Anger, Authority & Absence: God’s Offensive Attributes
I recently posed this question to our city-wide collaborative preaching team. In an upcoming series on God’s attributes, we wanted to focus upon the hard-to-stomach dimensions of God, instead of dazzling people with a cornucopia of God’s more desirable qualities.
We quickly settled on these three: God’s authority, absence and anger. (With Baptist roots, I love alliteration, especially when they are the best words in the synonymic range.)
God’s authority. In an anti-authoritarian world, where the sovereignty of self has reigned supreme since the enlightenment, the idea of God as an all-powerful king, with the absolute prerogative to determine what we believe, and how we behave, is not one we take to easily. Even Plato, who in his later life dabbled in politics, deduced from firsthand experience that power always corrupts in some way. Given the ghastly examples of self-serving, totalitarian oppression in the media headlines, surely the idea of One commanding all is not only unpalatable, but an emetic to our post-modern generation.
God’s absence. Pascal rightly chided Christians who attacked, rather than empathised with, atheists who had walked away from faith on the basis of what seemed to be, in their case, an unending dark night of the soul. Isaiah said it most clearly: “Truly you are a God who hides himself” (45:17). David in the Psalms and, of course, Job illustrate this sense of God’s abandonment most clearly. Though we know that God is with us by covenant promise, every seasoned Christ-follower can attest to a time when, instead of sensing God’s pleasure and presence within, we were drowning in a sense of God’s absence. This void within is intensified by those times where God is absent without, “where all traces of (God’s) existence have vanished from the universe” (CS Lewis).
God’s anger. At the risk of oversimplifying this doctrine, God’s anger splits two ways: there is the angered love of his jealousy, and the angered holiness of his wrath. Our gut reaction upon hearing of God’s anger is to question the goodness of God. In our thinking, anger is surely beneath a good God. Oprah said that she left the moorings of her childhood faith when she heard a pastor teach on God’s jealousy. And more than a few have rejected the God of the Bible on the basis of his wrath-motivated determination to punish the disobedient and the idolater. Not to mention those who have side-stepped the issue by redefining God’s wrath as ‘merely’ one more feature of his love – despite some 500 references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament, all of which clearly burst the riverbanks of that redefinition.
So how can we help people come to terms with these off-putting and offensive aspects of God? How do we enable them to love God more, not less, precisely because these are his traits?
Our team of preachers and thinkers quickly realised a great starting point was to emphasise the doctrine of analogy. Certain characteristics are predicative of both humanity and deity, yet God’s perfection entails an infinite qualitative difference! Said another way, the human experience of jealousy and authority are more suitable points of contrast than comparison. For example, our jealousy tends to be love gone extinct – the one we once loved has wounded our pride, and we now hate. Human envy also tends to try to possess what is not ours to start with. But God’s jealousy is his love fighting extinction. It is always based on his rightful possession of us. Our wrath is unholy, disproportionate, ill-tempered, self-protecting and impatient. God, on the other hand, is slow to anger, with a holy hostility that is provoked in the first place by our unholy hostility towards him.
Our other insight was to separate God’s temporal from his eternal qualities. God’s presence is eternal, whereas his absence is our short-lived experience in ‘this present evil age’ where fallibility, fragility and finiteness are our lot. God’s wrath and jealousy only exist in temporary response to sinful humanity. We cannot say, like we can of his holiness and love, that anger is true of the one Who Was and Who Is To Come.
But our breakthrough realization was that the cross of Christ is not only the crowning revelation of God, but that it is the only way we can fully receive, even love, these facets of God. Here’s how…
The cross and God’s authority. It is only when we see the nail-scarred hand that now holds the sceptre of power, that we realise here is One who would rather die than live without us. He did not come to be served but to serve and give his life. Unlike earthly rulers, he does not coerce us with raw acts of dominion but instead woos us by laying aside his immense power, suffering with and for us, under the powers that be. Only when we see his crown of thorns, can we sigh, with face-to-the-ground, the heartfelt words, ‘Command me.’
The cross and God’s absence. When Jesus gasped that his Father had forsaken him at his time of greatest need, he did not lose faith. (Moments later he declared – by faith – that his work was finished, and that his spirit would soon be in safe hands.) When we are in the darkness, with failing faith, we need but look to the One who, when he was in utter darkness, had unfailing faith. We live not only ‘by faith in the Son of God’, but, according to a growing body of translators, “by the faith of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us” (Gal 2:20). No matter how abandoned we may feel within and without, his proven-perfect faith carries our feeble faith.
The cross and God’s anger. On that bloodied tree, Jesus suffered the scorn of humanity: our jealousy (think chief priests) and wrath (think Roman execution) was in full flare. We were at our worst, yet God was at his best. In holy jealousy, his death was love fighting the extinction of our fading love, now turned to hatred. Moreover, his cross only multiplies his ownership of us: Redeemer rights are added to his Creator rights. Now he can say, ‘I made you and I bought you: you are twice mine.’
But if the cross intensifies the basis of God’s jealousy, it filters out the terrors of his wrath. Jesus, on our behalf, endured God’s wrath undiluted. Above the Light of the world, the sky darkened – dark heavens always speak of God’s displeasure in the Hebrew Bible. There, in the shadows of abandonment, he drank down to the dregs the cup he asked, begged, pleaded, not to drink the night before. The cup is a metaphor of God’s wrath poured out. He cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” No doubt, Jesus had thought of what this dreadful day might be like. But this question reveals that something even he had not fully anticipated now occurred. There ‘hilaskomai’ (1 John 2:2) happened – fully propitiated, God’s fiery anger is fully averted from us. There, on that forsaken hill, instead of demanding our blood, Christ offered his own.
Now, only love not anger burns towards those of us who rest in the shelter of those wooden beams.