I believe that the love of our enemies is utterly essential to the love of God. If we do not love our enemies, we will not know God, nor rightly love Him. Indeed, I believe that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. If anything, this points to the utter necessity of grace – for how else will we ever love our enemies? On the other hand, I believe that embracing an interpretation of Scripture in which God’s wrath is seen as literally true, not only undercuts other statements in Scripture concerning God’s love, but also the consensus of the Fathers (certainly in the East). But more directly, belief that God’s character is such that He hates some and loves others, finally makes loving our own enemies impossible. How could we love more than God loves? If God hates some, then how can we dare to be different? St. Luke has a passage which is pivotal for me:
Luke 6:32-36 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
But, of course, if God is only merciful to some, then need I do more? It is absolutely foundational in the spiritual teaching of the Church that God is love and His mercy is towards all. Not only is His mercy towards all, but our mercy is to be the same. Thus the Church reads words such as “wrath” and “anger” metaphorically when they are applied to God – for God is not subject to human passions. It is not just foundational for understanding God – but foundational for our own salvation – our own conformity to the image of Christ. If we do not journey as far down the road towards the utter forgiveness of our enemies, we will have taken our hand from the plow, turned aside from the path God has set us.
I append a short conversation of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos which points towards how our attitude should be towards all – and how the gospel should be preached. Such stories are not an argument for those who are convinced that the Bible teaches that God is wrathful and angry with sinners. I can only take refuge in the received teaching of the Church and the received interpretation of Scripture. The proof, if there can be such, of its veracity can be found in the lives of the saints, whom God has given us in every age.
Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.
I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,
‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’
The Staretz heard him out, then asked,
‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’
‘Yes, that they do believe.’
‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’
‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’
‘And what about the Saints?’
‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’
‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’
‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’
‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a kind of depressing sermon — all fire and brimstone; only a hint of forgiveness. I think it really shows a misplaced emphasis. For the record though, this seems to be the one paragraph in the whole thing that talks about God as non-wrathful:
And even that bit seems to be mostly about hectoring people into converting instead of extolling the great mercies of God. It’s anthropocentric instead of theocentric.
In his book Dare We Hope, Balthasar mentions some late medieval scholastics who pondered the question (my paraphrase) “If God revealed to me that person X was eternally reprobated, would I be required to love him with a truly Christian love or would mere politeness be sufficient?” After all, why should I love a child of wrath, if God doesn’t?
We must not forget that our Lord forgave us from the Cross in the midst of an agony we can never know.
Father, if you would permit, I have a few thoughts related to this post and the last couple of comment threads. Feel free to correct anything that needs correcting.
One of the fascinating things about those who want to attribute a very literal attitude of wrath and hatred to God (talk about a vision of a god who is in our own image!) is their use of theological dissections in their interpretations of Scripture. There are usually classifications made in the kinds of wills God has, the kinds of graces God dispenses, etc. God wills, in one way, that all be saved; but he also wills in another way that some are to be vessels of wrath. God’s grace is poured out on creation so that it continues to exist and so humanity doesn’t completely decimate itself, but only the elect get saving grace. Most markedly, however, there is a distinction in character deliniated between Father and Son.
The Father is sometimes seen to be the just God who metes out wrath, who exacts it upon the Son in angry or obligatory vengeance for our sins, who hardens men’s hearts to accomplish his purpose (which evidently is something other than the salvation/deification of his handiwork), who hates whom he hates and who, apparently, creates some people specifically to be vessels of wrath. The Father must be appeased, while the Son does the appeasing.
The Son, however, as he appears incarnated in the world, is seen to be someone unlike the above description of the Father in several key ways. He is loving, forgiving and humble. He does not come to condemn. He wishes to gather up Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks. Sure, he utters sharp rebukes toward religious hypocrites and demonstrates righteous anger in his zeal for the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem which has been made a den of thieves. But these examples of “wrath” in fact never really take on the tone of God’s “wrath” that is described in some predestinarian theological models.
So what you can end up with is a kind of thinking that resembles Marcionism in that it pits the vision of God we have in Christ against all the other information we supposedly have about God, such as the information about his justice and his wrath.
The problem with that view or anything resembling it is that it fails to recognize that we don’t have any information about God besides what is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Anything spoken about God, in scripture or anywhere else, must be interpreted in the light of who God has shown himself to be in Christ, who is the totality of the “information” we have about God. He is the image and revelation of the Father. There is no other picture or vision of the Father available to us. He is not doing things one way while the Father is doing things another way. One cannot attribute anything to the Father that one does not attribute also to the Son, except fatherhood. What the Father is doing, the Son is doing, and vice-versa. Only in the God-man Jesus Christ is the character of God understood. So any description, in scripture or elsewhere, of an “attribute” or an “attitude” in God, any description of wrath or vengeance or hatred in God, must be interpreted through the prism of Jesus Christ, who willingly poured out his life in love for the entirety of his creation.
Jesus’ very life and death are the epitome of love. He reveals nothing but love in the Father.
As for the meaning of God’s wrath, I find Romans 12:22-23 to be helpful, describing God’s “severity” — which I think must be akin to what is called his “wrath” — in terms of his economy rather than in terms of eternal election:
“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in his goodness. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.”
This seems much more in line with statements from the fathers who describe God whose goodness and love shines on the hearts of people like the sun shines on various kinds of ground. The sun hardens and cracks dry ground but causes life to spring up and grow in well-watered ground. Likewise, God’s rays of goodness and love cause a dry, faithless, resentful heart to grow harder, while making a faithful, Spirit-watered heart into fertile ground.
Please forgive me if I wrote anything out of line.
Any time I feel like I truly love God, I ask myself if I honestly love my enemies. No. Do I love those that would hurt my family? No. Lord, have mercy on me.
Very much to the point. I good and profound self-examination to keep us sane and undeluded. May God increase your love for Him and all and have mercy on His whole world.
Love does not excuse sin (as we tend to think). Love convicts us of sin and through repentance heals us of sin. That is why (I think) St. Paul told us to pray for our enemies because that way we would heap coals of fire upon their heads. It is painful for us to see our own sins, we either burn with shame or, if we turn away, burn with anger. “T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved.”
If God withholds His Grace from one person, how can He grant it to anyone? Does not the Scripture say of the Crucifixion that He died once for all? The Divine Liturgy, “on the night He gave Himself up for the life of the world”?
There certainly is not an acceptance of a “limited atonement” in Orthodoxy. He died for all. Also, in the Orthodox understanding of Grace – God sustains the universe in its existence by His grace. We swim in it. In Him we live and move and have our being. Were His grace withheld from any, the result would be non-existence, and that right suddenly.
Father Stephen —
You often have talked about Dostoevsky and beauty. I haven’t seen you comment on Tolstoy. Would you share your thoughts on him, especially on his vision of loving G-d and one another?
I read Tolstoy’s essays and some short stories as a teenager (it was the 60’s). But I don’t have the familiarity with him that I do with Dostoevsky. He frequently was on the outs with the Church for various reasons. And though I know he was a Christian and a Russian, I’m not entirely sure if his ethic of love would generally flow from an Orthodox understanding. He is by no means an Orthodox spiritual spokesman.
Fr., I appreciate this post for several reasons. But St. Silouan’s final reply to the Archimandrite is on what I wish to comment. I know it must often be frustrating to speak with those outside of the Orthodox Church about the faith, as I am. We use the same words, it seems, but they mean different things. And that is to say nothing of other obstacles between us. I am grateful for the great pains you take to be kind and gentle in your instruction here.
These eight months I’ve been getting to know the Orthodox Faith, and I would have given up long ago if I had not been met with kindness and patience such as I find here and at a local parish. But in truth, I’ve also encountered polemics that have been hurtful and very off-putting—those that echo the Archimandrite’s approach. And I think that if the Orthodox want to reach more people, they really do need to find a way of speaking—as you have noted—that doesn’t degrade or tear down the faith of those they address, which is often cherished and sincere. I guess this is something of a plea and an exhortation: Please set aside polemics and be patient with those of us who do not yet understand but are eager to learn. And to those of you doing just that, thank you!
Thank you for your kind good word. It is a stated policy of the blog to be kind. I confess that I fall into polemic from time to time and that there are particularly certain things that I am less apt to be patient. But the fault lies in me, not in the Orthodox faith. I will indeed do my best to remain faithful to the goal which I stated for myself and others. None of us benefit by polemics, generally. May God bless you and may you find kindness at every turn.
All of the conversation about this topic is wonderful. Christ said love one another as I have loved you, a new commandment that we must abide. When we overcome our hatred for our neighbor we grow in spirit. When I needed to get through a situation where someone offended me I prayed not ‘for them’ but that through ‘their prayers’ the offense would be healed, humbling but effective.
Thanks for your daily messages!!
Thank you so much for posting this. It is the perfect answer for questions I have been asking myself lately. I am in a difficult position. I am a former Roman Catholic and close friends with somebody who discovered the Roman Catholic Church through me and converted, becoming a very faithful member of his church. I have only briefly talked to him about my reasons for leaving the Roman Church in favor of Orthodoxy, and even that only after his repeated questioning (out of curiosity, not spite). I try to avoid talking about anything to do with religion in our conversations, other than the obvious “things in common” and some basic encouragement in his growth in Christ, when he brings such topics up. Reading this has helped me to understand, I think, the course I should take in such conversations. Thank you once again, Father!
This is a wonderful article, one that makes me think in uncomfortable ways, recognizing the actual shallowness of my faith. JennyJuliana’s comment makes me uncomfortable in a good way. We are in the process of learning about Orthodoxy and are attending Divine Liturgy and receiving instruction in a small mission parish in Virginia. Thank you for your Blog.
In His Mercy
Could you elaborate (if not here, then maybe on the Catechism page) about a Patristic/Orthodox understanding of the wrath of God found in the Old Testament? Thank you so much.
Salvatore Sberna IV
Are you familiar with this article?
Thank you for this post. I am new to the Orthodox faith and sometimes I struggle to understand. I will continue, God willing, to read your blog, for I sense a kind heart and the love of God in you.