Friday, December 20, 2013

God of Love, God of Wrath

The other day, I was watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  I know, I know, that isn't our usual blog fare, but a conversation that took place in this particular episode really got me to thinking.  In the show, a girl named Hannah has had some unpleasant supernatural things happen to her. (This is a sci-fi show, after all).  She believes that God is punishing her for a mistake she made at work that cost people their lives, and that she deserves the punishment.  This is what one of the S.H.I.E.L.D agents says to her: 

No, no you don't. No one does. I had a few nuns around me growing up, and they would talk like that, scaring kids with stories of God's wrath. It made not want to believe.  The only words that stuck with me were something Sister McKenna said from the Bible, I think. She said, "God is love."  It's simple, and it's a little sappy, but that's the version I like. God is love; the thing that holds us together. And if that's true, I don't think He would punish you for making a mistake.  I think He'd forgive a mistake.

As I listened, I realized that this was a perfect example of how the world views God.  He is either a "loving God" who would never punish anyone, and certainly never "send anyone to hell," or He's an angry, vengeful God who sent his chosen people into other nations to destroy innocent people for no reason.  God is loving or God is angry.  Never both.

Unfortunately, it seems the church itself often adds fuel to the fire.  While we agree that God can be both angry and loving, we fight over which aspect of God we should focus on, as if his wrath and his love are on opposite sides of a pendulum.  It seems every month or so, I come across a meme or a tweet with one Christian or group of Christians sniping at another group because they focusing too much on God's anger or God's love. 

What does the Bible say?  The book of Romans is full of both the anger and the love of God, and Paul indicates that we should understand them as parts of a whole rather than disparate qualities.   

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 8:6-10)

These verses contain both God's wrath and God's love in a beautiful picture. God loved us so much that he provided a way for us to escape the anger he has against unrighteousness.  

Try to think about God's love without his anger for a minute.  What would it mean? It wouldn't mean anything.  My sin hurts me and the people around me.  If your child was being bullied, and you turned a blind eye, all the hugs in the world wouldn't convince your son you love him.  When you love your child, you are angry when they are hurt, and you want to fix it.  Sin is more harmful to us than any bully, and God is angry about it.  In his anger at sin, he demonstrated his love by sending his son to fix it. 

If you imagine God's anger without his love, you'd be good company for the atheists who use words like genocidal, intolerant, and prejudiced when talking about our God. One of the reasons for this view is a total misunderstanding of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land, a part of the Bible that even Christians have a hard time understanding. A true student of the Bible reads the book of Joshua with the lens of accurate human history and an understanding that God's love and God's anger go hand in hand. 

Historically, the Canaanites were morally corrupt.  In worshiping their degenerate gods, they performed  such acts as child sacrifice and bestiality (see Leviticus 18 for an exhaustive list).  God told the children of Israel that it was because of this moral corruption that He would drive the people out of the land using the Israelites as his tool (Deuteronomy 9:5).  

God loved the Canaanites, and the gave them at least 40 years to repent (from the time they heard about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea).  If they had repented, God would have forgiven them, as he did the Assyrians in the book of Jonah (Jeremiah 18:7-10). But God knew 400 years previously when he spoke to Abraham that the Canaanites as a whole would only become more corrupt (Genesis 15:16).

God loved the Israelites too, and He did not want them to be defiled by such practices. The Law warned them to separate themselves from such acts, to be holy as He is holy. Unfortunately, the Israelites did not drive out all the Canaanite peoples (Judges 1:27-36), and they eventually began to imitate them and were ultimately driven from the land as well (Judges 2:1-3).  

When we look at the whole picture of God, we see that when He is most angry, it is because of his love for his people, and his desire that they live spiritually healthy and prosperous lives.  It was true for the Israelites and it is true for us.  God hates sin because sin is poisonous.  We also see that God's love is so mighty that it can overcome that sin through his own son's sacrifice.  

We don't have to be like that agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., picking one version of God over the other. We don't have to choose a loving God over an angry one.  We choose to worship God as He is.  He is both, and I exalt Him. 

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 

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