This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
The church does not believe in an angry God.
When I was a child, my mother told me, “Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot.” Of course, I then reached out and touched the stove — and it hurt. To my childish mind, it may have felt like my mother was punishing me for breaking her rule. As an adult, I know better: she was explaining to me the way things are, and if I ignored that reality, I was going to be hurt, not because she was angry, but because touching a hot thing means being burned.
I think that a lot of our experience with God works the same way. When something painful happens to us, particularly if it happens while we are doing something that we feel is pushing the envelope, we can interpret the pain as the work of a punitive and angry God, when it is, in fact, just what happens when we push the envelope in a certain way. For example, if you go out and party this Friday, you may be hung over on Saturday morning; that’s just what happens. But if you go to the same party, get into your car while you are tipsy and have an accident that kills your spouse, it may feel like God is punishing you for your decision, when the plain reality is that driving drunk greatly increases your chance of having an accident.
Theologians, who are great at coming up with dull names for interesting things, distinguish between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality is when God reaches out and does something (becomes a burning bush). Secondary causality is when God allows the normal physical and moral laws of creation to do their thing unimpeded. For example, if I go into the living room and put a ball down on the side table, that’s primary causality (and my mother would scold me for doing it). But if I go into the living room and drop the ball on the floor, and if it bounces and hits the wall and flies across the room and knocks over a couple of knick-knacks and then lands on the side table, the ball ends up in the same place, but my role in the process is quite different. I did not put the ball onto the table; instead, I dropped the ball into a pre-existing environment with its own laws of physics, and they guided the ball into its final location.
When God created this earth, God created an orderly system that works in predictable ways. Even the things that seem frightening and unpredictable to us (earthquakes, hurricanes) are the direct result of measurable natural processes. Likewise, the teachings of Jesus guide us into the moral laws that are woven into the fabric of the universe, which Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”). It’s as if the world were a piece of wood, and we can choose to work with the grain, or against it. That’s not to say God never intervenes directly; I believe that God does, from time to time. But it is far more common for God to act through the ordinary processes he has set up to guide and govern this world, which are not separate from God, but are part of God’s will.
So, does God ever get angry? Scripture tells us God does, but not often. More often, the people of Israel ascribe anger to God when things are not going well, while all the time God has been calling to them like a person lost in love. The divine statements that we often hear as anger are more likely to be the bone-deep response of One who loves us, who sees us going astray and who knows that harm will be the inevitable result.
Listen, for a moment, to what God says through Ezekiel: “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” (18:30) The judgement God promises is nothing less than the ruin we have actively been seeking. Just as the person who takes heroin risks addiction and death, so the person who is cruel to the poor will reap from them a harvest of rage and bitterness, and the person who worships false gods (whether those be ancient gods like Astarte and Odin, or modern gods like Porsche, Wealth, and Self) will have to live with the result of turning away from the face of Truth. God is trying to save us from the consequences of our own decisions, but God will not do that without our willingness to change.
“Return, faithless Israel,” says the Lord through Jeremiah. “I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord; I will not be angry forever.” (Jer 3:12) And, most tellingly, in Hosea, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hos 11:9) God says right there that the difference between Godself and a human being is that God stays with us even at times when we would desert one another, and God forgives even when we would be lost in our own anger. In other words, God is not like us. God may be angry with us for mistreating one another, but God’s primary nature is always mercy.
Still, when you feel that God is angry with you, pay attention. Your feelings are likely to be a projection of your own conviction that you are not living in holy and life-giving ways. Attend to your soul. Slow down and listen to what your heart is telling you. And then change course. You’ll be amazed how quickly that divine rage turns to joy.