How to understand the wrath of God?

One of the most difficult and controversial teachings of Christianity has to do with the wrath of God. How should we understand it? Is it possible for Christ’s teachings to bring life, joy, peace, and freedom if God can be wrathful toward us?

Some people find that the teaching about the wrath of God undermines their trust and confidence in the love of God. When they are told that God is love, that Christ loves them, they think: Yes, God is love and Christ loves us. But isn’t God also wrathful? Does He not respond in anger to sin? And look at all the sins I’ve committed! How can I trust that God loves me, since I have sinned so much?

Other people take the doctrine of the wrath of God as a reason to be wrathful themselves. The Bible teaches clearly that the anger of human beings does not lead them to practice the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20). They say: Even God gets angry about things. He gets angry with sinners everyday! Why should I not also be angry about the things that people do wrong, especially when they do them to me? We might think to respond that God is rightly angry about certain things. But then again, who doesn’t think they have a reason to be angry?

Thus, the doctrine of the wrath of God can lead to bad consequences for our spiritual lives. Either we lose our trust in God’s love for us, since we give Him so many reasons to be wrathful, or else we take the teaching about the wrath of God as an excuse for our own anger. In both cases, our abundant life, permanent joy, incomparable peace, and liberating knowledge are taken away from us. So what is to be done? How are we to understand the wrath of God?

I think we can come to a better understanding of this issue by carefully considering these words from the Psalmist:

With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless; with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse. For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.

Psalm 18:25-27 New Revised Standard Version

What is so radical about this teaching is that the Psalmist suggests that God is like a mirror of ourselves. That is to say, the way we experience God is a reflection of the way we ourselves are. God is experienced as loyal, blameless, and pure by those who are themselves loyal, blameless, and pure. The crooked, on the other hand, experience God as perverse – in other words, as a force that impedes them and stands against them in what they want to do.

The difference in our experiences of God therefore has to do with what kind of people we are! God is like a mirror in which we see ourselves. He is experienced as “perverse,” as being “against us,” only if we are “crooked” – in other words, if we are not right ourselves.

Something similar is suggested in this passage from the prophet Obadiah:

For the day of the Lord is near against all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.

Obadiah 15 New Revised Standard Version

On the one hand, the prophet speaks about the “day of the Lord.” This is a day in which “all the nations” will encounter God. On the other hand, their experiences in this day will be a reflection of who they are and what they’ve done: “As you have done, it shall be done to you.” Why, then, do they encounter God as wrathful? Because they themselves have done evil! They have done “slaughter and violence” to Jacob, to God’s people (Obad. 10-15).

The Bible thus suggests that we experience God as “wrathful” because we ourselves are wicked and against Him. If we do not obey God’s law, if we do not love Him, if we do not follow His path and listen to His call to live in peace and to love one another, then we will see in God a reflection of ourselves: wrath!

But we should not think that God is both wrath and love in equal measure. God is not merely a coin with two sides. The “heads” and “tails” side of a coin are equally the coin. One side is not more important or more central to the identity of the coin than the other. But God is not like that! Christ teaches us that God is love. Love is foundational to who God is, not wrath.

How do we know this? Because in Jesus Christ, God accomplished our salvation while we were still sinners:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8 New Revised Standard Version

Sinners experience God as “wrath” because they are sinners. They are turned against Him, and so they cannot help but to experience Him as a “force” that gets in their way and will not let them have what they want. But God proves that He is independent of what they experience in Him. He is not merely a mirror that reflects what they are. He also has a life of His own that goes beyond how people experience Him. And what is this life of God’s? It is love. Indeed, it is love for those very sinners who experience Him as wrath! And He proves that He is love, and not the wrath that they experience, because He acts to save them even while they are sinners.

Perhaps this point can be easier to understand if we consider the following illustration. Sometimes people find stray dogs on the street who have been abused or mistreated. These dogs are suspicious of everyone who gets close to them. They bark and bite and try to keep away all attackers! But imagine that some kind-hearted people, dog rescuers, come to the dog. They want to do good to the dog and to restore it to full health. But the dog can’t understand this! It resist them, it fights against them, it threatens them, it barks at them, it tries to bite them. It doesn’t trust them, because the dog only sees the rescuers as hostile forces who might hurt it.

Now, the dog sees the rescuers as a threat, but are they really? No! They are trying to help it, not hurt it. The whole experience can be quite frightening and stressful for the dog, but it is not in fact in any danger! The rescuers are not merely the threat and danger and frightfulness that the dog experiences in them. The rescuers have their own life and purposes, which are to do good to the dog. And they show their independence of the dog’s experiences by doing good to the dog and trying to save it, even though it is so afraid of them and even hostile to them.

The same thing is true in the case of God. People who are caught up in their sins and love them can only experience God as a “contrary force.” They see in God a threat to themselves, to the identities they’ve constructed for themselves, to their preferred way of life. They don’t understand that God wants to bring them life, joy, peace, and freedom! But God is not limited by what people think of Him or by how they experience Him. He loves all people and works in Jesus Christ to accomplish their salvation even while they are sinners who hate Him. That is how Love is the true nature of God, whereas the “wrath” that sinful people experience is only a reflection of who they are.