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).
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.