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The Anger of God and the Anger of Man

May 2, 2007

God’s anger is not capricious or unjust. Instead His anger is purposeful, resulting in a thoughtful plan and process to reconcile all injustice. In short, it’s good. God’s ultimate aim in displaying His anger is the demonstration of the glory of His justice. He delights in being a righteous and just God. Through and through God is fully righteous, thus any unrighteousness provokes his wrath. However, that is not all God is. God is love and God’s love also demands His wrath. As David Powlison has put it, “You can’t understand God’s love if you don’t understand his anger.”[2]

Understanding God’s anger inevitably leads us to the cross where God’s justice and mercy meet in perfect, soul-wrenching, Christ-crushing, sin-forgiving, life-giving harmony. The anger of God against our unrighteousness was mercifully diverted from us onto His beloved Son. As a result, God preserved and promoted both His justice and humanity’s joy through the cross. Thus, God’s penultimate aim in His anger is the good of the elect, revealing the two-sided purpose of his wrath, His glory and our good. Briefly put, the purpose of God’s anger is to display the depth and character of his eternal justice and love.

The plan for the outworking of God’s wrath results in two main ends, salvation or condemnation. For those who hope in Christ for the forgiveness of their transgressions, salvation waits; but for those who hope in the world, the self, or other plans, only condemnation awaits. The only plan that fuels God’s purpose to glorify His justice and satisfy our need for love is the Gospel. The plan began at creation, finding redemptive expression through new creation and culmination in His consummation of all things. This plan operates through the process of cultivation, the cultivation of sinners made new, day by day, demonstrating that God is for us, not against us.

But what of our anger? What is the difference between God-imitating, righteous anger and self-glorifying sinful anger? Is anger just violent outbursts and wife-beating or can it take more subtle forms? How are we to be made new in the battle against anger?

Emphasizing the individual and cultural variations of anger, Powlison points out that complaining can be a form of anger.[3] I often hear complaints about the weather and wonder how to respond, knowing that it is a form of unbelief (failure to exalt God’s sovereign plan and trust in His will to do us good, even through bad weather). Many Christians in America grumble and complain as a way of life. Because we believe that everything should exist for our comfort, we seldom have a submissive spirit or, much less, a self-sacrificing attitude.

Most people in the West are exposed to approximately 3000 advertisements a day, most of which appeal to a lifestyle grounded in self-comfort.[4] It is no surprise that complaining, a form sinful anger, is a widespread disease among Western Christians. Remaining on guard personally, as well as being willing to confront others lovingly, will be a challenge. Although I can not change others, I have been challenged to humbly confront those whom God has entrusted to my care (young adults and disciples) in this area. According to Powlison, grumbling about the weather springs from anger and expresses it towards God in three ways. First, anger about the weather either ignores or rejects the sovereign freedom of God. Second, it is a refusal to believe God’s promise to work for our good in all things, even drastic changes in climate (effectively making Him out to be a liar). Third, it enthrones our will for comfort over God’s will, effectively assuming personal supremacy over God. It puts God in the dock. These three reasons, are reason enough to redouble my efforts to mortify anger in my own life, and humbly, lovingly confront others.

“Warmaking is a prime trait of sinners. It’s the image of Satan: liar, murder, divider, aggressor. Peacemaking is about God in Christ and about human beings renewed in His image.”[5]

Understanding God’s anger is only half of the solution in resolving the issues of conflict in our own lives. We must also understand our own propensity toward anger and conflict. However, morbid introspection and endless psychologization are not the answer.[6] In order to understand our anger it must be compared and contrasted with God’s anger. We must see our anger through His eyes. I was struck by Powlison’s stinging summary of the Satanic and warlike features of sinful anger. Speaking of the judgmental and contentious person he writes, “He becomes, in fact, Satanic. He acts in the image of the accuser of the brethren, an adversary of the well-being of others, an unlawful bringer of destruction, a tyrant and vigilante.”[7] By identifying our sinful behavior with the image of Satan, Powlison drives a wedge between the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh, the image of Christ and the image of Satan.

It is horrifying to think of bearing the image of Satan but that’s exactly what we do when we pursue conflict at the expense of peace. The Accuser is driven by the desire to stir up strife and envy. What am I driven by? Where am I conforming to the image of Satan? Where have I refused to trust in God’s sovereign will to do me good? Just the other day my wife and I were having an emotionally strained discussion. At one point, frustrated with her proclivity to self-defense, I said, “You never apologize…” and catching my words we both paused. I tried to qualify my stinging statement but it was too late to retract it; the damage was done. My tongue had betrayed my heart. Frustrated with a perceived lack of reciprocity, I tried to force her to respond. My potentially good desire for genuine resolution became my god. I held up the law instead of grace, a mirror without a lamp. Instead of being content to receive the 70 xs 7, my anger was “primed and ready” to respond to my wife. I should have trusted that God was working in her heart, just as He was mine, allowing the Holy Spirit to do the convicting and for me to the repenting.

Nevertheless, should I, as a spiritual leader, allow my wife (or children) to idly continue down a path of apparently unrepentant behavior? What about the hindrance to communication this causes? I realize that a disagreement is not the appropriate context to discuss such matters, but the question still stands. In a marriage relationship, is not the husband to care for his wife and children by shepherding them into the truth? Should he not hold up a higher standard (both in speech and act) of communication and authenticity? It is one thing to acknowledge and repent from your own anger, but quite another to shepherd your family, especially your wife, in these areas. I have much to learn, but a life (redeemed at that) to do so! May the Spirit empower me to live in the peaceable wisdom of James 3, renouncing selfish ambition and tenderly pursuing my wife’s good.

[1] For many people the notion that God is a delighting God, a happy God, is a foreign concept, especially with respect to His destruction of the wicked. However, there are numerous references throughout Scripture that affirm God’s “happy” nature or as Piper puts it, “the pleasure of God” (Ps 115:1-3, 135:6; Is 46:9-10; Zeph 3:17; I Tim 1:11; Mt 12:18-29, 25; Eph 1:5). For Piper’s exposition see, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), esp. pp. 47-76.

King David articulates God’s pleasure well in Psalm 115:1-3, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in the heavens; all that he pleases he does.” According to David, God is glorified by the pleasure He takes in His love, faithfulness, and sovereign freedom. God is most happy in being God. God is not bound by anything other than his pleasure and can not be kept from doing what he delights to do. His sovereignty secures his pleasure. Likewise, Ps 135:6 states that God does not only all that He wills but all that He pleases. However, this psalm is situated in a context of pain and destruction, indicating that God takes pleasure in not just apparently pleasing things, but also in smiting the firstborn of Egypt, man and beast. Does this make God a masochist? I don’t think so.

Willing can not be divorced from desiring, for God or for man. God must always do as he desires. Therefore God must, on some level, desire the death of the firstborn of Egypt. On the other hand, Ez 18:32 tells us that God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” This appears to indicate that either God’s desires are not fulfilled, which would then make Ps 115 and 135 untrue, unless there are other texts that can help us understand the pleasures of God. Dt 28:63 tells us that “He will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you…” This text levels the ground of God’s desire as it pertains to the destruction of the wicked. On the one hand, He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked; while on the other hand, he delights in their destruction! It follows then that God must have two desires, resulting in two wills and therefore two ways of being pleased. In God’s not willing the death of the wicked, He takes pleasure in His attributes of mercy, love, and compassion being honored. When God does will that the wicked do perish, it demonstrates a delight in the expression and preservation of His infinite justice, righteousness, and holiness. Therefore God’s pleasure (in the death or life of the wicked) is preserved in antimony, two apparently irreconcilable statements. The complexity of God’s desires are beyond our comprehension. He is a God who weeps with 10.000 suffering saints and rejoices at the birth of 10,000 more, all at once!

Beyond the infinite value of honoring this dimension of God as revealed in Scripture, what value do such texts hold for counseling? First, it upholds the sovereignty of God in our suffering. God is not taken by surprise when we lose our job, friend, or spouse. Second, God’s devotion to his own glory in displaying His just wrath upon the wicked guarantees that He is worthy of our praise and that He alone can offer us eternal joy in His presence. The wicked will never sneak anything by God. Third, we can infer that God’s love is just as unassailable as his justice, for all who hope in Him and embrace His Son. Fourth, it is a reminder that history is not out of control but that it is being guided to an end that can not be thwarted. As such God’s pleasure in the death of the wicked demonstrates the urgency of the gospel and the perseverance of our faith. Fifth, God’s pleasure can be best understood and embraced by contemplating and embracing the cross. At the cross, we need not fear an angry, wrathful God, for His judgement has mercifully fallen on His Son. It was God’s pleasure to bruise His Son for our iniquities, securing for us eternal joy in the gospel of grace. Sixth, understanding that God is a God of pleasure frees the counselor to shepherd his counselees away from sinful anger, lust, or pride toward an infinitely better alternative, the joy of the Lord.

[2] Ibid., 41

[3] As well as grumpiness, a cutting remark, sulking self-pity, and turbulent frustration (45).

[4] This statistic was taken from Powlison’s course Dynamics of Biblical Change.

[5] JBC Vol 16, 1 Fall 1997, 32

[6] This approach is radically man-centered, not God-centered. It makes the “when” and “how” of our angry patterns the “why” of our unbelief. Reducing our sin to sociological and psychological influence and conditioning jettisons the very heart of the problem, human depravity; and therefore the solution, divine grace. While psychology and reflection are helpful handmaids in diagnosing our sin-sick souls, they remain focused on the horizontal plane of our situations and habits. We are in desperate need of the Vertical to break into our horizontal patterns of behavior to provide understanding and the power to change.

[7] Ibid., 37

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2007 1:11 pm

    You are an article writing machine! Love it brother!

  2. May 2, 2007 6:28 pm

    I too have shared the experience you described when seeking to reconcile with my wife. I’ve noticed that I’m quick to apologize so I can fix the situation and move on, but my wife is not so quick to apologize because her wounds and frustration run deeper emotionally. She often needs more time. Sometimes in seeking to shepherd her I’m really just forcing her to apologize and move on (and in do doing be like me – the righteous one!) so I can get back to my own selfish pursuits. I’m learning along with you brother …

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