God of Wrath vs Wrath of God

angryGodGod’s wrath and judgement must somehow be reconciled and correlated with God’s concern for justice and righteousness. It appears that the former is produced by human sin – the failure to manifest justice and righteousness (cf. Is 5:1-7; Amos 5:21-24); divine judgment often is presented in direct contrast with and in equal measure to human sin… This means that one must reckon not with a Deus irae (God of wrath) but rather with the ira Dei (the wrath of God). God’s wrath is instrumental, intended to bring about a result: repentance and reform. In linguistic terms, God’s wrath is not stative (such that God is angry, ontologically or dispositionally, especially not always) but rather is transitive (God is angry about something). But when the object of wrath is tended to – the offending sin or circumstance removed – the wrath disappears as well… Divine wrath and judgment are never simplistic but rather are “the outcome of a complex process of divine wrestling, anguish, attempted overtures to the people, calls for repentance, warnings that keep the door open” (P. Miller, “‘Slow to Anger’: The God of the Prophets” in The Way of the Lord: Essays in Old Testament Theology, 276)… the prophetic texts writ large suggest that “the Lord’s bent toward compassion is a part of what it means to be God, not just an option among other possibilities… Reticence to wrath in favor of compassion is what it means to be the Lord” (P. Miller, 276).

B. A. Strawn and B. D. Strawn, “Prophecy and Psychology,” The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, 620.

In summary, according to the prophets, God is not wrath in the same way that God is Love. God has wrath – momentarily – but it can always be averted through repentance. Wrath is never God’s last word because God does not simply have love – God is Love.

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord your Redeemer.

Isaiah 54:7-8

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Poison & Wine: Heschel’s Hosea

tumblr_mq65ayjwyg1rj588zo1_500In a song made popular by the folk duo The Civil Wars, “Poison & Wine,” the anguished love of a married couple cries out: “I don’t love you/but I always will.”[1] These are the honest words of two lovers whose commitment to one another has endured a severe test. Surrendering, they confess: “I don’t have a choice/but I’d still choose you.”[2]

This song of suffering love between husband and wife is the one that came to mind as I considered Abraham Heschel’s account of the prophet Hosea in The Prophets. “It is as if there were a dramatic tension in God,” says Heschel as he reflects on the intense harmony of divine anger and compassion revealed in the prophet Hosea’s words.[3] Yet, in a way reflected by the words of The Civil Wars, this harmony cannot last. The tension breaks as Hosea “flashes a glimpse into the inner life of God” where we discover that suffering love – and not anger – is the “decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history.”[4]

As scandalous as it seems, God is bound to Israel by an “ineradicable”[5] love: “I will not execute my fierce anger… for I am God and no mortal.”[6] Hosea does not merely feel God’s momentary, incidental reaction to Israel’s disloyalty; he is drawn into “the fundamental emotion… [existing within] the constitutive relationship between God and Israel.”[7] Hosea proclaims the very being of God as supreme love “expressed first in the bitterness of disillusionment” which “finds its climax in the hope of reconciliation.”[8]

However, Hosea does not merely proclaim this message – he lives it. The anguish in God’s voice belongs to Hosea as well. He has been educated in daath elohim – “the knowledge of God” – which plunges Hosea into the depths of “suffering together” with God where “both persons share the same feeling.”[9] Through Hosea, God calls Israel along with all those who would call upon God to “know” the emotions, concerns, and inwardness of God in a relationship of “constant solidarity.”[10] This is love like no other; this is hope beyond all hope.

Like Israel, I “forget” God and turn to idols. God looks and sings, “You think your dreams are the same as mine.”[11] Unlike Hosea, I have yet to feel the intensity of God’s burning anger towards the idolatry of my heart. Is it possible to “know” the God of profound love apart from “knowing” this rage? While I am overwhelmed by God’s faithful acts of love and compassion towards me, Hosea calls me into the deep, wild, raging currents of triune Love by the way of suffering, of self-emptying, the way of Christ in the power of the Spirit.


[1] John Paul White, Joy Williams, and Chris Lindsey, Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars, 2011 by Sensibility Recordings LLC, Compact Disc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 57.

[4] Heschel, 58.

[5] Heschel, 52.

[6] Hosea 11:9, NRSV.

[7] Heschel., 59.

[8] Heschel, 63.

[9] Heschel, 73.

[10] Heschel, 74.

[11] Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars.

hesed

And now they keep on sinning

and make a cast image for themselves,
idols of silver made according to their understanding,
all of them the work of artisans…

Yet I have been the Lord your God
ever since the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
and besides me there is no saviour.
It was I who fed you in the wilderness,
in the land of drought.
When I fed them, they were satisfied;
they were satisfied, and their heart was proud;
therefore they forgot me.
So I will become like a lion to them,
like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering of their heart;
there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild animal would mangle them.

I will destroy you, O Israel;   who can help you?

hesed

‘Come, let us return to the Lord;

for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him. 

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;   

his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’

hesed

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have killed them by the words of my mouth,

and my judgement goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

hesed

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger;

I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

Jesus Is My Homeboy: Reflections on Heschel’s “Amos”

Several years ago a hip, new image of Jesus rose to popularity among a certain stream of American Christian sub-culture in which I was familiar. The meme went like this: “Jesus is my homeboy.” It showed up on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even plastic bobble-head dolls. This Jesus had a big, reassuring smile on his face as he gave his faithful homeboys two thumbs-up. If Jesus was your “homeboy”, you never had to worry, never had to fear, because Jesus would always be there, always just a “prayer” away, and he would always have your back.

This was the image that came to mind as I reflected on the situation in which the voice of the Lord reverberated through the voice of Amos. The people of Israel seem to have taken their chosen status for granted; their holiness had become an end in itself and that end was might, prosperity, and pride. They were God’s people – YHWH was their homeboy. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Amos was different. As a shepherd and “dresser of sycamore trees,”[1] Amos was not a member of Israel’s club of wealthy and powerful. YHWH was not his homeboy – YHWH was a roaring lion who demanded justice and righteousness from all nations. Amos knew the Lord more intimately than his people but, unlike his smug, over-confident peers, he was under no allusion of privileged status: “intimacy… never becomes familiarity. God is the Lord, and the prophets are His [sic] servants.”[2]

Amos was an iconoclast. He shattered the sacred traditions of Israel’s identity on the rock of God’s sovereign freedom and justice because they had become an escape from God’s righteous demands, a source of privileged detachment, and the ground of haughty self-reliance. I like this side of Amos; I too want to destroy the idols of popular American Christian subculture.

It is the compassion of Amos that troubles me the most. He announced a message of doom, but he also appealed to God’s mercy and hoped for Israel’s repentance which would make possible their restoration. Heschel concludes his chapter on Amos by describing “the burden of a prophet”: “compassion for man [sic] and sympathy for God.”[3] Too often, I fail to uphold this burden and live in this tension; I too easily turn my back to my “sinful” brothers and sisters and set myself up as God’s “real” homeboy. It is the witness of Amos the shepherd, the one who is familiar with the task of patient, longsuffering, and loving care among his sheep, who calls me to hold prophetic denouncement together with compassionate, pastoral service.


[1] Amos 7:14, RSV.

[2] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 46.

[3] Heschel, 46.

Henri Nouwen on Prayer and Action

Prayer and action… can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.

Henri Nowen in Compassion

 

Compassion Means Giving Up

Our sermon this morning at Six:Eight Church was all about compassion. It was given by our pastor’s brother-in-law and Zambian native Dr. Steady Moono. His text was the story of the rich young ruler’s distressing encounter with Jesus in Luke 18:

The Rich Ruler

 A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’

Then Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’

In his explanation of the text, Dr. Steady (i bet you already have THIS SONG stuck in your head too) made a very insightful suggestion about the rich young ruler’s question based on Jesus’ response. Basically, Jesus told the rich young ruler that there was an error in his question because only God was good (wait, did Jesus just say he was not God?!?!?!? …ugh, skipping that for now). So why did the rich young ruler call Jesus good? What was he trying to suggest and, more importantly, why did Jesus call him out on it? Dr. Rockin-Steady-all-night-long suggested that the rich young ruler had probably been following Jesus around for some time – just observing from a distance – and had seen his many signs and wonders. He had seen all the good deeds Jesus was performing. Could it be then, that the rich young ruler assumed that Jesus had earned his right status with God by his good deeds? Dr. Steady-Rockin-till-the-break-of-dawn thinks so and I would agree.

Jesus’ further response to the man seems to suggest the same conclusion about the rich young ruler’s assumptions towards Jesus. Jesus turns to the commandments and asks the man if he has kept them all, but then he only lists certain commandments. Interestingly, he mentions commandments 6-10 of the Ten Commandments, which all relate to personal actions towards others. In other words, these are all “good deeds” (or “not bad deeds”) kinds of commandments. It seems to me that Jesus is playing into the young ruler’s assumptions about earning righteousness by mentioning only these commandments (especially when righteousness is defined as “right relationship”). It’s almost as if Jesus is leading the guy to believe that he’s about to say something like: “Oh, you’ve kept these commandments? You’re good bro! Welcome to eternal life!”

Of course, that is not what Jesus says. He explains that the rich young ruler must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor in order  to inherit eternal life or enter the kingdom of God. A radical act of compassion is required.

However, this compassion looks very different from how we have come to practice it in most cases today. For us, compassion is practiced at a distance. Usually, it doesn’t require that we change much about ourselves. Sure, we “give up” some money, but there are usually not many lifestyle changes that go along with it. When we – the rich young rulers of the world – practice compassion, we do not typically give up our rich young ruler status. After all, it is this status that empowers us to “be compassionate” in the first place right?

What I’d like to point out is that the character of compassion that Jesus called for was a complete surrender, a giving up of power. Compassion literally means “suffering with” and Jesus knew that this man’s wealth would keep him from (a) suffering and (b) from truly suffering with others. Compassion requires our surrender of the means that give us power and status over the ones to which we are trying to be compassionate. Had the rich young ruler obeyed Jesus’ command, he would no longer be a rich young ruler – but he would have been compassionate. And, apparently, he would have entered the kingdom of God.

In the end, compassion is not about what we do – it is about who we are with. If we are compassionate, we will give up the very means by which we “act compassionately.” Compassion means giving up because otherwise we are just trying to earn righteousness through self-inflicted “wounds” that cause momentary “suffering with.” Real compassion requires more. Actually, it requires less – less doing, less striving, less power, and less control.