Wow. Scary title for a blog post, isn’t it? And not one you would expect from me.
But I write, of course, for a reason.
The fire and brimstone preachers preach it. Those who claim universal salvation deny it. And the rest of us cringe.
We cringe, perhaps, because we are afraid of such a wrath. Or perhaps because we do not know how we can reconcile the notion, to ourselves or others, with the all-loving, all-forgiving God we claim to know.
Yet it is pretty hard to deny the reality of this teaching. It is right there in the Bible, even in the New Testament, scribed by those who were witness to the fact that this very same God has died for us. How can this be?
I am no theologian or Biblical scholar. But today I was reminded of a casual conversation I had with someone a couple of months ago, in which the other was normalizing anger on the basis of Jesus getting angry when He upset the money changers’ tables in the Temple.
I had expressed some hesitation at comparing my anger to His anger. I couldn’t quite put it into words but I knew there was a difference.
Today, in a different context, with a different person, the topic rose again. And something came together a bit more in my mind.
When we, in our humanness, speak of “anger” and “wrath”, we are typically referring to deeply felt emotions. They are among the passions with which we struggle and they can easily overtake us, leading us into sinful behavior. It is because of these passions that we are wise to fast and pray, in hopes that we might receive the grace and wisdom to manage these natural but often love-threatening emotions.
Jesus, of course, was fully human and therefore felt all of the same emotions we do. However, I do not believe that Christ’s action with the money changers revealed Him being overtaken by passions, though the behavior might appear outwardly similar.
If Jesus was overcome by His passions, how readily I could then justify my own! “Even Christ got angry with unreasonable people sometimes, so it is normal for me to do so as well.”
What appears similar can be very different – and yet can be difficult to discern in our own lives. Jesus, I believe, was moved by His Spirit to speak Truth, in a commanding and authoritative manner.
He saw what the money changers were doing and the Spirit in Him could not watch and not speak Truth. He could not speak it quietly and calmly, in the same manner He might have said, “Your sins are forgiven” or “Your faith has saved you.”
The Truth is always loving. Sometimes it is a gentle whisper. But sometimes it is bold and strong.
We, as Christians, are given the Spirit of God. What is so difficult for us is to learn to discern when our passions are overtaking us, impelling us to say words or take actions not consistent with the Gospel, versus when the Spirit in us may be calling us to speak Truth.
This is more difficult than we might anticipate, because our emotions are so dear to us and they feel so “right”.
“Of course, God must want me to speak up about this wrong or correct this injustice.”
And our emotions are valuable and not to be quashed without reflection or regard.
However, it may be only some time after a reaction (if at all) that we are able to see how our behavior was, at best, ineffective, or worse, injurious, because it was ego-driven, not Spirit-driven.
Now, informed by our reflection on Jesus, let us return to the “wrath of God”.
I cannot say what the wrath of God is – but I will comment on what it is not. God’s wrath is not anger, the human emotion, the passion with which we struggle. If it were, we have a God who is no better than we are.
It almost seems an unfortunate choice of words to say “wrath”, because what else can our poor human minds conjure up but what we know? Perhaps we think of a father who came at us with the belt or a mother with the switch, screaming at us, out of control while we cowered.
The childhood remnants of “wrath”, in living color.
That is not our God.
Yet what word then can we use for God’s Truth? His Truth is always loving – He cannot not have (or be) a Truth that is inconsistent with Himself.
Whatever that word might be, His Truth cannot accept falsehood or lies. His Love cannot accept hate. His Good cannot accept evil.
His nonacceptance of these things is not a trifling preference. If it were, He would not have become incarnate, been crucified and raised from the dead to free us from them.
His “wrath” and His love are thus not in opposition to one another but work hand-in-hand for our good. There can be no good for us in falsehood, hatred and evil.
(I am well aware that using the word “nonacceptance”, sounds too weak, too soft – for God is the complete antithesis of falsehood, hatred and evil. But I choose this word so as to avoid the suggestion that God is ruled by the very emotions that plague His creatures.)
What does this “wrath of God” mean for the end times?
I have no idea. How could I, still ruled by the passions as I am, conceive of what this God of “loving wrath” will do in response to His creatures, each uniquely knowing (or not knowing), loving (or not loving), understanding (or not understanding) Him with varying degrees of capability and culpability?
Yet even though I do not know, I am not afraid. How could I be?
He has died to set me free from my very self. He has come to live within my heart. Whatever the “loving wrath” is, I long for it – because it is Him.
And He is my joy.