Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Wrath of God, Revisited

Arise, O Lord my God in the decree which You have commanded, and the assembly of the peoples will surround You; over it take Your seat on high.
The Lord shall judge the people; give me justice, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, You who sound the depths of hearts and reins, O righteous God.
My righteous help is from God who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, who does not make his wrath felt every day.
If you will not repent, God will whet His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready
On it He has fitted instruments of death; He has fashioned His arrows for those who rage.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.
I will give tho the Lord the thanks due to His righteousness and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.
Psalm 7: 6b to end [monastery translation]

One of the matters weighing on my heart when I came to the monastery was my inability to help my Protestant friends understand what the wrath of God is and isn't. From an Orthodox perspective, God does not get angry. Of course when I say that, my Protestant friends immediately quote verses like those found in Psalm 7 above. The only compromise I have been able to find is that they will agree that God is not angry in the same way that fallen human beings are angry.

However, it dawned on me this morning that perhaps part of the confusion lies in the different ways that Orthodox and Protestant Christians have traditionally read the Bible, especially the Psalms. The Orthodox read the Psalter as a continuous prayer. They read it out loud in large sections, reading through the entire Psalter every week (and twice a week in Lent, in the traditional pattern). They read it as a sort of narrative of the soul, as actual conversation and communion with God. Protestants, on the other hand, have the tendency to read the Bible as a source of proof texts, a source of information about God to be understood and fit together like a puzzle, and sometimes even as a source of promises to be claimed. This is a huge over generalization, I know. Nevertheless, as historic tendencies, or emphases, I think my generalization is close.

This is, at least, what I experienced when I spoke to my Protestant friends last week. When I suggested that the wrath of God had nothing to do with God venting His anger, their response was to quote individual verses, as though that should have ended the discussion--unless I could respond with counter verses. But generally speaking, Orthodox Christians do not read the Bible as a collection of verses to be quoted to make theological points. Consequently, I could not engage my friends in any useful way because to attempt to challenge verse with verse would have been a kind of betrayal for me.

In this essay, I would like to take a look at Psalm 7 as the Orthodox Church encounters it as prayer--or at least as I have come to encounter it in the Church as prayer. My hope is that those who have come to understand God as angry, wrathful and even vindictive, will come to see that there is another reading of the Bible that is, I believe, more faithful to the God we have come to know in prayer. This is a reading that is traditionally Orthodox and consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ through the Gospels.

The section I quote above begins with a resurrectional verse that is quoted in the Pascal Liturgy: Arise, O Lord my God in the decree which you have commanded, and the assembly of the peoples with surround you. From the Resurrection we move to the Ascension: Over it [the assembly] take your seat on high. Then God reveals the Judgement: The Lord shall judge the people. Judgement is the theme of the next several verses. These verses are understood eschatologically. That is, they are understood as referring to the Kingdom of God that is already and not yet; the Kingdom that will come and that we already begin to encounter.

We, with the psalmist, pray that God will judge us according to our righteousness and integrity--a righteousness that both is ours in Christ and is becoming ours in Christ--becoming ours as we cooperate with the Grace of God through repentance. We pray that the evil of the wicked will come to an end. Notice that it is not the wicked as people who must pass away, but the evil of the wicked people. And only God Himself can judge this, who sounds the depths of hearts and reins. Further, this Judgement comes out from God who is able (righteous and Strong), and who is also patient and does not make His wrath felt every day (Septuagint reading). This not making His wrath felt is then explained: If you do not repent.... Already God could allow His Wrath to be felt, but He is giving humanity time to repent--in fact, that is a large part of what time is: a reality in which change is possible. God has prepared all of the instruments of death (His sword, His bow). Yet God is waiting.

What, then, is this wrath resulting in death? Is it God finally losing control of His anger, a passionate anger like fallen human anger, and finally lashing out and killing all who offend Him? No, the next verses explain.

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. What the wicked man experiences is the fruit of what he himself has conceived. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. Man creates his own hell. The pit of hell he falls into is the very pit he spent his life digging for himself. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends. The wrath, death in all of its forms, that falls on the head of man is the direct result of his own mischief. His violence is the recompense that descends on him.

This verse reminds me of the words of Lanza del Vasto, a Roman Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, who said something like this: If you throw rocks in the air, do not blame God for casting stones on your head. Yes, I could say that the stone that falls on my head is the wrath of God--for God created a universe in which rocks thrown in the air fall back down--but the direct cause of this wrath of God is not God, but my own stupidity. And more than this, in as much as I share in a common humanity, I also share in the common consequence of human sin. The particular suffering and death I experience is not necessary the result of my particular sins (my particular rocks thrown in the air), but may be the rocks of my ancestors and neighbours--as if some rocks like meteors in descending orbit gather together and fall in showers for no apparent reason.

The last verse of the Psalm offers God thanks for His righteousness. And this is what we give thanks for: even in judgement, God is righteous. God has so structured the universe that humanity reaps what it sows. God knows the heart; God even withholds the consequences of sin, what we call His wrath. God withholds His wrath out of love. God gives us time to repent, to turn to Him and be radiant so that our faces will not be ashamed, as it says in another Psalm. God shines on those who turn to Him, and this radiance is experienced as Glory. But God's light cannot be hid, and those who cling to empty vanity experience that same radiance as torment, as wrath, because the empty things that they have loved are shown to be just that: empty.


Anonymous said...

Hi Fr. Michael, I think that at least for myself I can get caught up in scripture, as some of them really speak something good and precious to me, like when Jesus says 'take my yoke upon you and I shall give you rest' so that I don't get all caught up in being really busy or when I am frustrated with myself for not doing well enough. When I read that, I think that it speaks God's grace and mercy towards me. As a result I try to put as much thought behind what is being spoken in scripture even though I may not understand. And that includes the passages that are difficult. Blessings Mary

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Mary,
I too get caught up in Scripture--verses, parts of verses, sometimes just one word. This generally occurs when I am doing devotional reading privately. However, when I pray Scripture in the Church services, my encounter is somewhat different. Sometimes a word or phrase strikes me as a word from the Holy Spirit for me right at that moment, but more often I will see a bigger picture. A theme or a pattern will speak t me. Also in the Orthodox Church biblical passages are often set among poetic verses that help point out important themes in and the prophetic significance of certain passages. This is, of course, not instead of private devotions. It is just one way the Traditional worship of the Church helps us see more clearly, see what we would have missed on our own.

Arthur said...

I am a Protestant and have never set foot in an Orthodox church. I am so grateful to be alive in this day and age where a casual Google search can cause me to wander into such a great explanation. I am finding God to be a lot bigger than I ever imagined. I am embarking on a study of the “wrath of God” as I find that our current modern usage of the word implies the sort of violent, vindictive retribution that occurs when someone has been pushed too far. This I believe to be very far from the Scriptural meaning of the word. For instance, John 3:36 says “"He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." The word ‘wrath’ here can mean ‘natural disposition’ and I am guessing that to some extent it always means that. So I am thinking that the message here is like this - “There are naturally unavoidable consequences resulting from the things we do (and neglect to do) however if we believe in and cling to and follow the Son we can move into eternal life instead”
It’s a bit like “If you drink lots of (natural) water over a three day period, you find yourself refreshed and your thirst quenched - if you don’t drink any then you don’t get your thirst quenched and the terror of evaporation leading to dehydration abides on you”.
Maybe I’m going too far in my analogy but it seems the perfectly natural process of evaporation is really being applied in both cases, however for the guy who is drinking it really doesn’t matter (in fact it is quite welcome).

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Arthur,
Our relationship with God is a mystery. We grow in it, but never master it--Because God is God, and we are creatures. For eternity we will be growing in our knowledge of God. "Wrath of God" is just one aspect of our relationship with God--an aspect not well understood. I think your analogy of drinking or not drinking water is useful, but like all analogies can't be pushed too far. We understand about God from knowing God. And as we know God, words and analogies become less and less precise.

Unknown said...

Fr. Bless,

As a catechumen in the Orthodox Church, a recent (near?) convert, and someone whonsoent the first twelve years of his christian life as a Calvinistic evangelical, I continually have concerned friends ask me if I believe in the wrath of God, since I now deny penal substitutionary atonement. Father Anthony (my spiritual father) has been wonderful for helping me to understand many things, including this, but I have never been very good at re-articulating ideas. I am really grateful for this post, so that I can use it to help articulate my answer, without turning it into a fruitless, frustrated, unloving argument where I find myself both lacking humility, and looking like a fool, and not in the good way. So thank you.

Yours in Christ,