“The wrath of God came against them, and slew the stoutest of them, and struck down the choice men of Israel” (Psalm 78:31).
“For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
I think we have an anger problem. The problem I’m talking about is not related to self control, but to understanding. Why does human wrath never produce the righteousness of God while God’s wrath seems to be ubiquitous in Scripture? What’s the difference? Why is God’s wrath righteous and human wrath never?
Many of the fathers of the church talk about two central feelings or urges from which all others derive. These two feelings or urges are desire and irritability. In a world without sin, that is in a healthy human being, desire functions as a kind of longing leading us toward what is God-like, what is true, beautiful, real, and healthy. Irritability is a kind of prick on the conscience, a discomfort or uneasiness that helps us recognize or turn away from what is not true, perverse, unreal and unhealthy. Remember, even before human sin, the Serpent was loose in the Garden. God had equipped Adam and Eve with all that was necessary to discern and avoid evil and pursue and do good–that is grow in God-likeness.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was different from other trees. From this tree, human beings were not to eat. This implies that discernment of right and wrong, good and evil is possible without an experiential knowledge of the difference. That is one need never experience evil to discern that it is not good. In the Garden, before sin, the mere contemplation of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was sufficient to acquire from the tree what human beings needed; one need not eat. Such food as the experiential knowledge of evil is too bitter a fruit to eat. God’s command not to eat it was His guidance, His leading of humanity into the sweet path toward life and growth and away from the bitter.
All that God created was good and therefore to be desired. It was not wrong for Eve to feel desire for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Where desire became sin was when instead of contemplating the desired fruit, she reached out and took it for herself. Instead of letting God in God’s time and in God’s way fulfill her desire, she rationalized, took it and ate it and shared it with Adam. Spurred on by the Serpent and in direct contradiction to what God had told her, she thought that her desire for this fruit would be fulfilled in exactly the same way her desire for other fruit was fulfilled–by eating it.
In this sin, this missing of the the target that we call the Fall, desire became perverted, desire became mixed with the urge to posses and to control. In eating the fruit of experiential knowledge of both evil and good, humanity chose the bitter path, the path of perverted desires and painful experience (the knowledge spoken of here is the knowledge of direct experience, not the knowledge of or about).
Not only was desire perverted by the Fall, the irascible aspect (as it is sometime translated from Greek) of humanity became perverted too. That is, human anger became something very different from divine anger. Even using the term “divine anger” is a little misleading. What I mean by divine anger is that quality in God that is reflected in the irascible aspect or ability in human beings before the Fall, human beings who are in the image of God.
Just as desire became possessive and controlling, so too the irascible aspect of human beings changed. Perverted irritability became selfishly destructive. Controlling possessiveness when mixed with irritability became wrath and anger in human beings and manifested itself in an urge to destroy, rather than an urge to turn to God, an urge to repent.
God’s wrath is not like human wrath. But even using the word “wrath” is so troublesome. We cannot read this word without equating it to sinful human perversion of a selfishly possessive controlling and destructive tendency. Yet God is neither possessive nor controlling nor destructive. God is the Creator, not the destroyer; God has given freedom to His creature; it is the human being who has chosen the bitter fruit, the painful path. When God acts in history to give to human beings the bitterness they have chosen, when human selfishness and cruelty and destructiveness can no longer be tolerated and the created order sustained, when the last hope for any repentance (turning to God) is gone and the only hope for future repentance is in a radically altered context, God allows the painful consequences of human sin–death in all of its forms–to have its way. And in the Bible, when God does this, it is usually referred to the as the wrath of God.
But God’s wrath is not like human wrath, just as God’s desire is not like human desire. God desires human beings to exist as God Himself exists: the Holy Trinity, a community of persons, equal, free and held together by love. God does not desire to possess; He desires to love in freedom, and where there is freedom there is no control. God does not turn away from evil because he is angry. Evil itself is a turning away from what is Real to unreality. And while God may restrain evil, or the effects of evil, for the sake of love, in the end God’s love and the freedom of God’s love is such that He eventually gives human beings what they choose, even if it is death and unreality. And in human language, for we have no other language but our various human languages conditioned by the human experience of perverted desire and anger, God’s release of restraint is called wrath. But this “wrath” is nothing but freedom and love, the giving to humankind the bitter pill we have chosen.
Human wrath, on the other hand, can never produce a loving result. It can never result in the righteous purposes of God because it is always mixed, it is always selfish and possessive and destructive. Even when what irritates me is sin, anger is not the salvific response. Repentance is the response that saves.
You may ask, but what if the sin that irritates me is in another. I cannot repent for him or her can I?
Well maybe you can’t or maybe you can–repentance is a very deep well. However, one thing is certain: you cannot change the other person. You cannot control, which is sin. Righteousness will never result from manipulating or controlling others. But God who knows the heart, God can lead others to repentance. I do not know how to do that. Anger does not do that. God does that. So no matter what the source (or apparent source) of my anger is, the response is to turn to God, the response is to repent.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’d like to end by saying that repentance and turning toward God does not mean that we do not act. We must act. We must do the works of God while it is day. We must do good and confront evil; however, and this is a huge “however,” we must be on guard against our own sin, our own desire to posses and control. The Serpent is still active, and as in the Garden it is often the very good thing or act or deed that becomes the excuse to indulge in selfish possessiveness.
“And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eye, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof….”