Wrath of God?

Author:  Rachelle Rieke
What do you think of or what comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “wrath of God?” I find it to be a topic of tension and a source of much confusion about the character of God and how it applies to us as believers – especially in light of the nature we see in Jesus in the New Testament. The phrase, “God is good all the time,” is so commonplace, and yet in the same breath God is often credited as the giver of sickness and death. In what way does that make sense? With that thought, I also find that the depth of the Christian faith and our security in who we are hinges on who we believe God to be. Is He Papa, Abba, Father? Or is He just capital ‘G’ God up there somewhere in clouds with a scowl and a ready judgment? Everything we see in Jesus reveals that to be false, but then what about all of the fire and destruction we read about in the Old Testament? Is our God a schizophrenic? Did He change? Or could there be a deeper wisdom to be grasped that requires us to seek and not accept what we see at face value or what we were traditionally taught?
Scripture says that Jesus is the express image of God (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3) and that Jesus is the will of God revealed (Ephesians 1:9). He always was, always is, and always will be the same (Hebrews 13:8), and He will never change His mind about His love for you or the overwhelmingly positive light in which He views you– He doesn’t get shifty and weird (James 1:17) no matter what you do or don’t do. In Hosea chapter 4, verse 6, God says we, His people, are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. This isn’t intellectual knowledge – not something buying more books or consuming more sermons will satisfy. This is the knowledge of God. It is relational knowledge. Knowing who He is due to experiencing His character by spending time with Him. I think it is time that we concretely establish the goodness of God in our hearts, not just as a catchy phrase, but as a foundational truth that is trustworthy to stand upon in every circumstance in our lives – especially the hard stuff.
Thinking about this topic all came about last week while reading John 3:36: “Those who trust in the Son possess eternal life; but those who don’t obey the Son will not see life, and God’s anger will rise up against them.” In DSSM, we are participating in the church-wide reading of the book of John, and this verse stirred quite the interesting discussion about God’s anger and wrath. We made some distinctions between human anger and God’s anger: human anger is self-seeking and self-protective. When it is directed at another person, it can be vindictive, malicious, hateful, and down-right pitiful. Our anger can either become explosive or introspectively spiral downward into our own little pity parties. It is a detestable place to be – I know, I’ve been there more times than I care to acknowledge. But all of these mannerisms are in complete opposition to the character of God. So what is the wrath of God? How can we grasp what it means apart from the lens of human anger we have experienced all our lives as a byproduct of being trained up in a fallen world? And how do we reconcile the character of God we see in the New Testament and the character of God we seem to see in the Old Testament?
Though the discussion closed with the end of class that night, the overarching questions followed me home and into bed. As I lay there, I mused over my own misgivings and perplexed feelings I had when I read through the Old Testament in the years previous– particularly Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. I remember I wasn’t in the best place emotionally either when I read through those books, and I reflected on my frustration and near-anger at what I read. I remember half accusing, half pleading with the Lord to help me understand because I flat out did not. The death and doom didn’t line up with who I believed Him to be.
So the night’s discussion prompted me to revisit this place of misunderstanding in my heart, and I asked the Lord what His wrath is. What does it mean? What am I not seeing clearly, or how am I missing it? I fell asleep with the questions surging in my mind, and that very night I had a strange dream about it. In the dream, I had these plants – one in particular – that was very precious to me. It was large, flourishing, and beautiful, and I really loved it. Well, my house was broken into, and someone came in and completely destroyed the plant and smashed up everything around it. When I came home, I was filled with fury. I was so, so angry at having what was so precious destroyed – something that took years to grow to get that big and beautiful.
At 3:54am, I hastily reached over to my phone, still half asleep, and jotted down a few notes about the dream lest I forget it all through the rest of the night’s sleep. I had woken up with what felt like an urgency and excitement and the thought ‘revelation of God’s anger’ from seemingly nowhere stuck in my head.
A few days passed, and I didn’t get a whole lot of time to process through what I had dreamed, but later in the week, the Lord led me into the book of Jonah. God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh to warn them about the consequences of their sinful lifestyle. At first Jonah ignored the Lord, but then he was swallowed up by a fish… and you know the story. When Jonah finally took the message to Nineveh, the people of the city repented and turned toward the Lord. In the last chapter, we see Jonah throwing what I tend to think of as the world’s greatest pity party. He was angry that Nineveh repented and avoided destruction:
Jonah’s Anger and the Lord’s Compassion
4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly,1 and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
5 Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6 Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching feast wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Though I don’t think I have fully grasped everything the Lord is trying to teach me through this, a few things stood out to me. First, I couldn’t help but notice how a plant was a focal point in this scripture and in my dream. I don’t know if that has a greater significance than God revealing the connection to me and that He is showing me something, but it certainly captured my attention. In addition, as I read the passage, I clearly see the difference in human anger and God’s anger. Jonah’s anger was self-righteous and bitter. He took a personal offense at the sin of Nineveh, and he dearly wished for their destruction – to the point that he wanted to die when it didn’t come to pass. His anger was also self-seeking in regards to the plant. He had more care for a plant (his comfort) than the fate of an entire city. And the Lord asked him, “Do you do well to be angry?” This question popped off of the page to me. Do you do well to be angry? Well, do you? To me this is distinctly showing that God doesn’t approve of this kind of anger. This isn’t His kind of anger, and
He didn’t want the city to be destroyed.
Connecting this to my dream, it makes me think that God’s anger, Old Testament or New, is for us and not against us. Like the thief that came in and wrecked my garden in the dream, God is exceedingly angry at the sin that enables the Thief to come into our lives and kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10). His plan was and is to give life abundant, and His heart breaks when the Thief comes in and mars what He created beautiful.
I have a lot more I want to write about what I am learning on this topic, but this is already so long. I think I will need to make it a multi-part blog. So stay tuned!
Image taken from: http://evangelicalfocus.com/magazine/2892/The_Forgotten_Doctrine_of_the_Wrath_of_God