The good news of God’s wrath

The good news of God’s wrath

Sarah and I were on a road trip recently, and we had one of those really great conversations in the car.  (For some reason some of our best and worst conversations have happened in the car.  Does anyone know why?)

We were having a frank conversation about Christianity–what we liked and didn’t like about following Jesus.  We half-joked that at times Christianity is like going to the gym:  it’s something you know you should do and kinda want to do (but usually for reasons that are mixed); but, mostly, you just don’t really want to do it.

BUT you’re glad once it’s over:  leaving the gym is a really good feeling.

And, indeed, one can find the metaphor of the athlete in Scripture.  “Everyone who competes in the games,” writes the apostle Paul, “goes into strict training.”  He continues, speaking of himself in (depressingly?) radical terms:  “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that…I myself will not be disqualified from the prize.”

At one point in our discussion, we both asked, “Why does it have to be so hard?  Why can’t we learn to enjoy working out?  That is, why are there times when we don’t seem to enjoy the Christian life?”

And we then talked about how there are in fact times–and it has become more frequent over the years–when we have actually enjoyed a good work out.

I lamented the fact that at age 37 my body isn’t exactly on the upswing anymore–it’s far less supple than it used to be.  And I have the occasional aches in my lower back.  I’m now one of those who exercises his core to alleviate that pain (for a humorous story about that, click here).

Sigh.

But then we both recalled something that we often give thanks for in our prayers times together:  our very, very good health and the virtual absence of any physical pain in our lives.  Sarah recalled listening to a talk given by a woman in her 30s who was dying of cancer; the woman shared with tears how her body was now too weak to pick up her little girl.  She would pass away only a few months later.

This woman–and so many like her who suffer from chronic or terminal pain (or simple old age)–would do anything to wake up early with a body that actually worked and go to the gym.  Such an opportunity would be a marvelous gift.

In a similar fashion, the “disciplines” of the Christian life–the sacrifice and sufferings, the endless battles, failures, etc.–must be weighed against not only the many very good gifts we do enjoy in the present age and eternal life in the age to come; they must also be weighed against an alternative course of life that no follower of Jesus will ever know:  God’s just wrath.

Questions like “What do I really deserve?” “Why have I been spared?” or “Do I really want God to be ‘fair’ with me?” are to be catalysts for regular–even daily–Christian reflection.  Meditation upon God’s acts of wrath–past, present, and future–are sobering and are in many ways good news, because they awaken us to “the grace in which we now stand.”  These acts of wrath are:

(1) past:  from the horrific scope of the Genesis flood to God’s judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah to the exile of Israel in the early 6th century B.C., we grasp that, while God is wonderfully “slow to anger,” implicit in this very phrase is the inevitability of divine judgment upon the unrepentant:  “but he does not leave the guilty unpunished”;

(2) present:  characteristic of the portraits of divine wrath in the Old Testament, the Jewish literature of the Second Temple era, and the New Testament is the idea that God’s wrath is present, here and now, in a very simple–and terrifying–way:  as classically stated in Romans 1, “the wrath of God is [now!] being revealed from heaven” upon humans–how?”–by God merely “giving them over” to their own desires and passions.  God merely lets go of the reins and let’s us have our way;

(3) future:  Scriptures’ descriptions of future divine wrath are nothing short of harrowing:

Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for a millstone to be tied around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

In Revelation, John portrays those refusing to change (i.e., to “repent”), from all manner of socio-economic levels–“kings, generals, slave and free”–hiding in caves and rocks, saying, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has came, and who can stand?”

But the clearest, most powerful display of divine wrath is, arguably not the Flood of Genesis or even at the Final Judgment of Revelation but the cross of Christ.  As a classic hymn states of the cross:

“Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here [at the cross] may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.”

It’s hard to argue with this.  And it’s hard to argue with history:  the abyss of injustice and evil we call history demands a God who simply cannot be indifferent, hesitant, or indecisive about evil; that would be to add infinite insult to inestimable injury.  It would be quite simply the greatest injustice of all.

At the cross humanity learns, in a final and conclusive way, that the Creator is utterly serious about sin.  We learn that all sin will be addressed; as Jesus himself says, “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”  The sheer terror of divine wrath is evident in Jesus’ pleading with the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) and in his cry of dereliction from the cross (“My God, my God, why…?”).

When we view the past, present, and future of God’s wrath and when we view it supremely at the cross, we behold what we ourselves most assuredly deserve.  Every last one of us, in our heart of hearts knows this (it’s why we must regularly pretend to be someone we’re not).

But as followers of Jesus we know that our Father didn’t treat Jesus as he deserved in order that He might never treat us we deserve.

Ever.  Did you hear that?  Christian, there are two words that God told Jesus that he will never, ever tell you:  “Go away.”

A final comment:  it is fashionable in evangelical circles to say that it is only God’s grace that can motivate true obedience.  Scripture completely disagrees.  One could probably well say that God’s grace should primarily motivate, but divine wrath is regularly given as a motivation (e.g., from the curses in Deut. 28 to Jesus’ own “woes” in Luke 6).  Evangelicals love to (mis)quote Romans 2, where Paul says that it is “God’s kindness” that “leads you to repentance.”  What is completely missed in the context is that Paul’s (imagined) dialogue partner is one who is “showing contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience”!  Therefore, in the verses immediately following Paul motivates–how?–by God’s wrath:  “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath.”

As such, every follower of Jesus would do well to consider Paul’s (neglected?) statement in Romans 11:

“Consider, therefore, the kindness and sternness of God:  sternness to those who fell but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness.  Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”

So let us consider the good news of the past, present and future God’s wrath and, most of all, the divine wrath that was undeservedly yet utterly exhausted at the cross in our place, that we may re-interpret and enjoy the blessings of following Jesus here and now.

2 thoughts on “The good news of God’s wrath

  1. “the abyss of injustice and evil we call history demands a God who simply cannot be indifferent, hesitant, or indecisive about evil”

    What an evocative image. This is great, Bruce; thanks.

    An objector might ask, however, “So I’m supposed to attend to my prayer and Bible reading so I won’t get a ‘cosmic spanking’ from God? That seems legalistic to me.”

    The ever-present concern of modern Christian society with legalism is used as a talisman against engagement in the aforementioned “hard workouts” of faithfulness. Grace is laurel-resting; discipline is trying to earn your salvation – although the Bible doesn’t paint this picture at all.

    Furthermore, I think many Christians (anecdotally, I feel like it’s a big problem among women, but men are surely affected too) struggle with guilt in a legalistic sense. They don’t want to be and don’t claim to be legalistic, and yet their guilt is what pushes them into engaging in various spiritual disciplines – only for a short while, because they receive no (or very little) wisdom or joy from those endeavors. Their lives are peppered with “shoulds”: I should do this, I should do that, dragging their feet wherever they go. They’re “should”ing all over themselves, as some like to say.

    Because modern Western society is obsessed with the individual as the autonomous moral agent, I don’t know how we can turn folks away from guilt-ridden compulsion and toward healthy, joyful obligation (but in the same way I’m “obligated” to obey the marriage vows I made to my wife, but I don’t view them as a duty, I view them with joy). Contemplation of God’s wrath would seem to make things worse, but maybe, paradoxically, it would make things better.

    1. Wow, these are great observations. A few disorganized thoughts:

      “Grace is laurel-resting; discipline is trying to earn your salvation”: Let me answer this using the Lord’s prayer. American Xianity could be characterized as truncating the Lord’s prayer to simply “Dad, give us bread for a good while, and forgive my debts.” Absent are the following: (1) any desire for parental authority to instruct, warn, and exhort (“Our Father”); like any good parent, might he actually know better than we do? Does he have the right to say, “Because I say so”? (2) an awareness of the cataclysmic extent to which we have slanderously domesticated and underestimated God’s character (“hollowed be your name”–i.e., show us there’s simply no one like you); e.g., calling God’s goodness into question is celebrated as being “authentic”; if I right here right now can’t see what God is doing in my life, I’m not obligated to obey; (3) a sincere and sustained longing for God to get His way (not my way nor anyone else’s way) in my life and in the world (“Your kingdom come, your will be done…”); we simply don’t want to give the reins over; we want to remain in the driver’s seat, b/c we’re so damn competent to live our lives. I’ll stop here but, if we are not praying the things that Jesus taught us to pray, it’s because we don’t want him to do them; and we don’t want them, because we honestly still prefer the present order to the age to come: what Paul calls the “sinfulness of sin”–i.e., the injustice, alienation, insanity of sin has not been recognized, nor have the wondrous, overwhelming goodness and slyness of God’s ways been tasted: David beckons us, “Taste and see the Lord is good.” The gospel call–and the call of daily discipleship–is losing one’s life (dying to the present evil age) in order to gain it (living / experiencing the age to come). In this sense, Christianity is all about self-fulfillment–and, hence, an end to “shoulding” all over oneself–but its self-fulfillment is an self-emptying unto a self-filling. Self-full-ness comes from self-less-ness, an idea that is both counterintuitive and countercultural.

      I will say, however, that the so-called “spiritual disciplines” that you mention–the basics being individual bible-reading and prayer–have been skewed and exalted in some unhealthy ways. Overwhelmingly, Scripture presents communion with God–hearing from God through his Word and speaking to God through prayer–as a corporate (vs. individual) event. Fruitful, life-giving individual “devotional times” almost always come out of fruitful, life-giving corporate engagement–meaningful liturgy, solid expositional preaching and teaching, etc., which then encourage and equip the individual Xian to pursue private communion with God.

      You’re right: the culture of late modernity is a cult of the individual, and, hence, it is why I beat two drums with the young adults whom I serve: a commitment to community and an accompanying practice of hospitality. I truly believe that hospitality–welcoming all kinds of people into one’s home and serving them–is the forgotten and critical “secret weapon” of the church today. Consider: the central sacrament of the church is…a meal, in which God invites us to commune with him, a meal that cost him the death of his Son. Hmmm… maybe he really, really, really wants a relationship with us.

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