God of wrath: these three words are the first worship leader David Crowder growls out on one of his latest CDs. They aren’t timid words forming a carefully crafted message tailored to present a gentle God to the skeptics. This is the cry of a prophet, inviting mere creatures to stand in awe of the one who was from the beginning.
God has the unfortunate task of putting up with mortals. I don’t think He is bothered by the angry or ignorant questions we ask Him. Job and David explored a lot of territory in that direction without becoming divine lightning rods. Rather, I imagine it is the questions we never think to ask that raise God’s ire. A question He might want us to ask is, “Do we really think it’s possible that God changes as often as our cultural and theological fads do?” Oddly, every time a new societal ethos or religious paradigm blows in, the God of the universe also somehow evolves. Does that seem slightly coincidental? Fashions may move in and out like the tide, but God isn’t stonewash.
[GOD AS THE GODFATHER]
Religious fundamentalism once reigned supreme, and the popular trickle down was a stereotypical view of God as an angry, distant, emotionally charged bully. One minute He was happy, the next He was really ticked off. This caricature parallels the Godfather in the classic trilogy. The Godfather could be your closest ally one moment and send his goon Guido to bury you in concrete the next. You could ever truly trust the Godfather – you might screw up the punchline to his favorite joke and end up getting whacked. Many people have experienced God as the Godfather. He had endless lists of rigid rules, some you knew and some you didn’t. He demanded perfection, and anything at anytime could send him over the edge.
[GOD IS MY LOVER]
A renewal occurred. People rediscovered the reality of Christ as Friend, God as Father, and Spirit as Faithful Guide. As if a new world dawned, a biblical theme from Genesis to Revelation reemerged: God as Lover. Still today, we often blush at the more sensual Scripture passages where the ancient writers evoked erotic imagery to draw our hearts to the intimacy God desires with His children.
With this shift, many of us encountered God for the first time. He became near to us. We sought deeper and more meaningful experiences with Him. He could be trusted. Unfortunately, subtle perversions crept in as well. God’s grace demonstrated His intense desire that we embrace Him, yet we confused this with an erroneous notion of His intense desire that we like Him. In this confusion, we convinced ourselves God was more concerned with our happiness than with His glory. However, while He craves our honor, our love, and our worship, He isn’t all that concerned with our approval.
The Genesis account is God made man in His (technically, “their”) image. The modern account is we make God in our image. Thus, we believe any element of God’s character infringing upon our view of a “good god” must be discarded. Any request for something we don’t want to give wouldn’t come from God. He’s too nice. He wants us to like Him too much.
[MAKE ROOM FOR WRATH]
So, in this modern view of God, we have no room for wrath. No room for judgment. No room for a God above us who refuses to answer to our every whim. No room for a pillar of fire, tablets of stone, and eventually, no room for a cross. We reject any element that doesn’t lead us to a “nice” God, fearful we will return to our former dark corner, shivering in fear before a merciless, distant God. However, we end up with no god at all.
Must we have a polar understanding of the Almighty, forced to choose between an angry, vengeful God and a weak, powerless one? Part of our problem is we are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We insist God fit into one mold or the other. We insist God choose; and if He doesn’t, we will choose for Him. Paradox is something we would rather do without.
Isaiah lived in this tension. He boldly embraced the mystery of God. His message to God’s people seemed a contradiction. The cry of God for Israel was an overflow of love: “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion” (30:18). An adjacent message, though, was quite different: “The Lord is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it; he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants” (24:1). Not exactly a Hallmark moment. We struggle with these conflicting themes. How could both love and judgment flow from the same deity?
The answer emerges as we return to the central character of Scripture and eternity: God. Without saying it blatantly, most of us challenge this assumption. God isn’t the center. We are. God created the world for us. God came to earth for us. We are center stage. No. God loves us dearly, and we will never be loved with a more overwhelming, confounding love than his. However, all God’s acts from eternity past to the end of the ages have been for one primary purpose: His own glory. Isaiah held the themes of judgment and grace in tension, for he knew God had said, “For my own sake, my own sake, I will do this … I will not yield my glory to another” (48:11).
God’s core desire is for us to be worshipers of Him, but we don’t want to worship anyone but ourselves. We struggle with any portion of God’s character reducing our ability to manage or control Him. Anything highlighting His demands is supposedly Pharisaical. We view any reminder of our failings before a holy God as contrary to grace. The opposite is true. God’s incredible affection toward us is only magnificent in contrast to the judgment we deserve. If we don’t deserve His wrath, what need is there for His mercy? If our sin isn’t dreadful, why the cross? But if we are broken people desperate for grace; and if God, rather than raining down His wrath, chooses instead to offer forgiveness and freedom, worship erupts. God is in His place, and we are in ours.
God invites us to bow before His wrath because God invites us to worship. As long as we insist on making God in our image, we end up with a god no better than ourselves. We need a God of both grace and wrath because we need a God bigger than we are.
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