The long-standing view of God is that He is an angry school master, ready to bring the full weight of His wrath upon us at the slightest provocation. His holiness, it has been thought, necessitates His rage, but somehow Jesus persuaded the Father not to smite us– as if Christ were a poor boy begging his father not to hit his mother any more. As a counter response to this warped view, the trend in our age is to paint a picture of God as being so loving that He would never be displeased or disappointed by anything we do (as Paul Young suggests in The Shack). "God is love", we quote the Scripture, but then proceed to fill out the picture of what "love" looks like by using our human examples. But it is not human love that leads us to understand what God is like; it is God's love that sheds light on what Love is.
The pages of Scripture (particularly in the early history of Israel and in the later in the prophetic passages) are full of examples of God's anger toward sin and His destruction of sinners. There is very little doubt that God gets angry. We also understand that His anger is rooted in His justice. He can't tolerate sin and still be called "Holy". But is His anger the last word? How does His anger interact with His love? Based on both Old and New Testaments, here are some thoughts:
1. God's Love Comes First.
"But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." Ps. 86:15 (NIV)
In Deuteronomy, when Moses is giving Israel a recap of the law and final reminders before they enter the Land without him, he reminds them that that God did not choose them because of their righteousness. In fact, as Moses goes to great lengths to remind them, they are a "stiff-necked" (stubborn) people (Deut. 9:6). But God chose them and set His affection upon them…just because (Deut. 10:15). This is grace at its clearest: God chose us before we had anything to say or do about it. Before the law was given, God chose Israel. Before they had the chance to obey, God rescued them from Egypt. As Andy Stanley points out, the law was never meant to be a means to a relationship with God; it was always designed to be proof of it. God's love always comes first; in theological words this is called the "primacy of grace".
2. God's Anger is Superseded By His Love.
"For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." Ps. 30:5 (NIV)
Before Moses restates the Law in Deuteronomy 5, he reminds them of the seriousness of the sin of idolatry. Why idolatry is such a big deal to God is the subject of a different blog, but for now what we need to notice is that God warns of a punishment by exile (Deut. 4: 24-28). If you're familiar with Old Testament history, you know that exile indeed is what they got for their sin of idolatry. But what is remarkable is how God, even while warning them of His judgment, promises His grace if they repent (Deut. 4: 29-31). He will not forsake His covenant, made to them out His love. In Deuteronomy 5, while listing the commandment against idolatry, God reiterates that idolatry will be punished to the "third and fourth" generations (which is about what they got in exile before returning to their land), but His love goes on for "a thousand generations"– a metaphor of unending love. Even in the Old Testament, God showed Israel that His love would always supersede His anger. Punishment? Yes. But love that redeems and restores in the end? A more resounding "Yes".
3. God's Love Does Not Ignore His Justice.
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." Rom. 5: 8-11 (NIV)
Sin cannot go unpunished. God's justice requires it. This is maybe the biggest difference between our love and God's– and maybe the best reason why we can't use human love as a lens for interpreting God's love: God's love is not a glossing over wrong; it is a covering over sin: a covering that, just as it did in Eden, requires bloodshed. Here is where our thinking can get weird. Jesus didn't step in and sway the hand of an angry Father. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because They are in Their very nature Love know that Their Love will always triumph over anger; collectively and communally They knew the only Way for that to happen: for Jesus to take on human flesh, die for our sin, and rise again, conquering sin and death once for all. The Father didn't not kill the Son for us. In Jesus' own words, "no man takes my life; I lay it down" (Jn. 10: 11, 15, 17, 18).
4. Our Enmity Toward God Is The Real Issue.
"You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God's side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don't walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted. There is no other Message—just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message. I, Paul, am a messenger of this Message." Col. 1: 21-23 (The Message)
It is no longer God's anger toward us that stands in the way of our coming to God– thanks to Jesus! It is now our anger, our choice to be a rebel, to live as an enemy of God, our refusal to bend the knee that keeps us from Him. If we are in a hostile relationship with God, it is not because He has made us His enemy but that we have insisted on making Him ours.
So, if we ask the question in the present tense– Is God Angry?– the answer is "no". But the answer is "no" not because He never gets angry since He is "love" (as Rob Bell more than hints at in his DVD "The Gods Aren't Angry"). The answer is "no" because His love ALWAYS finds a way to trump His wrath without violating His Justice. And that Way– once and for all– is Jesus.
Thanks be to God!