What makes you angry? We all have triggers, don’t we? We all have certain contexts and situations, certain affronts to our dignity or pride that stoke the anger within. I know a lot about anger, as Aileen can no doubt attest. When she and I talk about God’s grace in our lives, and evidence of it, she will often point this out–that God has mellowed me, taken away that anger that often bubbled within and occasionally boiled over. When I moved out of my parents’ home on the day I got married, I left behind a hole in the wall that I had punched in a fit of anger a few months before. At one of the first homes Aileen and I lived in I cracked a door frame when I tried to smash it shut, once more in a fit of stupid anger. My immature anger just sometimes boiled over and got me into trouble. I always felt like an idiot after acting out, but in the moment my anger got the better of me; I often surrendered to it. I am profoundly grateful that God, in his mercy, has blessed me and blessed my family by taking away much of the immaturity, the irrationality, the lack of self-control that caused me to lash out like an angry toddler. I still know what it is to be angry, but no longer tend toward violent reaction.
According to one dictionary, anger is a strong feeling of displeasure, a kind of belligerence aroused by a wrong. And from experience I can say it is equally likely that it is anger aroused by a perceived wrong. If someone truly wrongs me, I may well express anger and do so with some justification. If someone slights me or otherwise damages my pride, it may also cause me to act angry but with no justification at all. Anger is inherently reactive, awaiting a trigger and then waiting to react in accordance with my nature.
We have all met angry people, haven’t we? People who react to tough situations with anger and people who often act out in this anger. Such people may react in surprising, unexpected and terrifying ways. They act as they do out of emotion. Anger is not one of those enjoyable emotions. It may channel a strange, sick kind of pleasure for a moment or two, but like all sin, it very quickly loses its luster. There is something scary about seeing a person act out in anger. And the bigger that person, the more powerful his position, the greater the fear. If my three year-old gets angry and lashes out, I am bothered but not afraid. But if I were to become angry and act out in anger, she would rightly be terrified because of what I could, I might, do to her in my rage.
It is little wonder that man fears an angry God. If we believe that God is so much greater than we are, so much stronger, so much more powerful, and if we believe that God is capable of anger and wrath, then we have little choice but to fear him as a child may fear a parent. And, indeed, man’s history with deity, whether with the true God or with any number of idols, has often been a position of terror, seeking by deed or sacrifice to appease his wrath. And so often, I think, we confuse human anger with divine wrath, imposing our own sinful, irrational, emotional anger upon God’s just, perfect, holy wrath. No wonder, then, that we seek to appease him, to assuage our guilty consciences and to hope against hope that we may have turned aside his wrath for another day.
And here it strikes me just how different the wrath of God is from my anger, from what we see in most human anger. Charles Leiter has said it well: “God’s wrath is not a temporary loss of self-control or a selfish fit of emotion. It is His holy, white-hot hatred of sin, the reaction and revulsion of His holy nature against all that is evil.” God’s wrath is revulsion. It is not mere emotion and is not at all irrational. It is so much more than emotion. You may know what it is to feel revulsion. Some time ago I heard of a woman who, upon finding out that her husband had been cheating on her, immediately vomited. It was as if her whole body was so affronted, so repulsed by her husband’s sin that it acted all on its own. Revulsion may be our reaction to a lukewarm sip of water when we were expecting ice cold or piping hot. We spew it out, repulsed. And this is sin to God. God’s wrath is a holy reaction, it is a holy and white-hot hatred of all that is evil. This is a good and just and fair reaction to something that is absolutely, fundamentally opposed to God’s very nature. Sin is against all that he is and all that he wants us to be.
God’s reaction to sin is the good and necessary, the absolute best and perfectly just reaction. He will not act rashly in anger but will act justly in wrath. He will express this wrath against all sin. He must express this wrath against sin, because sin opposes all that he is as the perfectly holy creator of all that exists. How good it is, then, when we ponder God’s wrath, to know that his wrath has already been satisfied for those who trust in him. There on the cross, Jesus Christ took that wrath upon himself on behalf all those who were his own. There God required the just penalty due for that sin. And there the Father found perfect, eternal satisfaction for his wrath. And there you and I can turn our eyes and turn our hearts and trust and believe and know that Jesus Christ has paid it all.