In 1741, Jonathan Edwards delivered what is probably his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — one that still is popular among some seminarians today. I don’t want to discuss the strengths or weaknesses of that sermon, since it primarily talks about punishment and hell, and that is not at all my purpose for writing. Rather, I want to refute the idea that God is an angry God. That topic seems to be very popular these days, largely because a relatively small number of Christians have promulgated the saying that “God is not mad, he’s glad”, inciting a reaction among other Christians who feel that God really is mad.
I recently got into a discussion with a group of people about this who seemed to range from saying that God is mad at sinners, to others saying that God is mad anytime someone sins, all the way to a smaller group suggesting that God is just about always mad! Underlying a lot of the discussion was a concern that if people didn’t think God was mad at people who sinned, then why would anybody stop sinning? This feeling goes against the wisdom found in Romans 2:4 that reminds us that it is the kindness of God that leads people to repentance. Or, in common parlance, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
We know from many passages of the Bible that God has emotions, including anger. We also know that God sees everything in the universe, and even focusing only on the planet earth, it says that he knows every hair on our heads (and there are around seven billion heads), and also that he cares for the grasses and wildflowers and even each bird in the air. It also tells us that he knows every need we have before we even talk to him about them in prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 12). These facts tells us that God has an immense capacity for keeping track of the details of the world and especially of each person, and he is able to interact simultaneously with each one. Trying to imagine the emotions of a God who can see so much and interact so much is beyond me. And, of course, to try to say that God has only one emotion — anger — would just be crazy.
But what is embedded in the idea about God being mad is more of an emotional question than an intellectual question for us. We are really asking, “Is God mad at me?” or possibly, “Is God cranky or emotionally unstable?” or maybe better, “Is God approachable?” And related questions, “How does God feel about someone who is a Christian who sins?” and “How does God feel about a person who does not follow God and who would be called by some ‘a sinner’?” With these questions we have some hope of coming up with reasonable answers based on what Jesus taught and how he lived.
The Bible is clear that Jesus is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 11:3 and Colossians 1:5). So to get some idea what God the Father is like, look at what Jesus is like. Jesus got mad, but not at sin, per se. He hung out with sinners! Sinners loved him! He didn’t come to condemn them (he said they were already condemned), he came to save them. He forgave the woman caught in adultery, forgave the prostitute who anointed his feet, and was adored by those who had demons cast out of them.
Who did Jesus get mad at? It seems to me that it was primarily religious folk who thought that faith was all about who could obey the rules the best, and were, dare I say “hell-bent” on making sure people followed rules. Consider the number of times Jesus healed people on the Sabbath — which was said to be against the Law — and which made religious people furious, even though sick and infirm people were set free from their suffering. And in the stories that Jesus told, the people that were subject to the king’s anger were either those that refused to forgive others or those that were working against the king.
So we have at least a partial answer so far: Jesus did not seem to be angry in general. He did not seem to be angry with “sinners”, either. When he became angry, it was mostly angry at people that ultimately kept others from drawing near to God and finding God’s blessing. But to get a more complete answer, I want to look at two parables that shed even more light on the questions posed. To keep this post at a reasonable length, I will do write about them in follow-on posts. The first parable is what is typically called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (in Luke 15:11-32), one of Jesus’ most famous parables. The other is the “Parable of the Wedding Feast” (in Matthew 22:1-14).