Dealing with God’s Anger

This is the second blog in a series called: “Making Sense of Sin”.  You can view Part 1 here.

Before we begin to make sense of sin directly, we must first deal with the following, related question: Does God have the right to be angry?

Or, to state it another way: Can a good and loving God also be a God of wrath?  

This question is important because part of our aversion to the idea of “sin” is not just that God thinks it’s wrong, but that he is apparently upset about it being wrong.  So upset, in fact, that he seeks to punish those who are guilty of committing sin.  And this punishment is no slap on the wrist—according to accounts in the Bible, it ranges anywhere from having stones chucked at your head, to being drowned in an epic flood, to, let us not forget, being condemned to eternal conscious torment in hell.

Yikes.

So before we ask, “Does God have a right to be angry about sin?”, we first must ask, “does God have a right to be angry about anything?  Ever?  At all?”

We must ask this question because many people are uncomfortable mixing the idea of “God” with the idea of “anger”.  In general, we tend to be suspicious of anger in almost any form.  We tend to think, “if someone is angry, their anger is likely unjustified”.  Or, “even if someone did wrong you, anger doesn’t produce any good results”.  We (rightly) think that overlooking an insult, rather than retaliating, is the higher road.  The better person is the one who is able to remain calm and collected.

The person of poor character, on the other hand, is the one who is stirred up into a fit of rage.  This person lacks self-control.  This person is a threat to a peaceful and harmonious society.  We should not admire people who have a short fuse.  And we certainly should not admire a God who has a short fuse.

Therefore, we conclude, a God who is angry is not an admirable God.  If anger is a character flaw in humans, then certainly it is a character flaw in a divine being.  How can we shun angry people, only to turn and worship an angry God?  This is seen as profoundly inconsistent.

From this perspective, it makes sense that God appears unattractive.  If God is just a big man with a short fuse, then He is not worthy of our affections, nor our attention.

But here is where we must clarify the nature of God’s anger.

It is true that temper tantrums and uncontrolled anger brought about by insults are not admirable.  But if we lump all forms of anger into these categories, we are mistaken.  Even on the human plane, anger has rightful causes and expressions.

Let’s consider an example.

Say, for instance, someone physically harms a member of your family.  Walking home from a long day at work, they are mugged on the sidewalk and searched for cash.  Having none, they are left bruised and bleeding on the pavement.

Have you a right to be angry about this mugging?  I hope we can all readily answer, “yes”.  It would seem strange not to be angry.  Being mugged is awful.  It’s not something you want to have happen again.  As a society, we have decided that mugging is definitely not okay.

But then there is slightly different question we must ask: Have you a right to act on your anger by taking justice into your own hands?  Here, most of us would answer, “no”.

Now, we must pause for a moment and observe that the reason we say, “no”, can be profoundly helpful for understanding why the emotion of anger, and especially anger in God, makes many of us so uncomfortable.

For most people, though we are angry about the mugging, we will not take acting on that anger into our own hands.  Instead, we will call the police.  As a society, we have enlisted a select group of people to be angry for us.  Or, at least, to act on our anger.

Because of our established culture of law enforcement, it can feel as if white-hot, fist-throwing anger is not a part of our response to our family member being mugged.  After all, we merely picked up the phone and dialed 911.  As a result, we may conclude that outbursts of anger, acting on anger physically, and perhaps just being angry in general, are all bad things in any situation.

But drawing this conclusion overlooks the unseen (but very real) parts of the law enforcement equation.  Let us not forget that as you sit calmly in your living room and care for your wounded family member, someone else is out on the street pointing weapons at a suspect and placing him in handcuffs to immobilize him.

The bottom line is: someone is angry about the mugging; and someone is using physical force to punish the perpetrator.  That someone simply isn’t you.

This delegation of punishment to an outside organization is partly responsible for our confusion about God’s anger.  We don’t take punishing others into our own hands, so we assume God shouldn’t either.

But here we must remember that God is at the top of the accountability structure for the universe.  If God doesn’t frown upon muggings, then no one will.  If God doesn’t punish evil-doers, then neither will anyone else.

Here I am reminded of a phrase a seminary professor of mine would use often.  It went like this: “Sometimes, it can be scary to consider that we live in a world with a wrathful God, but it is far scarier to consider living in a world without a wrathful God.”  Why would that world be scarier?  Because in that kind of world, evil reigns unchecked.

If you have ever been thankful to law enforcement for putting a violent person behind bars, then you can relate to what it feels like to be thankful for God’s wrath.

From this view, God’s anger is not a character flaw.  Rather, it is a crucial, and in fact, wonderful attribute of the person who is responsible for running the universe.  God’s anger ensures that evil will not go uncontested.  In the end, it ensures that evil will not have the last word in our world.  Hard as it may be to believe that amidst the tragic violence of our present time, this is the ultimate hope of God’s people.

From this line of argument, we can conclude a few things.

  1. All anger is not bad.  Anger, properly controlled and rightly directed, is actually good.  Anger is an emotion that leads to action being taken against evil behaviors (such as mugging).   When these actions are carried out by persons of power or authority (such as law enforcement; or God), the result is that the evil behaviors are discouraged in both individuals and in society at large.  Discouraging evil is a praiseworthy endeavor.  It leads to a more peaceful and flourishing society.
  2. Therefore, God has a right to be angry.  Because God sits atop the authority structure of the world, he is the primary one who must discourage evil and promote good.  The way God discourages evil is by threatening to punish those who do it.
  3. Because anger can be good, God can be both loving and wrathful at the same time.  In other words,  God’s love and God’s anger are not mutually exclusive.   God is a person of perfect love and righteous anger simultaneously, without compromising his character.   Further, God’s anger is actually best understood as an extension of his love, inseparable from it.  Here, I quote a blogger named Gavin Ortlund:

“We all know good, loving people who get angry precisely because they are good and loving. What good parent is not angry, for example, at the mistreatment of his children? Do any of us not feel anger when we see real evil in the world—runaway greed, for instance, or blatant hypocrisy? Is this anger evidence of a lack of charity in us? No, just the opposite: we feel anger at injustice and wrong because we care about people. Anger is how goodness responds to evil, just as squinting is how eyes respond to bright lights or recoiling is how hands respond to hot surfaces.”

Now that we have established God’s right to be angry, we can proceed to the topic of the next blog: “Does God have a right to be angry about sin?”

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