“But when we continued to sin against your ways, you were angry. How then can we be saved?” — Isaiah 64:5
Passages about God’s anger might not be the best worn pages in our Bibles. Our great and merciful God, a God of wrath also?
A few months into the pandemic I read an excellent book called, But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger, by Kevin Kinghorn, with Stephen Travis. The sub-title drew me right in: “The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger.” Love story? It might be enough for me to make peace with God’s wrath. Or be saved from it somehow! But could I learn to love God’s wrath, too?
For Kinghorn, God’s wrath is “God pressing the truth on us.” We need the truth, but sometimes we’re more motivated to hide than seek it. As Scott Sunquist says, “It’s not loving to hide the truth, and the truth is we’re not healthy…; we need to be restored, even revived.” Or if you prefer Jay-Z, by way of Omar: “You cannot heal what you don’t reveal.”
God’s wrath, then, illuminates the truth, even “pressing” it “on us.” In his wrath, God is restoring us, reviving us, and seeking to free us from the deceptions we too often tolerate or wink at or—worse—embrace.
Isaiah 64, cited at the top of this post, goes on:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
Isaiah remembers how “all of us” have failed to call on God’s name; we have not strived to lay hold of God. So God in his loving wrath has given over his people to the consequences of their sins. At times we see these just as natural consequences, but ones that are imbued with the intended goal of restoration, of returning to the Lord.
In this way Kinghorn successfully makes the point that God’s wrath does not stand in contrast to God’s love; rather, God’s wrath is perfect and in fact is “entirely an expression of God’s love, in specific contexts.” Everything God does is motivated by love and is loving, because God is love.
This is not just a neat apologetic trick to avoid some kind of epic, Star Wars-like Wrath vs. Love saga. Kinghorn makes the compelling case from Scripture that “the starting point” is God’s love, and that wrath is a sub-trait of God’s love. Is it loving, after all, to simply leave someone to their own folly, without at least first attempting to press the truth upon them? “If there is one kind of truth that we humans are adept at avoiding, it is the thought that we have been acting in a morally defective way,” writes Kinghorn. Chapter 6 (“Truth as God’s Response to Sin and Self-Deception”) is especially powerful in developing these thoughts. We need God’s wrath, because it saves us from ourselves.
The Psalms, especially the Psalms of vengeance, virtually require God’s wrath for God to be just, loving, faithful to his promises. Will this God right wrongs, or won’t he? Kinghorn puts it like this:
God is not like a judge in a courthouse, suspending his personal feelings in order to act objectively. He is more like a partner who feels affronted when her daughter is bullied in school and who takes steps to confront the offender.
This confrontation, by the way, is a kindness to both offended and offender. This is true even when the offender and offended are the same person, as in the case of “self-destructive behavior.” Hurting oneself angers God, too. Kinghorn cites Jeremiah 7:18-19:
“They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger. But am I the one they are provoking?” declares the LORD. “Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?”
“A God who cares about us would naturally be troubled,” Kinghorn concludes, “for our sake, at our sins against him.”
God’s wrath is “more than an emotion,” though. It seeks to lead people to repentance, which leads to fullness of life.
In the end, there’s a sense in which “wrath” is in the eye of the beholder: “Whether we experience God pressing the truth as God’s wrath or as God’s faithful care is, in the end, up to us.” How will we respond to God’s overtures, even when they are uncomfortable?
When I read the book two years ago, it profoundly affected me. It encouraged and strengthened me in my ministry practice. The blend of philosophy and biblical studies (assisting author Stephen Travis) is like enjoying delicious, freshly baked tortilla chips, only to have homemade guac come out a minute later to dip the chips in.
It’s no exaggeration to say I loved this book. It both fired up my theological/philosophical synapses and ministered to me, heart and soul. Never would I have expected that about a book on God’s wrath! But that may just speak to how anemic my understanding of God can be. Kinghorn and Travis will help any willing reader grow in their understanding (and love) of God.
I highly recommend the book. Check it out here.
Thanks to IVP Academic for sending the review copy, which did not (at least not consciously) affect how I reviewed the book.