THE VANISHING WRATH
Deuteronomy 29:10-29 Hymns: 302
John 3:1-17 *168
Responsive Reading #10, p. 139 **75
Secrets of Heaven 592
For his anger is but for a moment, his favor is for life; weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
In the course of the coming year, I will be making a particular effort to express essential features of our theology as simply as possible; so we may do well to recognize at the outset that "simple" does not always mean "easy." It is simple, for example, to stop smoking. In a way, all you have to do is nothing. Thousands upon thousands of people will tell you that it is not easy.
The particular feature of our theology that I want to focus on this morning is simple enough to be expressed in six very familiar words, six words of one syllable: "There is no wrath of God." It is easy to understand, surely. It can be hard to believe.
There are many reasons why it can be hard to believe. There are countless statements to the contrary in the Bible.For many Christians, the whole meaning of the Gospel is that faith in Jesus can deliver us from the righteous wrath of the Father. Then there are all the things we refer to as "acts of God," the disasters that we cannot trace to human agency. There are violent storms, droughts, earthquakes, and epidemics. Then there are the times in out own individual lives when we have a sense of punishment for our transgressions has been completely convincing, and times as well when only fear of such punishment has kept us from transgression. Belief in the wrath of God explains a great many troublesome things. There is ample evidence for it.
There is also ample evidence against it. The standard view of atonement theology may be that the crucifixion was the sacrifice that appeased the wrath of God, but to the best of my knowledge it is not Swedenborgians who go to football games and hold up signs referring to John 3:16, which starts, "God so loved the world." Then there is all the richness and beauty of creation, the perfection with which the world of nature supplies our needs. This Lord does indeed make it rain for the just and the unjust alike. Then there are the miraculous times of inner peace and wholeness, the times when we know that we are loved, treasured. In a way, the so-called "problem of evil"-"If God is omnipotent and good, how did evil come into being?"-is easier to tackle than "the problem of good." If God is not good, then "Whence is this beauty all around us?" Whence, too, is all the beauty within and among us? Where do love and understanding come from?
Our third reading should make us stop and think a moment. The notion of the wrath of God has its use, and until or unless that use is performed, dismissing the notion will do more harm than good. To put it quite simply, the obvious existence of evil will convince us that the Lord is not omnipotent.
This may sound unlikely, but I believe it is true in a very subtle and persuasive way. If the Lord is omnipotent and good, then evil is never more than a negative reaction to that power and goodness. It is always on the defensive. It never really has the initiative, and that is not the way things seem to us much of the time, not the way we feel. It seems to us as though evil is on the offensive. In a way, it is, but what we do not see is that evil is on the offensive because it is afraid. We attack what threatens us. "Fight" is just as much a product of fear as "flight." We may have good reason to be afraid of a snarling dog, but that does not alter the fact that the dog is snarling because it is afraid of us. For whatever reasons, it sees us as beings who will inflict pain on it, and only a change in that perception will banish the aggressiveness.
There are so many passages in the Bible where the Lord tells us not to be afraid that it would be tedious to quote them all. Perhaps they can all be summed up in the Lord's words in Luke (12:32): "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." The whole purpose of everything the Lord does is to keep the pathway to heaven open to us. The only reason any door is ever shut in our faces is that it leads to no good.
Before we go any further, though, we need to distinguish between two kinds of anger. One kind, the evil kind, springs from fear. The other springs from outrage. When we see a child abused or hear of elderly people swindled out of their life savings by some callous charlatan, anger is a very natural and even appropriate reaction. It is like the Lord's anger in the court of the temple, anger prompted by seeing beauty being desecrated by greed. That kind of anger, or outrage, or indignation, has jolted people out of their complacency and complicity and led to urgently needed action.
Still, this kind of anger it is not without its risks. To paraphrase an observation of Ram Dass, it may be the only energy strong enough to start our engines, but that does not mean we should let it take charge of the steering wheel. In more doctrinal terms, we might well suspect that the more intense the love, the greater the need of wisdom to guide it.
It may in fact be that one reason we find it easy to believe in the wrath of God is our own experience of this kind of anger. Could we love or even respect a god who did not care enough about injustice to become angry? Does the Lord look down on the abused child or the destitute victims of the swindler and say, "Oh, but it's all for the best"? Surely that is unthinkable.
The answer is hard to take, at least at first. If the Lord is pure divine love, then the Lord loves the abuser and the swindler just as much, just as perfectly, as the abused child and the victims. There is no need of anger to rouse the Lord to action. Divine providence is constantly at work in every detail, always with the end in view not of getting even but of making things better.
The fact is that we can abuse each other.Again, we may turn to our third reading: " it is we who bring evil on ourselves, we who destroy and kill." We are responsible. We matter to each other. The sad fact seems to be that we are so given to complacency that it takes encounters with real injustice to awaken us to compassion. In Divine Love and Wisdom (47) defines love as "feeling the joy of another as joy in oneself," and to the extent that we do so, we also feel each other's sorrow and pain. There can be no complacency in this kind of love. There is no need of tragedy to awaken it to compassion.
Then too, if we felt the pain of others, would we bring pain upon them? There is a very real sense in which evil is self-defeating. Unless it manages to masquerade as good (which is the function of falsity), it is simply ugly. It is the bruised little body or the hopelessness of the destitute. In less dramatic forms, though, it is the little hurts of trivial callousness, the wounds caused by everyday heedlessness, that can add up over a lifetime to an inner wretchedness. Most of our hours, after all, are spent doing little things, and there are a lot of hours in our lives.
In every one of those hours, in every one of their minutes, in all the good ones and all the bad ones, the Lord is feeling our joys and our sorrows. When our theology tells us that the Lord is divine love and divine wisdom, and that these are absolutely inseparable, it is telling us that no matter what we have said or done, the Lord both loves us and understands us
This is not a love that glosses over the disagreeable facts. It is quite natural for us to feel as though we need to keep some things hidden from the Lord in order not to fall out of divine favor, but that is just one more instance of our tendency to create God in our own image. If there were something about us that were hidden from the Lord, it would be a terrible chink in our spiritual armor. It would represent blind spot, a point at which divine love and wisdom could not protect us. To keep it hidden from the Lord would be like not telling the mechanic about the loose steering or not telling the doctor about the lump. It is a good thing that the Lord knows.
There is no trace of Pollyanna, then, in the statement that "There is no wrath of God." It does not mean either that the Lord is not in control or that nothing will ever go wrong. It does not mean that the Lord looks the other way when things do go wrong. For me at least, the profound truth in all the gruesome tales of war and brutality in the Bible is that even in this human darkness, the Lord is present, caring, and leading.The Psalmist said, "If I make my bed in hell, look! There you are!" No matter how completely we misunderstand the Lord's nature and intent, no matter how ingeniously disguise our evils as the will of God," the true "will of God" remains pure love.
"There is no wrath of God-a simple statement, but not an easy one. That is, it is relatively easy to take it into our vocabulary, so to speak. It is much harder to take it into our comprehension, and harder still to take it into our hearts. We take it into our comprehension gradually, as we begin to see how it is consistent with all kinds of circumstances that seem to contradict it. We take it into our hearts as we come to trust it.
This means that it is both a place to start and a goal to strive for. It is very close to the heart of our faith, for to say that there is no wrath of God is to say that God is one in essence and in person, one in the profound sense of having no mixed motives, no indecision. It is really impossible to make one God out of a Father who wants to send us to hell and a Son who wants to take us to heaven. No, "God so loved the world," and still does.
Fear has its place in the lifelong process of our regeneration, just as crutches have a place in rehabilitation. Our souls differ from our bodies in one very significant respect, though. Our bodies do age, but to grow old in heaven is to grow young. The crutch of fear is to be thrown away. The wrath is to vanish, and that process is to start here and now.
#592 Jehovah said, "I will destroy humanity." This means that we would destroy ourselves, consistently with what has been said earlier where punishment, temptation, doing evil, destroying or killing, and cursing are attributed to Jehovah or the Lord . . . .
Then too, it says in Jeremiah, "whom I have struck in my wrath and in my blazing fury: (Jeremiah 33:5), in David " He sent his blazing fury upon them, intense wrath and anguish, a band of evil angels" (Psalm 78:49), in Amos "Can there be evil in a city unless the Lord has done it"? (Amos 3:6), and in Revelation, "Seven vials full of the wrath of the living God, for ever and ever" (Revelation 15:1, 7, 16:1).
All of these things are attributed to Jehovah even though the truth is the exact opposite. The reason they are attributed to Jehovah, as I mentioned earlier, is so that we may start by grasping the most general principle that the Lord is in complete control of everything and takes care of everything. Then later we can learn that no trace of evil comes from the Lord, especially that the Lord does not kill, but that it is we who bring evil on ourselves, we who destroy and kill. Actually, it is not we but the evil spirits who are stirring us up and leading us, but it is still we because we are completely convinced that it is we ourselves.