Thursday, December 16, 2010

God's Anger

I often get asked why the God of the Bible gets so angry. Anger seems too much like a volatile human emotion.  At best, it seems "beneath" our notions of an unchangeable, all-powerful God; at worst, it makes God seem petty or even cruel.  Despite our discomfort, God's anger appears often in the biblical accounts.  I think part of the problem is our mistaken assumption that God's anger and God's love are somehow in competition, as though God's love is somehow tempered or balanced out by God's wrath.  But God's wrath is not opposed to God's love—it is God's love when it encounters sin, when it faces the self-destruction of the beloved.  That's why we can say, as the Bible does, God is love, but we cannot say God is wrath.

Here in Canada where I live, there is a tendency for people to pride themselves on being "nice," on tolerance, on accepting everyone and everything.  Most of the time this is great, but the problem is that "niceness"
 in the face of great violence and injustice takes the side of injustice.  Tolerance turns out to be a convenient label for acceptance of the status quo—having minimal involvement in the lives of others and no investment in their fate.

Recently one of my friends who lives on the streets of Toronto was telling me in great detail the story of the atrocious abuse she experienced as a child.  As I was listening, feeling inwardly sickened but unsure of exactly how to respond, she would pause every so often and say "You're really angry, aren't you?  I can tell—I can see it in your eyes."  Then she would go on with her story.  The truth is that while I did feel angry and sad and confused and any number of emotions at that moment, I'm not sure I was registering much on my face at all.  Her frequent insistence that she could see how furious I was was less because of whatever visible anger I was displaying and more because she needed the affirmation that I was angry, that her pain and
 shame would not leave me untouched.  She wanted reassurance: "You are angry, aren't you?"

What we learn from the story of Jesus is that tolerance is a poor substitute for love.  You can tolerate someone without loving her or him.  And there are some things you cannot tolerate if you love truly and deeply.  What lover is not angry at the betrayal of the beloved?  What loving parents are not angry at the self-destructive behavior of their children?  If God were not angry at the state of the world and the human heart, it would be a sign not that God is "nice" but that God does not care.  As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, "A nonindignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence."(1)

The only objection against God raised more frequently than complaints about anger and judgment is the apparent lack of it—God's perceived restraint in the face of the world's great evils.

"How long, O LORD, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to
 You, 'Violence!'
Yet You do not save.
Why do you make me see iniquity,
And cause me to look on wickedness?
Yes, destruction and violence are before me;
Strife exists and contention arises.
Therefore the law is ignored
And justice is never upheld.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
Therefore justice comes out perverted" (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

"Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O LORD?  Will You keep silent and afflict us beyond measure?" (Isaiah 64:12).

In situations of great suffering and oppression, we want God to get angry and we have the strong suspicion that a God who does not get angry is a God who does not love that deeply.  Only a God who is angry at the ruin of the beloved creation is a God who will act in deliverance.  God's anger means that we are not abandoned or left to our fate.

It is not God's anger that is the problem—God's anger is our salvation.  It is our anger that is the problem.  We project our own personal indignations and
 inclinations toward vengeance onto God.  We use the phrase "righteous anger" to describe our own self-righteous anger.  We deflect our own guilt by outrage at the moral failures of others.  We respond to our anger by taking things into our own hands—either inflicting retribution or becoming self-appointed saviors, trying to fix the problems of others while ignoring our own.

But God is not like us.  God does not have a split personality.  God's anger is not a volatile, self-protective human emotion.  The story of Jesus Christ reveals that God's love for us and God's anger against our life-destroying ways both lead inexorably toward the cross.   And at the cross, God is not in those inflicting the pain but in the One suffering it in order to set things right.

Rachel Tulloch is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada.

(1) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and
 Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 297.

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