Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
Yesterday we looked in depth at one Hebrew word, chesed, which refers to God’s unfailing and steadfast love towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship, God’s ‘loving-kindness’. Chesed is used close to 250 times in the Old Testament. In eight of those, chesed is partnered with an important phrase, which is our focus today: “slow to anger”. There is one other place where “slow to anger” is used in the Old Testament – without the word chesed – giving a total of nine occurrences.
Although they are similar in wording, there is one version that has particular meaning to me. It is the version from Joel 2:13, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love), and he relents from sending calamity.” In the services at our church, we often recite this verse in the context of a time of penitence and confession. For me, it serves two purposes:
- First, it calls me to repent, reminding me that I am sinful, fallen, broken. It is the first phrase that does that – “Rend your heart”. It was custom among Jewish people in those days to tear their clothes when distressed, bereaved or penitent. It was a public sign of intense, heartfelt emotion. Clothes were not as common as they are today, so ripping up your costly clothing would not be done lightly. Imagine wearing your best, most favourite clothes; and then ripping them. That’s probably not something we’d do! But Joel says that we should not just rend our clothes; rather we should rend our hearts. The depth of feeling that would prompt that kind of ripping is almost unimaginable. Joel calls us to a most heartfelt and intense contrition about our sinfulness. In the preceding verse, God says, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12).
- Second, it gives me the promise that God will respond positively to my penitence, because God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and overflowing with chesed. This four-fold combination gives me the courage to fess up to God, rather than to pretend that I’m okay or to avoid God in the hope that my sin might just go away in time.
Joel wrote during the time of King Uzziah, a time of prosperity for Israel. But a plague of locusts threatened the economy of the region and also the ability of Israel to continue its ceremonial religion. Joel interpreted the plague as a judgement from God, warning the people of Israel that their faith had waned and become formulaic – empty ritual. He warns them of a greater judgement to come if they do not repent and develop a heart-relationship with God. But if they did repent, God would restore them.
That’s a great story of Israel, but it is also a great story of ourselves, perhaps even of you yourself. Most of us go through times of great zeal in our faith, a rich and vibrant relationship with God, a stemming of the tide of sin, growth in faith and witness, and the development of Christlikeness. But most of us probably also go through times of falling away, of cooling down, of relying on self, on flirting with sin, of going incognito and of following our own desires.
Figurative plagues of locusts may be God’s way of calling us to repentance and to a heart-relationship with God. And it is in this context that this promise, that God is slow to anger and abounding in chesed, becomes so important.
Before we go on, let me list the other eight passages where we find this phrase:
- And he [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
- The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18)
- They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love). Therefore you did not desert them. (Nehemiah 9:17)
- But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)
- The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love). (Psalm 103:8)
- The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in chesed (love). (Psalm 145:8)
- He [Jonah] prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love), a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
- The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. (Nahum 1:3)
Many of these of these verses are partnered with a verse that speaks of judgement, as we see in Numbers 14:18 and Nahum 1:3. We will reflect at a later time on the topic of God’s judgement and wrath. For today, though, let us remain focused on ‘slow to anger’ in relation to chesed.
You will see from these verses that the four main elements are present in almost all of them: compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger and chesed. In addition, we have elements of: faithfulness, forgiveness of sin, not deserting, relenting from sending calamity and powerful. I suggest that all of these elements are different facets of one central concept, namely chesed. It is God’s covenant relationship lovingkindness that manifests in compassion, grace, forgiveness, faithfulness and so on. And God’s slowness to anger is part of that.
‘Slow to anger’ implies that God does get angry. Let us not kid ourselves about that. When we sin, God gets angry at us. God gets angry because sin is everything that is not what God intends us to be and do. Sin is, in essence, us turning away from God’s vision, God’s values, from God himself. And this distresses God and angers God.
But while we may expect God to go ballistic and annihilate us, we are reassured by this passage that God is slow to anger. Read these three verses from Psalm 103:8-10
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love). He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
Here, “slow to anger” is augmented with “nor will he harbour his anger forever”. In other words, God relents, cools down. And we are reassured that “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” – we do not get our just deserts from God. God forgives, God relents, God concedes.
All of this speaks to a God who lacks anger towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship. It is not that God does not angry at all – that would be disturbing in its own way. Rather, God is not full of anger. And when God does get angry, it is slow in coming.
This is important for those of us who have been raised by people who are quick to anger and prone to excessive and disproportionate anger. We may come into a relationship with God, skittish that God will be like that – one wrong move and you get smacked! We may spend our entire faith-life walking on egg shells to not arouse the wrath of God, to keep the angry giant asleep.
But this is not the God we meet in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is slow to anger.
On the other hand, this same God is quick to love (chesed)! And abounding in love!
I love this contrast! Don’t you?
God is slow to anger and quick to love; lacking in anger and overflowing in love. The contrast is deliberate and points to the heart of God, the character of God. God is not full of anger, but full of love.
Many of us (and I am one of these) harbour a nagging belief that God is fundamentally, deeply disappointed in us. That we are deficient and inadequate and tainted. That we don’t live up to God’s standards. That God is perpetually frowning at us, disapproving, judging. And that if we make one more wrong move, God is likely to smite us.
But, when we take a big breath and look into the inner depths of God, when we dare to investigate what God really feels towards us, we discover that the overriding experience and feeling in the heart of God is love, not anger. Of course, we are not perfect, and we do upset God, and we mess up and sin – all of this is true and God is not unmoved by it. But this does not result in a dominance of anger in God towards us, because God is basically ‘cool’ – slow to anger. Rather, there is a dominance of love, goodwill, generosity, compassion and chesed in God towards us.
I invite you to take the risk of exploring what God really feels towards you.
Meditation for the Day
What do you think God really feels when God thinks about you? Anger or love? In what proportions? If you think God is primarily angry, read again these verses and weigh up again the ratio of anger to love. Test and challenge your belief that anger predominates.
Prayer for the Day
God of abundant love, grace and compassion, help me to truly believe that you love me.