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New Horizons

The God of White-Hot Rage

John White

"The God of White-Hot Rage"—does my title sound extreme? Perhaps.

But you see, I'm not interested in the kind of God we want to believe in, but in the God who really is.

We Christians are idolaters. Our critics accuse us of making God in our own image—and to an extent they are right. We may not carve him out of wood, but we do try to forget the unpleasant parts of him and shape him to our personal comfort.

I once read an article by a man who called himself an evangelical, yet talked about "the kind of God I would feel comfortable with." He, at least, was being honest about doing what we all do—making God into a sort of holy Teddy Bear.

I used to be distressed by the God of the Old Testament until I began to draw near to him. It has been a long, awesome process. God has never troubled to defend himself before my frightened inquiries. Instead, he has chosen graciously to reveal himself so that, weeping and trembling, yet unspeakably uplifted and reassured, I have worshiped and adored him and cried, "Let God be God forever!"

If we have trouble coming to terms with the idea of an angry God, there may be at least three kinds of reasons. We may be troubled for psychological reasons, biblical reasons, or theological reasons. Let's look at them one at a time.

The Psychological Problem

We may be bothered by the idea of an angry God because we know what our own anger is like. The matter may be complicated because we were taught that anger is innately evil. Certainly our human anger can be a vicious, evil, ugly thing. It's inconceivable to think of God as having that same guilt-provoking rage.

But there we go again, creating God in our own image. We read into God's anger what we experience of our own. Yet God's anger is altogether unlike ours. His anger is against evil. All evil. Everywhere. Always. My anger is often about trivia.

I get mad when I'm frustrated. My pencil snaps for the fourth time in a row, or the man in front of me stalls at a stoplight while the cars behind me honk impatiently. God's pencils do not break. Honking cars do not perturb him. He is never frustrated, never in a hurry.

At other times, I get angry because I'm uncertain about my position or feel insecure. When people disagree with my argument, I begin to shout, because I have a deep, nasty fear that they may be right after all.

God is not insecure. He never gets upset.

Or I may get angry because I can't control people. Wives get angry when they can't control their husband's embarrassing behavior in public. Husbands rage because they can't always stop their wives from "running the show."

Only God has the right to control people. And often he chooses not to because he has made men and women in his own image and given them the responsibility of choice. But God is almighty. The problem of control, selfish or otherwise, doesn't exist for God.

Much of our anger arises from two basic sources: our sinful attitudes and our impotence. Since God is neither impotent nor sinful, such angers can never be attributed to him. He is omnipotent. He is holy.

There are times when we have every right to be angry. But when in our anger we behave with cruelty and a vicious lack of control, we are appalled by the sometimes irreparable damage we have done. We stare in dismay at the wreck of a lifelong friendship or weep over the final alienation of a child or parent. It was not that the anger was wrong, but that we could not control it and recklessly let it energize destructive sin.

God never loses his temper. Where the Bible talks about God's anger "waxing hot," it is using a literary device. God does not have a physical ear to hear, nor a physical arm to make bare. And his anger neither waxes nor wanes. "Waxing hot" makes it simpler for us to understand. But his anger, like everything else about God, is immutable, timeless, eternal.

Therefore we must not fall into the trap of supposing that the ugly things that torment us also torment God. God's anger is different from ours.

Yet God is still an angry God.

The Biblical Problem

We have gotten used to the New Testament. Many of us can negotiate our way skillfully through its passages about God's anger. It is only when we courageously read through the Old Testament that we are startled by things we hadn't faced in the New.

In the back of our minds, the words progressive revelation may trouble us. What do they mean? Is there some truth to the idea that, as people's understanding of God matured and grew, they left behind the crude ideas of primitive Israel—the concept of a God who lost his temper? Now that Christ has come, gentle, loving, meek, and mild, are we to understand that the New corrects the Old?

Progressive revelation can mean anything. To me it means that the bold outlines of God sketched in Genesis are progressively fleshed out in the rest of the Old Testament. The finer and glorious details are clarified in the New. But progression and change are not the same thing. God is not different from who he used to be.

How does God's rage in the Old Testament compare with his rage in the New? Some of my less conservative friends say, "Isaiah! Ah, there is a man who begins to understand the breadth of God! Mercy to all people, universal kindness! In Isaiah the gospel begins!" Does it? What my friends are doing is what I just accused us all of doing in the New Testament. They read selectively, delicately ignoring Isaiah's occasional lapses into "primitive" views of God.

But these references are plentiful. Isaiah 30:30, 33 says: "And the Lord will cause his majestic voice to be heard and the descending blow of his arm to be seen, in furious anger and a flame of devouring fire, with a cloudburst and tempest and hailstones.... For a burning place has long been prepared; yea, for the king it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it."

The verses are not isolated texts. They occur throughout the prophecy—indeed, throughout all the prophets. White-hot rage? My expression does not exaggerate what Scripture repeatedly says.

"But what of the New Testament?" you may ask. "Was not the Lord Jesus Christ the incarnate revelation of God's true nature? What of his life? What of his teaching?"

His teaching? How about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? "And in Hades, being in torment, he [the rich man] lifted up his eyes, and ... called out, ... 'Have mercy upon me, ... for I am in anguish in this flame' " (Luke 16:23-24).

What about the gentle way he discussed theology with unbelieving Jews in the temple? "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44). Did he say it with a smile? Or tentatively?

Or how about his attitude at the purification of the temple? The accounts can be compared in all four Gospels. Was he or was he not displaying wrath? Consider the details:

1. He was careful to prepare for physical violence. He made a whip of cords (John 2:15). If he wove with the same thoroughness with which he did everything else, it was a carefully made whip. We can be sure, then, that we are not dealing with an impulsive outburst of temper. The deed was planned. Yet can we deny that it was an angry deed?

2. It was a violent and forceful action. He drove everyone out of the temple and overturned tables piled high with money (John 2:15).

3. His violence was exhibited against people as well as animals. Take the word "them" in John 2:15. To whom does it apply? To people or to animals? Read verses 14 and 15 carefully. Whom did he find doing wrong? If verse 15 says that "he drove them all ... out," and the word them refers to the birds and animals, why does the whole phrase read "he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out"? Obviously, he drove out the people too.

You may say, "It doesn't actually say that he lashed the people." So what? If a man walks toward you with a whip in his hand, seizes your table and tips it up on end, and seizes the stool you are sitting on to throw you off (Mark 11:15)—does it really matter whether the whip lashes you or not? What is inescapable is that physical violence is directed against you.

Or do you suppose that Jesus said, "You know, I hate to have to do this to you fellows, but if you will excuse me ..."? What expression was on his face as he said, "'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.'... But you have made it a den of robbers" (Mark 11:17)? The disciples' minds turned to the words from Psalm 69:9, "Zeal for thy house will consume me" (John 2:17).

4. He took care to make his action stick. Once men and animals were driven away, he "would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple" (Mark 11:16). Other translations give the impression that he physically barred the way of anyone else who came to carry on the wretched business.

Now let us be clear about what we are discussing. We are not discussing nonviolence or the pros and cons of pacifism. The question is, Did Jesus display anger? We are not even asking whether we have the right to do the same thing. Our only question is, Does the incarnate Word reveal what the written Word in the Old Testament reveals about God's wrath as well as his love?

The glorified Jesus seen by John on Patmos was consistent with all that went before. "I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, 'Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God' ... and God remembered great Babylon, to make her drain the cup of the fury of his wrath" (Rev. 16:1, 19).

There is no room for doubt. From Genesis to Revelation, our God is a God of anger.

The Theological Problem

It is here that I must tread with reverence and care, not because theology is a complex subject we shouldn't discuss without a Ph.D., but because our minds are not great enough to comprehend our God in his glory and majesty. Let me be as simple as I can.

First, does God have the right to be angry? I know it sounds like a silly question, but it is critical. You say God has the right to do whatever he likes. Does he? Does he have the right to lie? That's an awkward question.

Is righteousness above God, so to speak, in that he is subject to its laws? If so, who invented righteousness, and who checks to see that God keeps the rules? Yet if God has the right to do as he pleases and to make all the rules, does not this imply that God has the right to do "wrong"? And therefore may not anger be wrong? You see how mind-boggling such questions are.

Is God morally perfect because he keeps all the rules, or did he himself give birth to the quality of righteousness which is reflected in the rules? I can only say that God is God, and that I have no moral yardstick to measure him with. The nearest I can come to understanding it is to say that God is forever the creator of goodness, that only goodness proceeds from him. Goodness is consistent with, and a reflection of, his very heart. For the moment, I would prefer to leave the matter at that point. I can go no further.

A number of questions arise. God desires that we be made "conformable to his image." Does that mean his anger too? Or does God alone have the right to be angry? He never hints at it in my Bible. We may not often experience it, but there is righteous anger—and there is often justifiable anger.

More important, how do we see God's anger in relation to his other attributes? Does he stop loving when he gets angry? Where do his gentleness and long-suffering go? You know the answers. God is loving as well as angry. He is patient and long-suffering as well as enraged. How can this be?

To get back to where we started, we can't measure him by ourselves. We tend to forget to love when we become angry. But God never becomes angry. He is, was, and will be eternally angry. He is angry with evil and sin. He does not begin to be angry with us. It is better to say that when we do evil we walk into that region where his anger already exists, eternally the same.

God's love clearly is more basic than his anger. Scripture says that God is love, yet we never read that God is anger. We might say that his anger arises out of his love. Love and anger come together at Calvary.

You see, anger is the measure of love. Even here on earth we can see that. A normal man is terribly hurt and angry if his wife is unfaithful. If this hurt and angry man loves his wife enough to accept her back, to forgive her and treat her tenderly, then we know he really loves her. On the other hand, if he just shrugs his shoulders at her adultery, we can be pretty sure he doesn't care for her at all. In fact, a man who is never angry is a feeble, shallow, selfish kind of man. He confuses love with emotional goo.

So we must be careful not to think that there is something contradictory about a loving God being angry. God is angry over injustice. He is angry about human suffering and the sin that causes it. He is angry with you when you sin. And the heat of his anger with you is the measure of his love for you. If you reject the idea of his anger, it is because you find his love interferes too much in your personal affairs.

Glad for Anger?

Some people, of course, are glad that God is angry. They remind me of the bratty little girl who came to me one day at school and said, "The teacher's really mad at you." You could tell she was just hugging herself with joy. In our witness, we aren't called on to play the part of that little girl. God's anger at others isn't something to gloat over. It should move us to fearful concern for them.

On the other hand, we shouldn't avoid the subject. We aren't called to be God's public relations experts, but to be witnesses. The only image we must project is the correct one. We aren't to aim for effect. God's character is not a subject for a media campaign designed to present his best face.

How people react is God's responsibility. And, as a matter of fact, people's reactions will depend on the extent to which the Holy Spirit convinces them of the facts we present. Once you are convinced that Mr. Smith is mad at you, your main worry is the fact of his anger. You may resent it. You may fear it. You may feel that Mr. Smith is unjust. But you don't go around arguing that Mr. Smith couldn't be angry because he isn't like that, or that you don't believe in Mr. Smith.

Naturally, our witness has to do with other aspects of God and not just with his anger. At times it's a puzzle to know how much to stress any particular aspect. At certain times in history, there was less need to stress God's anger because people were already aware of it. We should be guided, then, in deciding how much to stress God's wrath, by what people know about him. (Once again, our duty isn't to make either ourselves or God popular, but to let people know what he is like.)

That is, I think, what Jonathan Edwards tried to do when he preached his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." That's quite a title. And it must have been quite a sermon, if you can go by the people in the church that night. Horror at the thought of God's anger so gripped them that they couldn't move when the preacher stopped. Unutterable anguish for sin rooted them to the floor. And a revival got under way.

Edwards didn't crack a whip, however. He showed no fiery eloquence. If the record is true, he read his sermon in a thin, reedy voice, peering shortsightedly at his manuscript by candlelight. But his idea of God was biblical. And it rang a bell in people's minds because the Holy Spirit was working. It's been said that no one should speak to a non-Christian about God's wrath without tears in his eyes.

The story is told of the "modern" parents who were careful to allow their little girl to express her personality. They never showed anger or disapproval. One day, after she had jumped up and down on the grand piano for a while, she paused and asked in frustration, "Won't anything I do make you get mad?" Their indifference had convinced her they did not care.

I'm all for an angry God. Not just because I love him and trust him, but because of what I see in the world around me. Would you want a God who could overlook today's terrorism? The holocausts of concentration camps? The exploitation by commercial enterprises of starving people? The Gulag Archipelago?

His wrath was on Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, on sinning Israel and Judah. His wrath burns on against iniquity: crime against elderly people in our cities, the persecution of his saints under fascist and Communist regimes, all of the world's torture chambers—everything that exalts itself against him and all he stands for.

I may be wrong, but I feel that individuals and nations are jumping on pianos right now. Among the things that make them do this, I detect a wistful longing to know a God who cares enough to be angry. In the climax of earth's history, God's white-hot rage will burn to a clean powder all that is evil and corrupt. We shall live in a new heaven and a new earth—where righteousness reigns.

John White (1924-2002) was an English missionary doctor in Latin America and a psychiatrist and pastor in Canada. This article (slightly edited) is reprinted from his book The Race (1984), with the kind permission of his widow. He quotes the RSV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2004.

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