out the engine. The mower is ruined. I tell  my friend not to worry about it; I forgive him. But those are not mere words. What I have done is agree to demand nothing of the one who actually broke the mower, but instead pay my neighbor the price to replace his mower, a mower I did not break. 

If our sin did not hurt God in any way, then the concept of God forgiving sin would be worthless. He would not be forgiving it; He would just be ignoring it the way one ignores the gnat buzzing in one's ear. But our transgression costs God dearly. It would be unjust to just ignore that hurt because because we think God can handle it. That is not justice.

2) God's love is bigger than his wrath

God sends rain and sun to good and bad people alike. In fact, when we see life as a series of good gifts, from the gift of our first breath, to the beauty of the earth, every morsel of food we eat, the love of human friends, the laughter of children, beer, music, sex, and sunrises. Then we realize God has been relentlessly pouring out his great love on all people, even on child molesters and terrorists. And that's a lot more generous than we would be.

But it goes farther than that. God seeks opportunities to pour out even more love on people, not wanting any to perish (2 Peter 3:9), but all to be saved for a blessed life and a curse-free resurrection. Nonetheless, these acts of love do not negate his sense of wroth. But we do a have a way of viewing these characteristics in a proper perspective. Nestled in between the first and second commandments in Exodus 20 is just such a comparison.

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex 20:5b-6)

At first glance, this only confirms our suspicions that God is on a rampage. Even going so far as to punish children for the sins of their parents That sounds anything but just. But a careful look at the whole of Scripture reveals that God is not like that. Passages like Deuteronomy 24:16 declares this as does Ezekiel 18:20.
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
So the obscure declaration of Exodus 20:5-6 demands to be seen as reflection of God's character, not a literal plan for punishment and reward (as the two would infinitely contradict one another). It tells us is in a figurative way how wrathful God is and how loving He is. God hates sin 3 or 4 times as much as we do. We think the terrorist should die for what he's done. God thinks he should die 3 or 4 times. That's how much God hates evil. That is the measure of God's justice. But his love is so much bigger. You love your kids. God loves them a 1000 times more than you do. He even sent his Son to die for them. It turns out that God is crazy about us, and the underlying story of the Bible is the story of that love.

That does not change the fact that there are some things in the Bible that make me squirm. I am still not sure how to interpret some of them. I don't now what a follower of Jesus is supposed to do with the command for Israelites to kill every man woman and child in Jericho (Joshua 6:21). But that is just a reflection of my ignorance and finite knowledge. In the meantime I trust the One who is infinite, who knows fully, and loves a thousand times more deeply than I ever could.

Joy and sorrow are this ocean
And in their every ebb and flow
Now the Lord a door has opened
That all Hell could never close
Here I'm tested and made worthy
Tossed about but lifted up
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God.*

*Rich Mullins, "The Love of God" 1989.