In vain the first-born seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.
I was in Portland a few days ago with my friends Josh and Lacie, eating Thai food, and we started talking about God's "attitude" toward us. Josh had had a conversation with a friend who tends to emphasize the wrath of God. It seems that there are real, orthodox Christians who tend to emphasize either wrath or love. I'm certainly not talking about liberal "Christians" here who like to talk a lot about "love" but who pervert it into license and affirmation of what God calls detestable.
When we were at Bethel, one of the things that the pastors there liked to say is that "God is in a good mood." I know this post could get into the whole question of divine impassibility. I happen to accept divine impassibility in submission to the thought of the majority of the Church throughout history but I realize that many faithful brothers and sisters reject this doctrine in what they see as submission to the witness of Scripture. As I was preparing this blog, I found a good article on impassibility here. Affirming that "God is in a good mood" should not really be too problematic for anyone though because the joy of the Lord is strongly affirmed in Scripture and the idea that we will "enjoy God forever" is a basic theological affirmation for all Christians whether it's stated in a confession or not. Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."(John 15:10-11) One thing that might be said about God’s joy is that it is far above a “mood.” God’s joy is an eternal aspect of who He is. When we say “mood” we tend to think of a feeling that can easily be lost. Of course this joy of the Lord and our enjoyment of Him must be seen in light of the cross where this reconciliation between man and God was made possible. For there God's wrath against us was poured out upon God Himself, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity who became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. God was, of course, joyful even before the cross but humanity could not take part in that joy without first being reconciled to God through Christ’s work on the cross.
I have wrestled with the reality of God’s wrath for a long time and one conclusion I have come to is that God’s wrath must be seen as a part of his love. I think saying love and wrath are contrary to each other or that they can’t be simultaneously believed-in is a false-dichotomy. I believe the over-arching aspect of God in his relation to humanity is love and that wrath must come under the over-arching reality of love. So how is God’s wrath really love? We are made to know God and to be in intimate relationship with Him. We are also made to be in right relationship with one another. Sin always destroys our relationship with God and with each other. Therefore the wrath of God is against anyone who willfully does things (sins) which destroy rightly-ordered relationship, the very fabric of creation. Through the out-working of God’s wrath, the things which destroy right relationship, that is, demons and unrepentant humans, will have their ability to influence reality destroyed. They themselves will not be destroyed but will suffer in separation from God and from the redeemed for all eternity. That was their choice when they chose to rebel and not to repent.
In our conversation, I came to another conclusion, some of the apparent disagreements among Christians are a result of over-simplifications of reality. I know that many Christians want to affirm an extreme simplicity in the nature of reality. And in some ways, reality is simple. God made man, man rebelled, God sent Christ that we might be reconciled, the choice is ours. Simple, right? In one sense it is simple but when we explore more deeply into the nature of reality we see that it is anything but simple. I love C.S. Lewis’ affirmation of the complexity of reality in Mere Christianity. Unfortunately, my copy is stowed away somewhere or else I would quote it here. So there is the temptation that in trying to make things simple, we only talk about God’s love or his desire for intimacy. In doing so, people aren’t even abandoning orthodox Christianity. They still believe in the cross and in the reality of hell. They just see the more fundamental reality being God’s love and his desire for relationship. I think they are correct in affirming that God’s love is a more fundamental property of reality than God’s wrath. But I also think that to never mention God’s wrath, which is mentioned often in Scripture, is an over-simplification of reality with negative results. One negative result, and I think the result that was seen in my friend Josh’s conversation with the guy who perhaps over-emphasizes wrath, is that there is an over-reaction among some to what they see as too much of a de-emphasis of God’s wrath. In reacting against those Christians who don’t want to talk about wrath, they become fixated on the wrath and salvation becomes most fundamentally a ticket out of hell instead of the beginning of a relationship of love with our Creator. So in reaction to an over-simplification, there is another over-simplification. In saying that salvation is a ticket out of hell, the wrath-affirmers are not wrong, but they are certainly missing the bigger picture.
Our conversation went in a number of directions. One of which was that without a strong affirmation of God’s love, what then is the motivation to obey Him? We could obey out of fear of hell but if God doesn’t really love us then heaven probably really isn’t all that great either. If we are ever really going to seek holiness with the right attitude, it must be out of trust in God’s love and therefore the knowledge that what God is calling us to is really best for us. Many seem to view God as having this attitude toward us where he just doesn’t want anyone to have too much fun. But if we accept that God loves us and that he calls us to holiness out of his love we must also realize that the results of this holiness, the enjoyment of God made possible by holiness, is better than any “fun” thing we might be called to leave behind on earth.