I was at a family gathering recently and I told a tale of my youth. It may sound appalling by today’s standards but it was true. As a rambunctious boy, I committed a grievous error by damaging one of my brothers [on purpose], and I had to be corrected. I remember feeling such trepidation as I anticipated what my Dad was going to do to punish me. I will never forget his request. He said to go get a switch [a small limb from a tree] so he could administer my punishment. I guess I was not thinking straight because I brought him a little sprig. When he saw what I got, he was not amused; in fact, I think it angered him more. He got a more appropriate size switch and I surely felt the pain of my error. Before thinking ill of my Dad, you must know that I truly deserved the punishment and I have never regretted getting it. Of course, today corporal punishment is frowned upon, but in my youth, it was used and it worked in some situations. It made a serious impression on me; I never repeated my “grievous error” again.
I use this story to introduce a difficult subject to write about one of the most difficult I have had to write about in our effort to know God. In previous posts I struggled to discuss the topic of God as Judge [not a popular concept]. Now I must discuss “The Wrath of God.” It has been so much easier writing about God’s unchanging nature, His majesty, His wisdom, His Word as truth, His Love and His grace. Those were all positive attributes of God that J.I. Packer discusses in his book Knowing God. Just like I shied away from Dad’s switch, no one seems to want to deal with the fact that God is wrathful.
The Bible certainly makes the case that God is wrathful. Packer comments that Biblical writers talk of God’s wrath repeatedly: “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” Packer cites A.W. Pink: “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness” [From The Attributes of God, 75]. God indeed does not fear using His “deep, intense anger and indignation” .
Ok, one of the attributes of God is His wrath. What is the problem? God’s wrath makes many Christians uncomfortable. The modern way of thinking about God’s wrath is to play it down, even to the point that many believers do not even want to think that God feels it for man. I do not recall any pastor in my lifetime preaching a sermon on God’s wrath. I certainly have never heard a pastor on television or the radio preach a sermon on wrath. I don’t recall reading a written exposition on the topic of God’s wrath.
Packer calls this a “taboo topic.” “Christians by and large have accepted the taboo and conditioned themselves never to raise the matter” .
Read the words from Nahum 1: 2-8: “The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth; the Lord avengeth and is full of wrath; the Lord taketh vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty….Who can stand before His indignation? and who can abide the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by Him. The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and He knoweth them that put their trust in Him. But He …will pursue His enemies into darkness.”
Many may think that Nahum is a little known Old Testament book; “wrath is not that common in my New Testament Bible”. The Apostle Paul writes the Lord Jesus will one day appear “in blazing fire” and “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Packer writes “throughout the New Testament the wrath of God is…against those who have defied Him.” He cites Scripture in Romans, Thessalonians, Revelation, Luke “and so on”.
This raises the question, if Bible writers do not have a problem expressing the reality of God’s wrath, why do we have such a problem with it?
Packer says the root cause is our idea that wrath is somehow an unworthy attribute of God.
Too often, man takes human characteristics and applies them to God and this may just be the case with wrath. If a human being is feeling wrath, this suggests someone who is out of control, irrational, full of wounded pride or just horrible temper. Packer writes that there is no “anthropomorphic language of Scripture” to suggest that God has any of these traits. People twist the idea that God made us in His image to the idea that God shares the same characteristics of us sinful creatures. God must have the same corresponding qualities we have.
God does not have to have our qualities.
“God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil” [Packer, 151]. In other words, God is angry when it is called for. I have always heard the expression righteous indignation. God’s anger is always righteous.
To others, God’s wrath brings forth images of cruelty. God’s quick and decisive responses to evil abound in the Bible from the cursing and banishment of Adam and Eve in Genesis to the great assizes of Revelation [the last general judgement of this world]. Is God a cruel God as He administers His punishment for human evil? Will sinners in this world today be faced with a cruel God as the balance of their life is judged and they are dangled over the pit of hell, which consists of fire and brimstone? Are people correct in feeling that God can be described as a fierce and cruel monster when His wrath is unleashed?
No God is not too cruel. His wrath is judicial and His wrath is merited.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans “The day of God’s wrath is when His righteous judgement will be revealed, when God will give each person according to what he has done [from Romans 2]. The believer knows what God requires and knows what is worthy of punishment [recall my switching?]. Luke 12 states “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Any believer who has felt the conviction of sin knows that the disobedience of God deserves great and grievous punishment. God weighs the disobedience and administers the appropriate response.
Secondly, God does not force us to disobey. That is our choice. Jesus has come into the world to lead us to a life of light. If we don’t choose to follow His guidance, who do we have to blame? Jesus says in Matthew, “Come to Me….take my yoke upon you and learn from Me.” If we resist this command and decide to live our lives by our own rules, we have no one to blame but ourselves. “The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him; he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God except those who have chosen to do so” [Packer, 153].
God gives man what he deserves, nothing more; nothing less. God’s wrath is “poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by [human] cruelty” [Packer, 153].
Today we can act like God is not a wrathful God, denying one of the most obvious attributes that we see in His Word, but that is not very realistic. God will act to punish evil. He will do so in a righteous way, administering His will in a judicious manner. Just because we lose control as we express our anger does not mean that He will. He does not; he gives us what we deserve, nothing more; nothing less.
It is hard to admit. We don’t want it. We know it will hurt. We can’t imagine our friendly Father punishing us.
But that is what He has to do.
Sometimes we truly deserve “the switch.”