Loving an Angry God

death-for-dostoevsky1I am both opposed to theological systems that have at their heart an angry, wrathful God whose justice much be satisfied – but I am also understanding of those who, having been raised or nurtured in pious settings, take theHoly Scriptures pretty much at face value and are thus discomfited by people like myself who seek to give an account of God that does not include God angrily and wrathfully punishing the deserving (even though He does this in a “loving manner”).

Some of the contradiction between the God of love and the God of wrath first struck me at age 13 – and occasioned my first rejection of Christianity. I know from personal experience that these wrathful/loving accounts of God have their theological casualities.

I am also aware of attempts to treat the wrathful image under the rubrics of  a “Semitic” approach to God. Some of which come from Orthodox sources. However, I find that Semitic witnesses such as St. Isaac of Syria were not nearly so dominated by a so-called “Semitic” understanding.

There are several quotes I wish to offer from the Fathers:

From St. Anthony in the Philokalia (ch. 150, first volume):

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)?  Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?”

In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following:

“But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.”

As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).

I understand the care many have to give proper weight to the words of Scripture, and in their experience have only found enemies of the Scriptures who ever suggest alternatives to a more-or-less literal reading. But the sources I quote are great among the Fathers of the Church.

My concern as a brother Christian turns towards my heart and the hearts of others. I understand the intellectual satisfaction found in justice – but I do not find its place within the goodness of the heart. I cannot rejoice in the anger of God nor of anyone else. I weep – or more accurately – when I find that I rejoice in the anger of anyone it should be a cause for weeping. For I am a sinful man and I rejoice at things that should cause my heart to weep – so great is the darkness within it.

The Orthodox understanding of the wrath of God is not an endorsement of universalism. God alone knows who is saved. But it is a call for universal love. For there is nowhere (certainly within the New Testament) that we are commanded to hate. We are to love our enemies. And if that is to be anything more than lip-service then it must first be modeled in the Good God and grafted within us by His grace.

Strangely, I find our century (and the ones preceding it) not overburdened with love, but rather riddled with those who believe their hatreds to be justified. God save me from the man who believes Himself just. I do not stand a chance before him. Rather, number me with the harlots and the publicans – number me with the worst of sinners. Within that refuse of humanity I may find mercy and a heart kind enough to pray for a man as wicked as myself.

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