One striking thing about Jesus is that he so often became angry. The Gospels detail a trail of fury that the Prince of Peace left in his wake. Time and again he raged at Satan, the embodiment of evil. Possessing demons and crippling disease made him livid. He vilified the Pharisees, railed against ingrates and excoriated the faithless who, although healed and blessed by him, couldn’t care less about what he stood for and why he cured them. And in one unforgettable scene of wrath and violence, Jesus, dramatically displayed his ire in the most public and sacred place imaginable. He overturned tables, swept away currency and drove out money brokers and concessioners — livestock and all — from the Temple in Jerusalem.
To know Jesus, then, is to encounter his anger. But what was behind his rage? Why did he become so furious, so often, and with so many? To understand Jesus’ anger, it helps to distinguish it from our own ranting and raging. When we act out of anger, it’s almost always a case of aroused self-seeking and it can easily become vengeful, destructive and out of control. While the scriptures recognize that feeling angry is a common human emotion, they condemn our acting out in anger almost without exception. As the Bible sees it, when we get angry, evil crouches at the door. Jesus’ anger was different from ours, in the same way that our raging differs from the wrath of God. In fact, that is precisely what Jesus reveals and models every time he becomes angry in the Gospels — the wrath of God.
Not many of us are comfortable with the notion of a wrathful God. That’s understandable; there is hardly a biblical theme that has been more profoundly misunderstood or more cruelly misused than this one. Priests, preachers and teachers have hurt so many people because they’ve taken a bogus understanding of God’s wrath and used it as a hammer to intimidate, manipulate and dominate people, to bash their hearts with guilt and smother their souls with fear. And because of that long and terrible history, many preachers won’t touch this topic of an angry God with a ten-foot pole. That overreaction is also regrettable, because God’s wrath is a major biblical theme, (I stopped counting after documenting 300 scriptural citations), and if we don’t help people understand it and understand how and why Jesus used it, we leave the field to the uninformed, the manipulators and the abusers of the human spirit who get God’s wrath all wrong.
Exactly what is this wrath of God that Jesus expresses throughout his ministry? The simplest and best answer is something you may not have heard before, or don’t hear often enough: God’s wrath is the hidden face of God’s love. Never when God is angry in the Bible is God’s wrath a capricious, vengeful, unforgiving anger. Always it is the impassioned exasperation of a scorned Lover. God’s anger is a vivid reminder of how much and how deeply God cares about us, even when we don’t give a fig about God.
What if you did everything you could — everything — for someone you loved very deeply and still they refused your love? Wouldn’t you, in your anguish, let them know how you felt with all the passion your heart could muster? You’d want them to understand just how much you care about what’s happening to them and how dedicated you are to helping them return to a place where they can thrive once again. That’s how it is with God: it is always God’s wounded heart that awakens God’s loving wrath. Harsh and chastening as it might sometimes seem, God’s anger is a passionate reminder that love must be a two-way street and that God loves us too much to stand idly by while we go about our self-centered business taking God’s love for granted.
God’s anger is also a heartfelt outcry against the one thing that God, above all else, must oppose: taking holy things and using them for unholy purposes. That’s what’s at issue every time Jesus displays a holy anger in the Gospels. Whether it was the Pharisees’ using their sacred position to teach self-serving lessons or it was Jesus’ followers who received God’s favor but refused to trust God’s promises, whatever it was that made Jesus angry, it was always because sacred gifts were being turned into sullied goods. Perhaps that’s why all four Gospels depict Jesus wielding a whip, overturning tables and, by his actions, seeming to cry out, “How could you take this holy Temple, the great sign of the Father’s love for us and turn it into a mercantile operation that fleeces the people and satisfies your greed? How could you? When will you stop taking God’s sacred gifts for granted and using them for your own selfish purposes?
It’s not difficult to see how directly this message applies to clergy when they misuse their holy office for selfish purposes, whether it’s through sexual misconduct or by twisting the biblical notion of God’s wrath to control people’s lives instead of setting us free to return to a God who longs to forgive us. But what about those of us who aren’t ordained to sacred office or do not hold a public trust? How might all this apply to us? Is there a table or two that ought to be overturned in our lives, as well? Is there something that needs to be driven out and swept away from our lives, too?
I think that sometimes just the very way we think of our lives must make our Lord feel like a spurned and exasperated lover. The problem is that we consider our lives to be just that, our lives, our lives to do with as we please. But our lives are not ours, at least not ours alone. If we truly believe in God as the Author and Creator of all things, of all life, and, therefore, of our lives, then that means that our lives themselves, God’s gift to us, must be holy things. We have all been entrusted with sacred things and our loving God has a personal stake in what we do with them.
Is that how we normally think of the life we lead — as something holy, something God has entrusted to us and is deeply passionate about? Not if you’re anything like me. I pretty much take my life for granted, as something that begins and ends with me. I undervalue my life as God’s gift and overvalue it as my show, my operation to conduct however I please. I misuse a sacred thing for a selfish end. How my “business as usual“ attitude must exasperate my Lord! I can see him wanting to overturn that selfish view I have of my life. I can hear the love in his anger saying to me, “Dear one, your life is holy and it doesn’t belong to you completely. You’re not alone in all this; move over, make room for me! I’m deeply invested in you and in what you do with my gift. For goodness sake, don’t turn the precious gift of your life into a selfish enterprise. Please, please, stop taking me for granted.”
Edward R. Dufresne © 2015