Question 1: Is God Angry?
Published by Paul Harford on Thursday, 26 March 2020 10:50
Over the last couple of weeks, a number of thoughts and questions have come my way – which I have tried my best to address and answer individually at the time. I am, however, aware that they are probably more widespread than the few willing to voice them. They are questions around whether God is angry, whether this virus is a punishment, whether what’s been happening is the fulfilment of scripture or prophecy, whether we’re in ‘the last times’...
There is nothing wrong with asking these questions – an enquiring (even doubting) mind is, in my opinion, an important component of an active faith – but if these questions begin to cause concern, anxiety, or worry, then they perhaps need addressing head on.
I don’t think I can offer a final, authoritative word, but I can offer my thoughts and opinions. You may find them useful; you may not. You may find you agree with them; you may not. All of that is fine (in fact, if you can show me where I’m wrong, I’d be very grateful – learning is always good) – I’m offering them simply in the hope that they may bring peace to some.
Question 1: Is God angry?
There is a phrase that occurs a number of times in scripture – slightly varied – but at base it says this, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” It occurs at least ten times – which means it is quite an important thought. (Do a quick search on the phrase ‘slow to anger’ on biblegateway.com if you want to see them)
It tells us a few important things. First is that it’s OK to use language we understand about emotions to describe our experiences of God’s activity. That’s important because some other approaches to describing God talk about his ‘impassibility’ - which is the idea that God does not experience pain, pleasure, or other emotions.
It’s an idea that is rooted in the concept of God as perfect and eternal – if someone is perfect, they cannot change (otherwise they would be becoming more perfect, in which case they weren’t perfect before; or less perfect, in which case they are not perfect now...) An emotional response to something is a change, therefore God – being perfect in eternity (i.e. forever and ever amen) – cannot have one without violating his perfection.
That’s actually really important – you know when we celebrate the fact that God just loves you perfectly and always; that there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more, and nothing you can do to make him love you any less? That right there is ‘impassibility’.
But scripture shows us that even if that is true, it’s still OK to talk about God as though he has emotions because it helps us make sense of what he’s up to, and what we’re experiencing.
Secondly it tells us that on balance God is more love than anger, and more likely to respond in a way that we perceive as love rather than anger.
But third it tells us that at times God is angry. (Or, if you like, that at times there are responses of God that it is OK to interpret as anger...)
So is God angry right now?
Great question! But possibly the wrong question for the minute. A better question right now might be, what is it that makes God (who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love) angry?
Scripturally you’ll find plenty of answers, here's just a few of them (I’ll give you one reference for each, but you could find plenty more!):
- social injustice and oppression (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
- institutional dishonesty (Micah 6:11-12)
- hypocrisy and false piety (Isaiah 1:14)
- profiteering at the expense of others (Matthew 21:12-17)
- lack of sympathy and hardness of heart (Mark 3:4-5)
- the death of innocents (Proverbs 6:17)...
It’s not a short list, but it could perhaps be summarised. When Jesus was asked the greatest commandment his reply was, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Everything on the list above is an example of that not happening.
That’s what makes God angry – when he is turned from, when love is forgotten, when that commandment is broken.
So our next question is: is that happening right now in our world, are people living in a way that neglects love, and turns from God’s perfect purpose? I’m going to go with ‘yes’.
So is God angry now?
It has to be a ‘yes’ doesn’t it? But perhaps that doesn't mean what we think it does - for instance, it certainly doesn't mean he's sent a virus because he's angry with us.
Remember when we said that when we’re talking of God we’re using human language to describe our experience of his activity? That’s important again – because when we’re talking about God’s anger, I don’t think we’re really talking about anger as we know it. We’re not talking about a sudden, swelling, all consuming rage that leads to lashing out, and acting and speaking in ways we later regret... we’re not talking smouldering, sullen, silent resentment that lasts disproportionately to the cause...
This is something quite different. Acts of violence, and hatred (which is what the opposite of love is) are wrong, fundamentally and completely – and this ‘anger’ is the open recognition, and abhorrence of them. It’s perhaps more akin to a deep pain and angst, that is measured, understood, and appropriate. That sort of anger is persistent, so long as its cause persists. It has to be, because God is perfect, and impassible. As the psalmist puts it, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.” (Psalm 7:11)
So is God angry? Yes. But not in the way we might immediately assume. He is angry, if we understand that anger to be something more akin to sadness and pain at humanity's suffering, and ability to inflict that suffering on one another.
That his precious world is hurting, that it is in fear, and anguish, and worry... that his children are sick and dying... how can that not hurt a God that is good and full of love. And that pain, carried eternally in the heart of God needs a strong word - and anger, for me at least, fits the bill.
He's not angry at us; he's angry for us.
But If that’s the sort of anger we’re talking about, that is going to have to have some bearing on how we tackle the next question, “Is God punishing us?”