[In the Calgary airport]
Carl Barth, a famous Protestant theologian and a hero of mine at one point of my theological development, once said, “God is not man written in capital letters.” What he was saying is that you cannot understand who God is by working back from who you are. A good example of how we tend to work back from who we are to try to understand God is illustrated by how people normally understand the wrath of God.
In the Bible, the wrath of God is a term that is used to describe terrible events that happen (such as earthquakes, foreign invasions or plagues). Almost always these terrible events have to do with either God’s judgement of people who have so given themselves over to evil that there is no other way to correct them; or it has to do with people who have chosen a way (in the broadest possible sense) that God had warned them not to take because of the dangers God foresees down that road, but the people, nonetheless, take that way and thus suffer the consequences. In almost all such cases, the bad things that happen are referred to as the wrath of God.
Because we try to understand God as “man written in capital letters,” when we read the phrase, ”the wrath of God,” we tend to assume that God is angry and is doing these terrible things to people to punish them for making Him angry. However, this is not the case at all. God is not like man—although man was created be like God.
God does not blow up. God does not experience anger in the same way fallen human beings do. When the Bible talks about God’s wrath or anger, it is referring to the human experience of suffering from the consequences of sin—consequences that usually involve disease, environmental catastrophe or specific human evil (like wars, the oppression of the poor, or political injustice) taking their destructive course. There is a sense in which all suffering is God’s “fault.” That is God created human beings with freedom to disobey Him, thus He created the potential for suffering. This is why it is appropriate to talk about God’s wrath. However, even though God created the potential for human suffering and knew from the beginning of creation that human beings would disobey Him and suffer terrible consequences, God both laments that humans suffer (see Gen. 6:6 and the entire Old Testament book of Lamentations, for example), and Himself shares in their suffering: God becomes man in Jesus Christ and experiences “the wrath of God.”
You might ask, “Why did God create human beings with freedom if He knew they would misuse it resulting in suffering?” The answer is love. And love can only be real if it is freely given; but freedom, to be real, has to be free. You can’t cheat and say someone is free but has to do what you say. That’s not freedom. That’s slavery. God wants us to love Him. We are free not to love God, but then we shouldn’t blame Him if we suffer the results of rejecting the wisdom of the One who created the universe.
Dear Fr. Michael,
It is still sounding like there is some kind of formula – I reject God, therefore I suffer. I don't reject God, I don't suffer. But suffering doesn't seem to be so neatly individualistic. Suffering seems to multiply exponentially. Some people also seem much more free to love God than other people. The world many are born into is so loud in its assertion that there is no God – what chance do they have to hear God and why is their suffering so automatic. I think I need to hear more about the Good Shepherd.
A lot depends on which "I" you are referring to. If you mean the universal human I, then there does seem to be something like a formula. Certainly the first eleven chapters of Genesis can be read that way. But on a personal level, there are contradictions enough to drive one to atheism just for the mental resolution: how can there be a loving creator in the face of such contradiction? The answer is not a syllogism; the Answer is a Person who has and (we might even dare to say) does suffer with us because it is the only way. This is why we must be filled with compassion on all. There is no sinner who is not a victim, and no victim who is not a sinner.