… put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:8-9)
A critic of Whosoever wrote to me recently asking what I considered to be a perfectly valid, and interesting question. He wanted to know what I thought about God’s wrath. Specifically, he was interested in my thoughts on this because one of his criticisms of Whosoever is that we focus on a message of hope, love, peace and justice to the exclusion of such uncomfortable topics as the wrath of God.
I suppose that one can become so focused on God’s love, compassion, and mercy that one can totally forget about the many displays of God’s wrath depicted in the Bible. However, the reverse is also true. It seems to me the critic who asked this question, and many others on the far right, seems overly preoccupied with God’s wrath, usually to the exclusion of God’s love, compassion and mercy. In fact, this particular critic appears to take an unnatural joy in what he believes will be God’s wrath raining down on those this critic has deemed unrighteous and enemies of God. We will address this issue in due time, but first let us consider what makes God angry.
We see God’s anger in many places in the Bible. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is the first example. Later in the book of Genesis, the nations gathered to build a tower that reached to the heavens, only to have it destroyed by God and the people scattered. Another example comes in the book of Exodus where the people fashioned a golden calf to worship when they got tired of waiting for Moses to descend from the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
The source of God’s wrath is the common thread running through all of these stories. In each instance, the people turned from trusting God to trusting their own minds, to making God in their own image. Adam and Eve both wanted the power of God for themselves so they ate from the tree of knowledge. The people who built the tower of Babel had similar goals in mind. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” [Genesis 11:4] they said as they built the tower. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness needed something visible they could worship and latch their faith onto. With Moses out of the picture, they needed another link to God, so they built the golden calf.
We, too, get into the habit of ignoring God and following our own minds, our own wills. We do it as love and mercy focused gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender Christians just as often as our legalistic right wing brothers and sisters do it. How many times do we talk about love, then fail to reach out in love to those suffering around us? How often do we speak of justice and mercy, and fail to act justly and merciful even toward those we say we care about? How often do we put ourselves ahead of God, shaping our lives into golden calves of jobs, relationships and money, that we worship? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we do it every day if we’re not careful about working out an honest relationship with God.
Paul tells us we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. [Philippians 2:12] The fear, despite what our right wing detractors want us to believe, is not that we’ll get it “wrong” and be sent to the flames of an eternal hellfire. The fear comes from our inability to let go of ourselves and fully commit ourselves to the task of working out our own salvation. I tremble at the thought of the things God might have planned for me … even if they are ultimately good things … because it requires me to let go of the things I have now and the security they provide me.
If God’s wrath should come down on me it won’t be because I’m a lesbian. Ultimately it will be because I have not completely entrusted every shred of my life to God’s care. I always hold a little back for myself … the tiny pieces I want to control. Adam and Eve did it, the architects of the tower of Babel did it, the Israelites in the wilderness did it … we continue to do it, and it makes God angry.
God gets angry because we don’t get it. We get so focused on following rules or trying to find a way to please or appease God that we forget to seek God in any true sense. When we want the quick and easy answers, God gets angry. When we refuse to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and instead cling to the proscribed checklist of answers so conveniently provided by the church we incur the wrath of God.
There are no easy answers. God is not an insurance policy only to be whipped out in case of flood, accident or other disaster. God demands that we seek and to truly seek is to not settle for any easy answers.
Often our religious right counter-parts want to hand out those easy answers. “Open the Bible,” they tell us, “look up Leviticus or Romans, and you have your answer.” But, do we really? Do those words, written so long ago, translated thousands of times in thousands of political climates and agendas, really tell us what God intends for us to hear today? I know the critic who wrote to me would say “yes” without even thinking about it, because those words represent, to him, the infallible word of God … a word that he dare not argue with or else he’ll face the horrible wrath of God. We must submit to the word, this critic, and many more like him, would tell me. These are God’s words and they cannot be questioned. Of course the end of that statement would include some bumpersticker theology like “turn or burn.”
Do we really want a God that demands we toe the line, no questions asked? Do we really want to follow a God that would so restrain the creative free will of God’s creation … a creation made in God’s own image? I dare say no.
Within the call to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling is a clear invitation to wrestle with God, to challenge God and ultimately, through that battle, draw closer to God. Henri Nouwen cut to the heart of the matter when he wrote in his Genesee Diary, “When I can only relate to God in terms of submission, I am much more distant from God than when I feel free to question divine decrees.”
There are many examples of God’s children daring to argue with God. Moses talks God out of letting God’s wrath “burn hot against” the Israelites when they created the golden calf to worship. In fact, Moses told God to repent of the evil God planned for God’s people! “And the Lord repented!” [Exodus 32:14] In Genesis 32:24 we see Jacob wrestling all night with an angel, and he won’t let the angel leave until he blesses him. When he finally wins the blessing he names the place Peniel, [meaning “the face of God”] “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” [Genesis 32:30] Like Moses we should not be afraid to argue with God, and even tell God to repent of evil! Like Jacob we should wrestle with the angels God sends to us until we are blessed by them! We should feel free to question the divine decrees of the Bible, the church, or anyone who dares to try to work out our salvation for us in the name of “helping” us avoid an eternity of hellfire. The experiences of Moses and Jacob assure us that even when we see God face to face, our lives will be preserved!
Our friends on the religious right would warn us against such argumentation with a God of wrath. I liken these people, who cling so desperately to the letter of the law, while disregarding the spirit, to a strict teacher I had in school. I learned everything in that class by heart, fearing that I would miss one jot or tittle of the material, and thus encounter the wrath of the teacher. I could recite the material easily, but I didn’t fully understand the material, and have forgotten most of it now. There was also little joy in learning. Later in life I had teachers who enjoyed debating subjects with students. What a joy to learn under these people! Through the arguments, we learned the material just as well, but had a deeper understanding of the subject and of our teacher. True, it was still possible to anger the teacher, but only through inattention to the importance of the subject at hand. Just like learning a subject in school, we must struggle with God, argue with God, and work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Until we do this we will never truly understand what it means to seek and understand God.
I can learn a poem by rote, word for word and repeat it over and over again, but until I struggle with the meaning of those words, the author’s intent versus my interpretation … until I make that poem a part of me … I will never truly understand the poem. If I hold rigidly to the words, memorizing them without letting them into my heart, then I’ve missed the meaning of the poem. Same goes for God. I can memorize things about God, decrees passed in God’s name, rules written ages ago by men long dead, but if I fail to meditate on those words, if I refuse to let them into my heart and do not argue with them and engage them, then I’ve missed the entire meaning of what it is to truly know God. Knowing God’s words does not equal knowing God.
That same poem can mean different things to different people. Some parts of the poem that don’t hold much meaning for me will speak deeply to the needs of others and vice versa. The same with God. Our Creator deals with us in different ways, and speaks to us in ways that often others do not understand. For that reason, I will not sit here and say those on the religious right have it wrong and I have it right, because honestly, I do not know. However, God, as I understand God, is full of compassion, love, mercy and justice for all of God’s children. This is how God speaks to me in my life. I cannot comprehend the God of wrath and judgment that those on the religious right seem to be so obsessed with. I can only speculate that, in many ways, we both make God in our own image as a way of trying to understand what is ultimately unknowable for any of us: the true nature of God.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann helps us understand our right wing brothers and sisters in her book Putting Away Childish Things. She observed that “a powerful God finds more supporters than a compassionate God. This is because people model their image of God in their own image. And potency and power mean a great deal to them — sometimes they mean everything — while compassion means less, and sometimes nothing at all.”
We see this played out almost daily by those on the religious right who seem to take glee in predicting that God’s wrath will befall this country because of the iniquities they have judged us to be engaged in. Pat Robertson, for example, predicted hurricanes and floods in Florida because of the welcoming of gays and lesbians to Disney World. When hurricanes and floods did hit the hurricane and flood prone state, Robertson was quick to herald the fulfillment of his prophecy. But, God’s wrath has nothing to do with the natural weather patterns that hit Florida or any other area of the world.
Often we confuse God’s wrath, or our idea of God’s wrath, with our very human penchant for revenge. How often is God’s righteous wrath credited with the destruction of our enemies when, in reality, it is our human reaction of revenge, conveniently attributed to God, that caused the pain and violence against our sworn enemies, who certainly were enemies of God as well? Witness the violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons, blacks and women in the name of God and God’s righteous wrath. Let us question closely whose wrath is really being expressed here. Is it really God’s wrath, or man’s revenge on those he hates? A general rule of thumb to answer this question can be found in the expression, “you know you’ve made God in your own image when God hates the same people you do.”
If God’s wrath does come upon this country, it won’t be because we’re not worshipping the Bible as God’s literal words, or because gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are given full rights as human beings. It will most certainly be the reason God has been angry with God’s people at every other time in history, because again we’ve lost sight of the message. We’ve built golden calves in the form of multi-million dollar churches, where the Bible, not God, is worshipped. Instead of worrying about “the least of these” we see important religious leaders worrying about their own power base of tithe money and membership. Instead of feeding the poor and needy we feed our egos by keeping a list of the saved and the damned. Instead of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling we judge others and promise the wrath of God on those we feel are “sinning.”
What are we to do to avoid God’s wrath? Paul offers some sound advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9. He urges us prepare our souls and to go into battle with God, to ” … put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hear the good news! We are not destined for God’s wrath. We are destined for salvation. Salvation can only be worked out between ourselves and God. We work out our salvation by talking with God, shouting at God, arguing with God and wrestling with God. But, we can’t just plunge headlong into our struggle unprepared! To work out our own salvation we must dress for the battle by girding our souls with faith, love and hope. If we are faithful to this task we are promised that God will be faithful to us! So, do not fear the wrath of God, for it is not our destiny! Salvation is our destiny. Embrace that destiny for there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” [Romans 8:1]
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.