If you haven’t contemplated murder, you ain’t been in love. ~ Chris Rock
“I will turn my beloved people over to the power of their enemies. The people I call my own have turned on me like a lion in the forest. They have roared defiantly at me. So I will treat them as though I hate them. The people I call my own attack me like birds of prey or like hyenas.” ~ God (Jeremiah 12:7-9)
Over the weekend I happened to come across an email I had sent my husband a couple of months after he left me and the kids. (Background here and here.) It was just a short note rejecting his request that we strive to be on friendly terms. Not that I wanted to be in conflict, but I wasn’t going to pretend to be OK with someone who had treated me the way that he had. In fact, I think it would have been really unhealthy for me to agree to be friend-like under the circumstances. I was very, very angry and I had a right to my anger. I had been betrayed, rejected and turned on by someone who I had done my best to love unconditionally through thick and thin. Emotionally, I was not in any condition to have anything more than a cold, barely cordial relationship with him. (As always, I am speaking of my own perspective here. My husband could give you an encyclopedic list of all the ways he feels I wronged him as well.)
During those days in between praying fervently for God to hit my husband with a bus, I was often grateful for the words of 1 Corinthians 13:5: “Love is . . . not easily angered.” It meant that there was room in love for anger. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I hadn’t turned into a terrible, hateful, unloving person because of my anger. I didn’t have to be afraid of it or deny it or hurry up and get rid of it. In fact, being so angry was a legitimate part of being a loving person. I knew I would be able to work through it in time. And I even knew that I could be angry without destroying my love for my husband or even rendering the relationship unsalvageable. I knew these things because I had a model for walking through a relationship this broken and an anger this great written all across the pages of scripture. You see, my God has loved deeply and been betrayed, rejected and turned on by his beloved as well. And my God – the one who IS love – got angry.
I know so many people who want to get rid of the angry God. They want to declare that all that stuff about God being angry and even wrathful came from the barbaric people who wrote scripture and not God himself. Their desire for a God who is never angry is probably driven in part by their rejection of the notion of a God who is angry all the time. There are strains of Christianity in which God’s primary orientation is seen as anger rather than love. I reject that God as well. But I don’t think we ought to create for ourselves a God who is never angry. A God with a hair-trigger temper is no good, but a God who never gets angry, doesn’t care enough. And he can’t understand me and empathize with me enough for me to give my life to. While I sympathize with the intentions of those who reject the idea that God gets angry, I am glad to serve the God who is described repeatedly as “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
When we read scripture about God being angry, I think we are making a huge error when we either view God as petty in his anger or try to erase his anger. First of all, the things which God is angry about aren’t petty. The Israelites were engaged in infanticide at one point! They would take their living infants, place them in the hands of enormous bronze idols which were being heated by fires inside them and watch as their infant children – their inheritance – was cooked alive. That’s not a petty thing to be upset about. God never told one of the prophets, “you guys aren’t trimming your beards just right and you let the fringes of your robes get too tattered before replacing them, so I’m going to hand you over to your enemies.” The lack of fidelity which the Israelites were engaging in wasn’t harmless. It’s not like they went and became Mormons. They became like Mayans engaging in human sacrifice. They allowed their own people to starve to death despite having plenty. They stole from those who had little and gave to those who had much. Frankly, I don’t want to follow a God who can’t be bothered to get angry over things like that.
Secondly what God’s anger reveals to us is just how invested in us he is. When God speaks of his people and of their betrayal, he consistently uses terms of romance, sexual relationships and marriage. Sure a God who sits up on high, completely unperturbed by our goings on here, content in his wholeness and perfection might not get angry. But a God who sees the marriage of a man and woman as the best depiction of his relationship with humanity is also a God who is willing to get hurt in the process. That’s what we’re seeing in all those angry verses in scripture – the response of a lover betrayed. When God says, “she turned on me like a lion and roared, she’s attacking me like a hyena”, I get that. I’ve been there. Many of us have been there. And I don’t mind that God has been there as well. Slow to anger doesn’t mean never angry. And it goes right along with a loving nature.
Would the world really be a better place if instead of getting angry, God had just said, “oh well. I guess we aren’t right for each other. I wish her well?” Would my 5 kids be better off if I had made friendly with their dad and wished him well with his new living arrangements? In the end, standing by my anger also meant holding to a standard which allowed us to enter back into relationship with each other without betraying ourselves or accepting the unacceptable in the name of keeping the peace. Personally, I hate being angry. It’s painful and uncomfortable and takes way too much emotional energy. But the thing about anger – and this is clearly and consistently the case with God’s anger – is it doesn’t preclude love. It doesn’t preclude wanting good things for the other. It doesn’t preclude a willingness and even an intention to be reconciled. But it does preclude tolerating the intolerable. Which isn’t really a bad thing.
As it turns out, the story of my marriage hasn’t ended in divorce after all (so far anyways!). And neither did God’s anger lead to a permanent break with his people. It was part of the hell that needed to be walked through on the way to something else. And unlike me, God always knew that it would:
Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes;
I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
she will look for them but not find them.
Then she will say,
“I will go back to my husband as at first . . . “
Therefor I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her . . .
“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband';
you will no longer call me ‘my master’.” ~ Hosea 2:6-7, 14, 16
When Jesus came and declared himself the bridegroom, that day came. That’s where all that anger lead to. The church as bride. Because we really do mean that much to him.
I think that part of the reason so many people want to declare God anger free is because we just don’t give God enough credit. We forget that it’s slow to start and quick to be extinguished. And we are far too quick to attribute the normal variety of struggles we go through to God’s anger – often without cause. Some time ago, I was really struggling in a desert place. I couldn’t help but think that maybe I had failed and God had rejected me. That I had done something to provoke God’s anger and had been abandoned. As I struggled to pray the words of a song I often sing my kids at bedtime kept coming to mind: “I’m in love with you, for you have called me child. You reached out and touched me, you heard my lonely cry. I will praise your name forever and love you all my life.” And I felt the Spirit telling me, “do you really think I would reject someone who sings a love song like that to me?” Even if God had been angry with me at some point, it was obviously not the end of the story. The reality is that we don’t need to be afraid of God’s anger. Because as strong as anger might be, love is greater still. It never fails.
Love is as strong as death,
it’s jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like a blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many water cannot quench love;
rivers cannot wash it away. ~ Song of Songs 8:6-7