When we say the phrase, “the wrath of God,” it is easy to conjure up the image of some bearded Greco-Roman deity sitting on a throne hurling down thunderbolts from heaven upon those who have irritated him. Those of you who know early American preacher Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” remember his portrayal of God as dangling a sinner over the flames of hell like a sadistic kid might hold a granddaddy long legs over a campfire. The phrase “wrath of God” calls to mind the Old Testament’s anthropomorphic descriptions of God in earthy, human terms that seem to call into question God’s divine transcendence. Most of us struggle to reconcile the concept of the wrath of God with the basic definition of God as love. If God is love, how can God be angry with us? If God is love, how can God exhibit wrath toward us?
Yet, if we are true to the testimony of Scripture, we must confess that the concept of the wrath of God is a legitimate, pervasive Biblical theme. We would be on shaky theological ground to deny God the right to react with displeasure over our poor choices. We would be wrong to deny God the right to judge us when we sense God’s will and choose to disobey it. Sure, to talk of God as ‘wrathful’ is to speak of God in human terms, but we also use human terms when we describe God as ‘loving us’ or ‘being concerned for our welfare.’ We talk about God in human language because human language is the only language we have. So, if we give God the freedom to love us and forgive us, we also must grant God the freedom to judge us and execute wrath upon us when we hear God’s will and choose another path, when we sense God’s desire for our lives and reject it.
But here’s the key point: though we admit that God is free to be wrathful toward us, we must also admit that God is free to define divine wrath in God’s own way. As Paul said, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” That means God is free to define God’s wrath in a way that does not comport with human expectations and does not cohere with our preconceptions of what the “wrath of God” should be. God is free to define God’s wrath in God’s own way. Paul describes God’s wrath perfectly. He defines the wrath of God as God “giving us up to the lusts of our heart, to impurity, to the dishonoring of our bodies.” In short, God’s wrath takes the form of giving us up. God’s wrath takes the form of letting us go. God lets us go.
Paul was aware of Jesus’ depiction of God as the Good Shepherd. Paul knew that Jesus had described God as the Good Shepherd who if he had a flock of one hundred sheep, and one of them witlessly wandered away and became lost, he would secure the ninety-nine and go searching the nooks and crannies of the wilderness until he found the one – and then he would come home and throw a party. To slightly vary the metaphor, Jesus depicted God as the Good Parent, who, if his nine-year-old son wandered off from home in oblivious curiosity and became lost, God the Good Parent would not rest until God had searched every nook and cranny of the neighborhood to recover the child and bring him to safety.
But what if that child of God was not nine, but nineteen? What if that child was not a wayward, curious pre-adolescent, but a stubborn, self-assured, headstrong young adult? Would God love both children the same way? No. The image of God’s love that Christ offers us in that case is more complex. Jesus described a young man who chafed at residing in his father’s house, who was convinced that his father’s love was a cloying, restrictive, choking force. Jesus described that rebellious young man as coming to his father and demanding his inheritance so he could be free to go live in the far country. We cannot help but ask at this point, does the father not know that his son’s judgment is flawed? Does the father not know that the son will waste the inheritance? Does the father not know that the son’s concept of a good time would prove destructive and dangerous? Yes! Yes! and Yes!
Even so, the father lets the son go! The father lets the son go into the far country. Why? Does the father cease to love the son? No. Letting the son go is the father’s recognition that sometimes in a relationship of love, people reach a point where every overt act of kindness is misinterpreted as manipulation and every word of wisdom is misconstrued as control. Sometimes the loving parent has to let the child go off into the far country where the child can experience the absence of the parent. Letting the son go is an act of love, but it is also an act of judgment – because God’s wrath and God’s love are one and the same thing! The father lets the son go into the far country so the child can experience the consequences of destructive choices. The father’s letting the son go is an act of wrath, it is an act of judgment – but it is also an act of love. The father lets the son go because he realizes the son will not learn some lessons except the hard way.
If my language sounds a little too abstract for you, let me concretize it. When I was in seminary, one of my roommates, who was not a seminary student I should add, “borrowed” my car without permission, got drunk, and wrecked my vehicle. Now my car at the time was a perfectly sensible, totally reliable, non-glamourous Datsun B-210. But about that time I had the opportunity to buy a snazzy green MG Midget convertible. I consulted my father who said to me, “Son, you don’t have the money or the expertise to own a small, foreign sports car.” I replied, “Dad, I’ve got to have this car.” He shrugged and said, “Okay.” He let me go. He let me go learn that the MG Midget was the worst automobile ever made. Nothing worked in it. The night I picked Melissa up for our first date, I handed her a comforter and said, “This is your heater.” I learned the hard way that the ratio of a MG Midget actually functioning was two weeks in the shop for every one week on the road. I got rid of it soon thereafter. My Dad’s acquiescing in letting me buy that car was an act of love. But his act of love was also an act of judgment. He let me learn a lesson that I wasn’t going to learn any other way. How does Paul describe human nature in Romans 1? “Claiming to wise, they became fools . . . “
What does the father in Jesus’ story do when he learns that his son has indeed wasted his inheritance in frivolous living and is now jobless, friendless, penniless and starving – slopping pigs in a pig sty? Does the father come in and pay the boy’s debts and lift him out of the pit and replenish him to comfort? Nope. The father waits. He waits as an act of judgment, wrath and love. He waits until the son can experience the powerful absence of the father’s love. Were the father to go to the son now he would teach him nothing. The father lets him go until he suffers the depths of despair and feels the consequences of his choices. This act of love is precisely what it means to experience the wrath of God. The father lets his willful child suffer the consequences of his freedom until he gains the valuable knowledge of who he really is: he is his father’s son; the love of the father is the energy of his life; the household of the father is the destiny of his being. So the father waits. The father waits until that moment, as Jesus so marvelously phrased it, when the son “came to himself . . .” He came to himself! When the son realizes what the father’s love really means to him and what being a member of his father’s household really entails, then he grasps a lesson that he could not have learned any other way save the hard way. So, too, when we feel the absence of God in our lives, it is God’s letting us feel the consequences of our own destructive choices. When we feel the call of God to take one path and we choose the other, God lets us go. God gives us the freedom to misuse our freedom. And our misusing that freedom can entail our experiencing God’s judgment, experiencing God’s wrath, experiencing God’s love. God sometimes let us experience God’s absence until we come to our true selves. “Claiming to be wise, we can become fools.”
Paul was trying to explain to the church in Romans that the wrath of God is not some mystical concept,but rather a concrete reality, a reality as real as the destructive consequences that inevitably follow bad choices. The wrath of God is simply the experience of feeling the absence of God in our lives when we sense God’s call but choose to go another way. When God says to us, “Come!” and we opt for a different direction; when God says to us, “Act!” and we select a different course; when God says to us, “Commit!” and we remain paralyzed, then God in love must let us go so that we can feel the absence of God’s Presence in our lives. God lets us take the wrong path in the hope that our misuse of freedom will eventually result in our turning our lives around to embrace the love of God and return to our spiritual Parent’s household.
One of our beloved members, Betty Hendricks, and her late husband Joe, had a close friend named Will Campbell, who was the chaplain at the University of Mississippi in the late 1950’s. Will invited an Episcopal priest to be the lead speaker for Ole Miss’s annual Religious Emphasis Week, and the priest had become a well-known celebrity because he had won a national game show. But he created quite a stir when he announced that he would give part of his winnings to the NAACP. The resulting uproar in Mississippi in the late 1950’s forced Campbell to rescind the invitation. University officials planned to invite local ministers to fill in on the program instead, but Campbell managed to convince every minister in town to refuse to participate. Then Campbell announced that at the appointed hour of every day of Religious Emphasis Week he would go sit in the sanctuary and say nothing, silently meditating upon the events that had led the University to create this bizarre situation. Every day he sat in that sanctuary next to a spotlighted empty speaker’s chair. Every day, several hundred students, townspeople and faculty joined him in an observance that created by their silence a sense of the absence of God’s representative that served as a statement of judgment upon the hatred and injustice that pervaded their culture.
All of us have known and loved people who heard the call of God and instead went into the far country and there lost their way in life. They willfully spurned the love and call of God and wrecked their lives by their embrace of the absence of God. God had to let them go. In some cases, that description aptly fits episodes in our own life during certain parts of our pilgrimage. And the strange truth is, sometimes we experience the wrath of God by means of wrath at God. We determine to take a course of action, and God says to us, “If you go that way you will surely hit a wall.” Then we persist in our rebellion, only to hit a wall — and then we are angry at God for letting us hit the wall. We are mad at God at letting us misuse our freedom. We are mad at God; we are mad at others; but the person we are really mad at is ourselves. God sometimes lets us experience God’s wrath and God’s judgment by letting us misuse our freedom to go as far away as we can from God. But we cannot blame God for this misuse of freedom. That responsibility lies solely with us.
I invite you to play God for a moment. If you were God, would you have programmed humanity so that we always chose the good? Wouldn’t the world be a great place if we had to always choose good? Think of those Israelites who created and worshipped the golden calf. How much purer their worship would have been if they had been programmed by God only to worship God. How wonderful would their worship have been then. But God did not do that. Why? Because God always seeks that which is highest and best. Goodness is good. But free obedience is better. Every parent wants their child to choose good. But every parent should know that sometimes we must allow our children the freedom to go off into the far country and learn lessons about themselves and about love and life and God, lessons they couldn’t learn any other way. Goodness is good, but goodness that flows out of free exercise of our freedom is even better. The thing is, we are truly free. We enjoy a terrible freedom. God will let us go and use our freedom to go into the far country, as far away from our Father’s household as the pig sty. But also God gives us the freedom to use our freedom to respond to God’s love and to orient our lives around the Father’s call and to spend our lives in the service of Father’s Kingdom. That is the best and greatest freedom of all.