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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Angry God?

It happens almost every time there's some sort of natural disaster.  Some loud-mouthed evangelist will declare that the tsunami struck Japan, for example, because God is angry.  Or they'll say that soldiers were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan because God is mad at Americans for our posture toward homosexuals.  Maybe the recent recession was caused by God's anger over American greed.  I could go on listing examples, but you probably get the picture. 

There seems to be a temptation on the part of the few to try and link the most recent calamity of the day to an angry God.  There's an even greater temptation on the part of the masses to completely dismiss such claims.  We write them off as "loud-mouthed evangelists."  Or we just say that they're crazy.  Some of us just roll our eyes and look away in disgust.  Perhaps just a few of us wonder for a brief moment about whether or not it could be true.

I'm not going to take any specific event in human history and try to explain how God has reacted to it.  The truth is I just don't know.  But I find it useful to look at the character and nature of God, and the history of how He has related to mankind throughout the centuries.  Such a look reveals much to me about the range of possibilities.

Throughout the Old Testament, we have example after example of people (usually the Israelites) sinning against God.  More often than not, God would display unfathomable patience.  But eventually God would respond with some sort of unbelievable wrath.  When Egypt refused to release the Jews (at Moses' request), for example, God unleashed a series of calamities designed to not only punish the Egyptians for their sin, but to cause them to lose their will to hold the Jews as slaves.  One of His final acts against Egypt was to part the Red Sea so the Jews could cross, but then "unpart" it as the Egyptian army chased after them --- drowning all who were (sinfully) in pursuit of the Jews.

There are also many occasions where the Jews themselves sinned against God and He responded with all sorts of calamities.  I don't know if they used the term "natural disasters" back then, but much of what we read about in the Old Testament would certainly fit that modern day definition --- even though God's wrath is specifically attached to it.  When I read of these incidents and consider that fact, I wonder if I'm the only one who notices.

Perhaps one of the most salient aspects of the stories of sin met by God's wrath in the Old Testament are the places where God speaks in first person.  Many, many times, God goes on rather lengthy tirades, ranting and raving at the Israelites for their sinful ways.  He threatens severe punishment if they don't repent --- and then He often delivers on that promise when they don't (repent).  For example, "The people of Israel and Judah have done nothing but evil in my sight ... nothing but provoke me with what their hands have made ... this city has so aroused my anger and wrath that I must remove it from my sight."  (Jeremiah 32:30-31)

Can you just imagine if it was God speaking, and you knew it was God speaking.  Maybe He might say something similar about us.  "The people of New York and Washington have done nothing but evil in my sight ... nothing but provoke me with what their hands have made ... these cities have so aroused my anger and wrath that I must remove them from my sight!"  It's hard to imagine that God would ever even feel that way, much less say something like that.  But folks, that IS the character and nature of God.  It IS who God is.

One of the stories that impresses me most is the story of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  God told them not to look back as she and her family fled the city that He was destroying for its sin.  But she couldn't resist, and looked out the back window of the mini van as her husband drove away.  It seemed like such an innocent act.  I mean, what could be wrong with looking back?  Nevertheless, it was disobedience.  And God moved swiftly to punish it.  She was instantly transformed into a pillar of salt!

Folks, I'm as embarrassed as anyone by the loud-mouthed religious fanatics who don't look at all like Jesus when they're spewing their hatred and judgment instead of offering a loving response to those who are suffering from a tragedy of any sort.  But there is that matter of the character and nature of God.  He simply cannot tolerate sin.  Oh sure, He may display patience for a season.  But ultimately God must respond to sin.  And it can never be pretty when He does.

The book of Joshua gives us another illustration of God's nature and character.  "For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might destroy them utterly, and that He might destroy them, as the Lord commanded Moses."  (Joshua 11:20)  God had commanded Moses to destroy all of the Canaanites.  He even said when to do it, "When the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them."  (Deuteronomy 7:2)  This seems more harsh than ever when we consider the fact that God Himself hardened the hearts of the Canaanites so that they would engage in a battle where they were pre-destined to be destroyed!

But let's look at the facts.  God had given those Canaanites about 400 years to repent and turn from their sinful ways. (Genesis 15:13-16)  And each new generation of them had sinned even more than the previous ones.  They were practicing every form of sin known to mankind thus far.  They had already irrevocably hardened their hearts toward God.  So now God just hardened their hearts against Israel - whom He would use to put them out of their misery.  Moreover, some would consider it an act of mercy that God would destroy these evil people before they had a chance to defile or offend anyone else. 

Somehow we have this notion that God is merely a kind old grandfatherly type of figure.  But honestly, that kind of thinking is self serving and sinful in itself.  Most of us would much rather submit ourselves to, serve, and worship the God that we want instead of the God who actually is.  But to do so would be sin.  He's loving and merciful.  But He's just as much mighty and powerful.  And we can see clearly from this example, that He can use even our own sinfulness to serve His purposes.

The New Testament tells us that God "our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:29)  Have you ever seen a raging fire consume the fuel?  Next time you're huddled around the camp fire or the fireplace, notice how intentional and unrelenting the flames are.  And relate that to God's nature.

The Bible is also clear about the fact that God has already decided what sin's repercussions must be.  The "wages of sin are death."  (Romans 6:23)  That's pretty deliberate, don't you think?  So this anger issue of God's when it comes to sin?  He can't help it.  His character and nature are so perfectly holy and righteous that He cannot tolerate the presence of sin.  The price (wages) simply must be paid.  There is no alternative.

Some people would say that that's just the God of the Old Testament, and that "God isn't like that anymore."  But those people would be wrong.  For God doesn't change.  Ever.  (Deuteronomy 33:27, Psalm 102:24-27, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17)  It has been said that God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.  And that is exactly how the Bible wants us to understand it.

If you needed any more proof that this so-called 'angry God' never changes, consider the future.  The book of Revelation has much to tell us about the 'wrath of God.'  It lists a whole series of events that make contemporary notions of 'natural distasters' and 'acts of God' pale in comparison.  If you've never read it, they are more than sobering.  But even before we get to the end of the Bible, consider that, "The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels.  In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."  (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8)

So I started this piece by bad-mouthing the loud-mouthed religious zealots who are so quick to proclaim God's judgment in the midst of a crisis.  For sure, I condemn them.  Why?  Because when God spoke, when God threatened ... He also promised.  God promised forgiveness.  He promised restoration.  A bout of God's wrath would end with God restoring His people and proclaiming that "they will be my people and I will be their God."  This too is who God is.  This too is God's character and nature.  I'm confident that if God were going to appoint a modern day prophet to pronounce His judgment for our sin, He would include the promise of restoration in the face of repentance.

The thing is that I don't know if the latest natural disaster or other calamity is a case of God's wrath being poured out for our sin.  But I do know two things.  First, we are sinful.  The sinfulness of our modern society alarms me.  My own sinfulness alarms me.  Second, sin is always met with God's judgment and wrath.  There is no alternative. 

So perhaps we would all do well to ask ourselves if God might have any reason to judge us and pour out His wrath on us.  And if He does, then repentance is the only appropriate response.  There is no alternative.

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