Understanding Propitiation: An Illustration I Found Helpful
Through my recent experience of how counselling works, I have come to learn that what is often behind many common mental illnesses (such as depression, alcoholism, etc) is a deep, sometimes murderous, anger. It is a rage – a rage at the injustice of what the counselee has had to face in their life: abuse of many kinds, abandonment, deaths of those close to them, long-term sickness, and so on. I describe it as a murderous anger because that is usually what’s at the heart of it: someone has to pay for what has been done to me; I demand blood.
Now, as I’m sure you would hope, no counsellor would ever actually tell their counselee to go and take out their murderous rage on their perpetrators, because – apart from a host of obvious and social reasons – all of us are sinful human beings and we are to let God be our vindicator (Romans 12:19). But the fact is that the anger still has to be spent – or it simply remains inside that person, boiling and stewing, causing them to uncontrollably lash out at others, or to shut down into depression, or a to take number of other negative actions. This can go on for years, even decades.
So the counsellor gives them some exercises to release, express and spend their anger in a healthy way – to effectively channel it. This can be anything from taking up boxing classes and taking out their rage in a physical way, to what’s called “free journaling” where they get out their angry thoughts on paper. Over time, as that murderous rage gets released and spent and no longer stands so violently between the counselee and their perpetrator, active forgiveness is made possible. For those that are Christians (although also technically possible for non-believers, just more difficult), they are also able to move into loving – rather than hating – those who have wronged them and reconcile where safe and possible.
Let’s now take this back to the cross. God has been deeply wronged, hurt and abused by all of our sin – a million times more than any of us can or will ever experience. But not only that, unlike us, God is completely perfect, holy and righteous by nature and has never sinned or committed any wrong. And so the anger that any one of us has felt because of injustice done against us cannot compare in the slightest to the wrath God carries. If we – people who do wrong and hurt others all the time – get angry at what has been done to us, how much more God?!
This much is clear: God’s righteous rage has to be channelled. He is God. He is the vindicator for justice. He has to be. And God the Son willingly laid down His life to be that object for God to channel that anger onto. There was no other way for us to be forgiven, no other way to be reconciled. There still isn’t. God’s wrath for our sin – the way we have hurt, abused, abandoned and defiled Him – either gets channelled onto Jesus or it will one day get spent on us.
How incredible is God that He would choose to channel that murderous rage He rightly has towards us onto Himself! To be honest, I am simply left in worshipful awe.