According to a recent study, belief in an angry God is “significantly associated with an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.”
That doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me.
Believing that an all powerful being is constantly ticked off should create some anxiety, particularly if, like Mark Driscoll, you think this ticked off all powerful being personally hates you.
But such is the nature of God for many Christians, particularly those of the Calvinist persuasion who inherited from their theological forefather, Jean Calvin, a picture of God who is constantly angry about one thing or another.
There are, of course, passages in Scripture that speak of God being angry.
Take, for example, the passage from Nahum 1 referenced by the aforementioned study story.
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies.
Not exactly the warm fuzzy, let the little children come to me picture of Jesus most of us have from Sunday School.
On the other end of the theological spectrum are those who proclaim a God who is always loving, never angry. Borrowing from 1 John, “God is love,” this is a God who never seems to be angry about anything as he is apparently to be too busy doling out hugs and positive energy.
However, if we take the time to read the entire narrative of Scripture, rather than just cherry pick the passages that fit our preferred portrait of God, we see that God doesn’t exactly fit either of these perspectives.
I think where both side of the nature of God debate get it wrong, is that we fail to appreciate the difference between an angry God and a God who gets angry. It may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s a tremendously important hair to split.
My predecessor at Yale, Jonathan Edwards, is the poster child for the former, for the belief that God is an angry God. Edwards famously preached the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Particularly when compared to the homiletical stylings of, say, Joel Osteen, it’s a rather frightening portrait of God and our relationship to him.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.
Not very warm and fuzzy.
It’s hard to imagine such a God bothering to forgive or extend grace, let alone put on flesh and die for all mankind.
Now, when Edwards, or anybody else speaks of an angry God it is likely, hopefully, that at the beginning they only mean that God gets angry from time to time. However, what has happened, whether intentionally or not, is that over time this repetitive and never ending emphasis on God’s anger has become so ingrained in our minds that we can’t separate God from anger. An angry God becomes the dominant narrative of faith, and anger, rather than love, becomes the core characteristic of God’s nature.
Worse yet, this God seems bound by his anger, as if he has no choice but to constantly be angry at mankind. But the diversity of God’s interactions with humanity in the Bible, not least of all the story of Jesus, shows us definitively that anger is not God’s fundamental nature.
In other words, God is not an angry God.
God is a God who sometimes gets angry.
And for that I am truly thankful.
Now, I know that might sound strange coming from someone like me who talks so much about God’s love and grace, and who over and over again rejects the sort of rhetoric that paints God as hateful and petty.
But I believe in a God who gets angry.
Not an angry God, but a God who gets angry when anger is needed, like we see in Isaiah.
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “The multitude of your sacrifices — what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
This is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture.
It shows us both what makes God angry and in so doing what God cares most about. In this foreshadowing of Jesus’ questions in Matthew 25 – “I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? I was sick and in prison, did you come and take care of me?” – we see God’s nature on full display. God is love and so it is God’s love that compels this sort of angry response against injustice, oppression, and a complete lack of love.
God is certainly angry in this passage, but what God is angry about is absolutely essential for understanding both what makes God angry and God’s essential nature. If God loves as much as we believe he does, then it makes sense that God would get angry when the object of his love is hurt, neglected, oppressed or abused. But it is critical that we understand that the beginning and ending point of God’s anger is God’s love. God’s love spurs God’s anger only to bring about a more loving world.
When we start and end with God’s anger we fundamentally misunderstand who God is and what God is like. Subsequently, as we are called to image that God to the world, we misunderstand who we should be and how we should act. Rather than starting from a place of love and only allowing our anger to be kindled when those we love are hurt, neglected, or oppressed, we start from a place of anger and use that anger to do the very unjust, abusive, and oppression things which should kindle our holy anger in the first place.
This is how so many churches justify the spiritual abuse of their members. Rather than making love the basis for and goal of their faith, they work out of a place of anger, fear, and hate thinking this is how God wants them to act. So, they pour out their wrath from a never ceasing tap because they are incarnating the type of God they believe in – a God who is fundamentally angry and who has to constantly be angry otherwise he somehow won’t be the all powerful being they need him to be….and want to be themselves.
But, once again, God’s beginning and end point for his interactions with creation is not anger, but love. It is God’s love, not God’s anger, that stirs God’s wrath in Isaiah. God’s wrath is stirred out of love for his creation and he becomes angry because he is heartbroken that the least of his creation is being trampled on his name by those he chose to serve the least, the lost, and the dying.
Odd though it may sound, we need a God who gets angry.
We need a God who sees oppression and poverty and injustice and hunger and disease and homeless and heartache and loneliness and all the other unloving things we do to each other and gets angry because this is not the way he created the world to be.
We need this sort of God because there is hope in a God who cannot abide the way things are and chooses to change the world for the better.
There is hope that this God’s holy anger will not allow injustice and pain and oppression to continue forever, but will one day come and dwell among us forever. We will be his people, and God himself will be with us and be our God. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. For God will have made all things new.
This is what God’s anger leads to.
Not wrath, abuse, oppression, and injustice.
But liberation, hope, and life eternal.
Because God is not an angry God who wants his people to suffer.
God is a God who gets angry when he sees his people suffer.
Subtle though it may seem, this distinction makes all the difference in the world.
And it makes God truly worthy of our love and adoration.
Grace and peace,