Being God’s Beloved: Day 15: God’s Love and God’s Wrath

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

There is no denying that God expresses not only love but also wrath and anger in the pages of the scripture. It may, we sometimes think, be comforting to worship a God who experiences and expresses nothing but love, forgiveness, kindness. But in both Old and New Testaments, there are references to the wrath of God that we have to face up to. And, I suggest, it is good that God shows both love and wrath; indeed, they flow from the same centre in the heart of God – wrath is a facet of love.

I encourage you to read Deuteronomy 29:18-28, which is an extended passage about God’s wrath. It is within a larger passage where Moses calls the Israelites to renew their covenant with God. Having reminded them of God’s faithfulness in bringing them out of Egypt, he cautions them about flippancy in their relationship with God. He says that some people will take advantage of God’s chesed (God’s lovingkindness rooted in God’s covenant with Israel) and say to themselves, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way” (29:19). But, says Moses, such thinking will bring down God’s wrath, “his wrath and zeal will burn against that man… the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven” (29:20). He then broadens his focus to the whole of Israel, from the perspective of those who are not Israelites, asking why God would be so angry with them. The answer is, “because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord” (29:25). And then Moses heavily emphasises God’s wrath: “In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now” (29:28). As if God’s anger and wrath are not enough, we now have great wrath and furious anger.

And God’s wrath is not limited to the Old Testament. Romans 1:18 has, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”

How are we to reconcile God’s love and God’s wrath?

First, God’s wrath is not so much the inflicting of penalties equivalent to the person’s sin, as a withdrawal of divine protection.

In both Old and New Testaments, God’s wrath is often expressed as God choosing to withdraw protection from those who sin so that they experience the natural consequences of their sin.[1] The Romans 1 reading is a good example. After writing that God’s wrath is being revealed, Paul explains, “Therefore [because they rejected God] God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts” (1:24). And he repeats this twice more: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:26) and “Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (1:28). This three-fold “giving over” explains what Paul means by “the wrath of God”. Marshall explains further, “God’s act [of wrath] is not so much a matter of direct, individually tailored punitive intervention as it is a matter of measured withdrawal of his protective influence and control, a refusal to intervene to stem the deleterious effects of human rebellion”.[2]

On the one hand, then, such a ‘giving over’ is not God wreaking suffering on those who sin; but neither is it a passive withdrawal. It is a personal decision that God makes to cease protecting someone. The consequences of the loss of protection may be severe, but they are, essentially, of that person’s own doing. That is the wrath of God.

There are precedents for this understanding of wrath elsewhere in scripture. There are, for example, many passages that express God’s wrath and judgement as God hiding God’s face or turning away. “They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and difficulties will come upon them, and on that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come upon us because our God is not with us?’” (Deuteronomy 31:16-17).

Second, God’s wrath is less about punishment and more about reconciliation.

God’s wrath is not simply a venting of angry emotion, like a pressure cooker letting off steam. Neither is it a desire to obliterate or annihilate people. Rather, it is a strategy to persuade people to turn back to God – to repent of sin and seek to be reconciled to God. For example, in 2 Chronicles 15:2 we read, “This is what the Lord says, ‘You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak’.” This is another example of God’s wrath expressed as God turning away. In this instance, “The leaders of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, ‘The Lord is just’” (15:3). Here we see what appears frequently in passages on God’s wrath, namely that God’s intention is not so much punitive as restorative. “The point is not to torment human beings but to enable them to see their moral frailty and their consequent need for God’s healing assistance”.[3] In 2 Chronicles, God’s abandonment results in a recognition of need for God and repentance of sin. God then says, “Since they have humbled themselves, I will not destroy them but will soon give them deliverance. My wrath will not be poured out on Jerusalem through Shishak” (15:7). God relents on the expression of wrath, because the purpose of the wrath (to evoke repentance and call to reconciliation) was achieved.

Third, God’s wrath is a facet of God’s love, giving partial expression to God’s love.

It is good that God feels strongly about sin. If God did not stand against sin, who would stand up for me when someone sins against me? If God loves me, and someone harms me, is it not appropriate that God should be angry with that person? Would God be loving if I, his beloved, am harmed by someone else and God just continues to love both me and them? Isn’t a loving response to someone harming me for God to be angry with them? Think about this in terms of our own loved ones. I love my son, and when someone hurts him, I get angry and want to express my wrath at that person. Is that not love? Would my turning to the person who hurts my son and hugging him and inviting him to supper not be an act of not-love towards my son?

Love and wrath are not mutually incompatible. Rather wrath is a facet of love. Wrath is an appropriate response when someone who is loved is harmed. Wrath is also an appropriate response when someone who is loved harms someone else or her or himself. It is a manifestation of God’s love when God gets mad at me because I sin, because I treat myself (created in God’s image) harmfully. And since we are all created in God’s image, whether or not we and they recognise or accept that, God responds with protective love when any one of God’s creatures is harmed. We call that response of protective love ‘wrath’, particularly if we are on the receiving end of it. But from the perspective of the person being protected, it is love. It is all a matter of perspective.

A few years ago, my car was stolen. I was upset because it was a much loved car. And also because it was stolen from a place where I was volunteering my time for a worthy cause – it felt like an injustice. One of the consequences was that I was delayed in marking my students’ assignments, so I informed them of what had happened as part of my apology for the delay. Many students responded with words of encouragement and solidarity. And many of these expressed sentiments like, “Shame, don’t worry Prof, God will cast those men who stole your car into everlasting torment. They will suffer forever for taking your car!” I was taken aback with the vehemence of their support. On the one hand they expressed what I am saying here, that God’s wrath against those men is an expression of God’s solidarity with me, God’s beloved. But on the other hand, they are God’s creatures too and I found myself loving them and praying that God would not punish them for what they did to me!

This is part of the complexity of being God and why I am glad that God is God, rather than me! Love and wrath are easy to get one’s head around if I am God’s beloved and you are God’s enemy. Then of course God will love me and express wrath against you. And in the Old Testament particularly, there is a tendency to divide the world neatly into those within God’s covenant and those who are already in outer darkness. But in modern times we recognise that things are not so simple and clean. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, loved by God and enemies of God. I can think of many times when I have harmed someone else (sometimes in anger and intent, and sometimes by accident or necessity), or myself or God. In all of those times I am deserving of God’s wrath. But I am also God’s beloved because of my response, through the grace of God, to the call of Christ. So, do I get love or wrath?

There are no neat answers to God’s love and God’s wrath. But as we mull it over, let us consider that God’s wrath always comes from a place of love, with an intention to restore and reconcile. God’s wrath, like God’s holiness, is enclosed in love. God’s wrath is the servant of and therefore subordinate to God’s love.

Meditation for the Day

Think about love and wrath in yourself, particularly in relation to those you love. Can you figure out how they are related, not incompatible? Now escalate those insights to God. God is not just like us, but neither is God completely different from us. Perhaps we can learn something about God as we reflect on ourselves.

Prayer for the Day

Loving God, I thank you that you are willing to take a stand for goodness, for righteousness. Help me to not be an object of your wrath, by empowering me to live in love and faithfulness. And help me to love all those whom you love.

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[1] Marshall, C. D. (2001). Beyond retribution: A New Testament vision for justice, crime, and punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, pp. 169-175.

[2] Marshall, p. 173.

[3] Marshall, p. 175.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 9: Slow to Anger

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.[1] 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.

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[1] Patterson, R. D. (1985). Joel (in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.