Coherence at the Core – Some Thoughts on “Love” and “Wrath”

Sunday evenings can sometimes be a difficult time for me to sleep.  My head’s often spinning and processing after an evening at Bloom, and so after the fam crashes, dad is often up.

This past Sunday night, I wound up on Facebook, and a friend of mine posted this already much-critiqued video by Mark Driscoll –

I commented that that was easily the most painful 7 minutes of preaching I’d ever seen; not simply because it was a clearly disorganized rant but because of the atrocious lack of biblical and theological reasoning – a lack, I should add, that resulted in a deeply warped, incoherent, and ultimately depraved view of God (I’ll get to that in a minute).

Then I noticed in the comments thread, someone had posted this video from David Platt –

I then commented that the Platt video was worse.  I couldn’t stomach it.  (Admittedly, I had only watched half of it, and when I went back later and watched the rest, I thought it was better than the Driscoll video, but not by a lot.)  So yesterday I put together this little comment on Facebook, which drew some comments (mostly positive) and also raised some questions about what I was reacting to:

Positing “love” and “wrath” as equal and therefore competing “attributes” in God is just downright bad theology. There is either a basic unity at the core of God’s character, or God is a multiple-personality maniac, worthy perhaps of fear but in no conceivable sense reverence and honor, much less worship and adoration.

The immense tragedy that there are many who preach this is only matched and then finally outpaced by the still greater tragedy that countless numbers of goodhearted people feel compelled (by these preachers and teachers) to believe in such a god, and then have to twist and contort their souls to match this hideously contorted and hopelessly confused deity.

That’s a harsh statement to make, but I mean it.  The sad thing is that preaching (and writing, and teaching) like this is really not exceptional.  Lots of people think and believe like this, which I think is sad and unnecessary.  Let me unpack my Facebook statement above in the hopes of showing that the Bible is a better book than many make it out to be, and even more that God is a better God than many make him out to be:

1) When it comes to Scripture, we must see the parts in the whole.  When Driscoll and Platt airlift Psalms like Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:4-5 out of context to argue simpliciter that God “hates” even “abhors” not just sin but sinners, I think that they’re handling Scripture in a way that’s not just overly simplistic but foolish and reckless.  Surely they know (or perhaps they don’t) that genre matters.  Psalm 5 is clearly belongs in many ways to the imprecatory Psalms, in which the Psalmist, in crying out to God for mercy and deliverance will also lift up his cry for justice–i.e., something like “pay back my enemies what they deserve.”  The Psalmist believes that there is a Justice that governs the universe and that one day the wicked will get what’s coming to them, and that this Justice opposes evil and those who do it, and so he expresses it as “the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”  We’re seeing something of God there that is crucial to understand–namely, that the goodness and righteousness of God, the goodness and righteousness that by the way he intends to flood the world with–will not abide that which is opposed to it.  There is a sense in which God actively resists those who are set against him.  Yes, yes, yes.  There’s a reason why the Psalms have constituted the backbone of Christian piety for centuries–they form our moral and spiritual imagination.  There is an orderliness, a justice, a coherence at the heart of the universe, and that orderliness will one day make itself manifest in space and time.

But to simply airlift those verses as a way of justifying, again, simpliciter, that God “hates” sinners is to fail to read the part in terms of the whole.  If all you had were those verses, you’d be justified in thinking that there is an “out group” over there that God hates, and an “in group” over here that God loves, and that one day God will pummel the former and deliver the latter.  And then we start reading Scripture, and we find throughout the whole sweep of it (let’s just stay with the Old Testament for now) that the picture is a lot more subtle than that.  We find that there is a God who made the world, and human beings, and called it (and them) “good.”  Who stamped his image on them, endowing them with dignity and splendor far beyond their deserving or even reckoning.  Who when they rebelled and defected from his purposes put a plan in place (out of the superabundance of his commitment to them) to rescue them from their own devices.  Who did this by calling a people (Abraham and family) to bring his world-renewing blessing to them, so that all nations might believe and obey him, despite the fact that Israel, which so often and so easily called down judgment on her enemies, would turn out to be part of the problem (uh-oh).  He did this out of his hesedhis unfailing love, not just for Israel, but for Egypt and Babylon and every bloodthirsty and deceitful image-bearer running around on this crazy planet.  Read the Prophets–guys like Isaiah and Jeremiah perceived at the edges of their imagination that when YHWH their God stood up with his reign, that Israel and her enemies together would fall down at his feet in worship.

If the picture of God were as simple as preachers like these made it out to be, none–read me, none–of the actual energy of the biblical narrative would be there at all.  It would be a simple equation: Sin = defection = hatred = wipe them out.  There is more to the story than Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:4-5.  Responsible preachers will recognize and interpret accordingly.  Which leads me to my second critique.

2) We must insist on a Christological reading of Scripture.  This flows directly out of point 1.  “No one has ever seen God” John declares, “but God the One and Only, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (John 1).  Or later in John, one of the most brilliant interactions in all of Scripture:

“I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him–in fact, you have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus answered, “Have I been with you so great a time and you do not know me, Philip?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14)

Christians believe that Jesus is where the narrative of Scripture was heading all along.  That everything that happened before Christ was a shadow–revealing God, yes, but dimly, provisionally, awaiting further elucidation.  In Christ, God gets specific.  We come to the “hard core” of who God is and what he’s like.  And what is God like, revealed in Jesus?  He loves “sinners”, dines with them, and makes himself comfortable with them.  He heals the lame and the disfigured, extends mercy to the oppressors of Israel, and calls everyone within earshot of his voice into the range of his Father’s redeeming love.  Jew and Gentile, Israel and Rome… it matters not to him – the whole world is the focus of his work, for the whole world has been the focus of his Father’s work from the beginning.

And when despite his relentless kindness we flung him up on a cross, rather than (like the Psalmist) calling down judgment, he called out “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  This is what God is like – reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  He will take the judgment that was hanging over the head of the world upon himself, in order to deliver wayward humanity safely over to God.

Does he hate evil?  Of course.  Does he hate what we do to mar and deface his good world?  Of course.  Is he set against us when we so mar and deface?  Of course… but his being “set against” is only one level of the story.  He is “God against” us in our rebellion first and foremost because he is Immanuel, “God with us” and “God for us” in creation and redemption.

It will not simply do to take Psalm 5:5 and do a word study and say, “But see here, God hates sinners!”  We have to see that as one moment in the story–a story that culminates in God the Son taking on human flesh and being torn asunder to lift the curse from us.  The love that hung the sun and the stars, that wove us together in our mothers’ wombs, spilled holy blood to save us.  “For God so LOVED the world that he gave…” (John 3:16).

Admittedly, Platt does a better job of this than Driscoll, but still I think his language leaves something to be desired.  And it’s this:

3) We must find ways to articulate God’s “love” and “wrath” that do justice to the radical unity of intent that must lie at the core of God’s being if God is to be morally trustworthy.  This goes directly to the point that I was making in the Facebook comment – namely, that we have this habit in Christianity of setting out “love” and “wrath” or “merciful” and “holy” as though they were in opposition to each other, as though there was some kind of eternal tug-of-war in the heart of God.  Driscoll calls them “attributes” (wrongly saying that the Bible talks about God “in terms of attributes”, when it uses no such language), and says,

God is love, sure, but love is not God and God is not only love… when the Bible speaks of God it speaks of him in terms of attributes: he is loving and just, he is merciful and holy, he is forgiving and righteous, and what people like to do is take one of God’s attributes and elevate it above the rest and ignore the totality of what the Bible says about God.

But surely “ignoring the totality of what the Bible says about God” is exactly what Driscoll is doing.  One does not simply do theology by reading bits of text that describe God and then setting them next to each other, calling them “attributes” and then treating them as peers.  What this does (whether Driscoll intends it or not) is it gives the impression that something called “love” is one facet of what God is and something called “wrath” is yet another.  That God is a composite being comprised of a whole bunch of free-standing, independently acting, and therefore often competing “attributes.”

If this confusion of mind weren’t bad enough, what’s worse is that in Christianity, this is sometimes lauded as a sort of beautiful, holy “mystery.”  I’m all for mystery.  Anyone who’s listened to my preaching knows that.  But we should not cry “mystery” simply because we haven’t done the hard work of thinking.  The sort of god depicted by preachers who set out “attributes” in competition with each other is one who is never fully at rest within himself in terms of his intent or attitude of the heart towards humanity.  At best he is deeply conflicted.  At worst he is a multiple personality maniac with unlimited power.

Such a being, I contend, is worthy of fear, but not reverence and honor, much less worship and adoration.  He cannot be the God who dwells in the “beauty of holiness” that the Psalmist describes, the God who evokes awe and wonder and delight, whose love is better than life itself.  This god is a tormented monster.  He cannot and should not be trusted.

I understand that that is harsh language, but please – can it be otherwise?  If a woman came to me with her three children and described how she lived with a man who was divided at the center of his being on how he felt about the four of them, sometimes lavishing love and adoration on them and sometimes “abhorring” them, I’d counsel her to leave his ass high and dry without giving it a second thought.  I’d further be looking for evidence of his abuse and I’d try to find a way to involve the authorities.  He cannot and should not be trusted, and should probably be restrained.

To give the benefit of the doubt, it’s likely that Driscoll and Platt and others like them don’t necessarily intend to paint a picture of God as a moral monster, but from where I stand, I don’t know how one can see that god as otherwise.  When John declares that “God is love”, he doesn’t feel the need to give us a caveat–“yes, yes, yes, but you should also understand that God is righteous wrath too!”  He simply says it.  And he’s a sophisticated enough theologian (as the rest of the Bible writers are) to understand that God’s righteous wrath emerges out of a basic coherence of character and intent that lies at the core of his being: the Good God of Scripture is love, and anything in God’s world that doesn’t line up with his Good Love he will one day exorcise from his Good World–and if we human beings choose to cling with all our might to the sin, evil, and rebellion we’ve been working, then (this is my reading of Scripture) we’ll be exorcised too.  That’s wrath.  Emerging out of love.  Love is what he is and does.  Wrath does not “trump” love.  Neither does love trump wrath.  There is no competition.  Wrath is what happens when love pursues the beloved into the outer darkness to drive the demon of depravity out of her and bring her back.

This God is love.  He is good.  His love and goodness are often severe, but goodness and love they are no less.  And he can be trusted.  Which leads me to the last thing.

4) We must recognize that we will become like what we worship, so we’d better make sure we’re not worshiping something less than the Good God revealed in Christ Jesus.  The prohibitions against idolatry are ultimately extremely pragmatic.  Our worship becomes the form of our humanness in the world.

Worship a fertility goddess… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a belligerent tribal deity who favors one people over another… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a god that demands child sacrifice… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a deity that hates gay people and Muslims… and you can guess what will happen

Worship a deity that at bottom can’t decide whether he loves or hates you… and well, again, you can guess what will happen…

The Psalmist puts it perfectly when he says (Psalm 115):

2 Why do the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
4 But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
6 They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
7 They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

Hence the 1st commandment – “You shall have no other gods before me”, and the 2nd – “You shall not make any graven images…” To worship something less than the God of Scripture is to ultimately unravel our humanness.

My own assessment is that part of the reason that many Christians struggle so mightily with feelings of worthlessness, confusion of soul, distance from God, etc etc, is because they’ve been given the morally and spiritually confusing god I’ve described above.  And the reason they have a hard time loving their neighbors as themselves (say nothing of their enemies) is because (a) there is a deep contempt for themselves lying at the core of their being, a contempt that emerges from a sense that perhaps God has contempt for them, which destroys the foundation of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and (b) there is some ambivalence in them as to whether or not GOD actually loves their neighbors (say nothing of their enemies).  If God hates gays and Muslims, maybe I should too.

Belief, spirituality, life… it’s all an ecosystem.  Pull one bit of the ecosystem out of balance, and it will have a catalytic effect on the rest.  Kill a bird population on one side of the Amazon, and watch monkeys start dying on the other side.  Split the personality of God into two, paint a picture of him in which he cannot ultimately be trusted, and watch darkness start seeping in elsewhere.  That creeping, gnawing sense that God is displeased with you “at your core” (as Platt says), that “fearfully and wonderfully made” doesn’t apply to you, that your life is as bad as it is because that’s what you deserve (being as worthless a person as you are)… that global tragedies and pandemics are specific judgment on specific people groups for sin… that certain people are more heinous sinners than others and thus worthy of our abhorrence… watch your humanness begin to unravel, and watch the radioactive waste of that fallout begin to touch everything around you…

It will happen, and if it doesn’t, it’s because there is a Voice at your core that restrains the image of the multiple-personality god from having full effect.  When you listen to that Voice… the voice of the One who keeps saying, “I am love… I have made you in love, and for love, and given myself to you and for you in love, and as hard as you try to deny it and cover it up and run from it… as often as you hurl your insults and threats at me… deeper than your rebellion, greater and more firm than your failure… I’ll never stop whispering my love at you… just, please, respond… I can be trusted…”

…then the most beautiful and mysterious and wonderful things start happening.  Life seems alive, neighbors are seen as friends, enemies are loved and longed for as God does… a new humility and wonder and joy steals in.

And how could it not?  Worship the joyful God… the superabundant God of infinitely completed love, who is all goodness and light, and in whom there is no shadow of turning, no darkness at all…

…and watch what you become.

Theology matters.

Grace and peace,

Andrew

32 thoughts on “Coherence at the Core – Some Thoughts on “Love” and “Wrath”

      • Yah, it’s a really amazing article. It reminds me of how many people really do suffer from a confusion about God’s nature due to simply taking a man’s word for it, a man who happens to stand on a stage and talk at them every Sunday. I’ve come to realize just how little that man often spends with God, yet we look to him to speak for God. I’ve found much comfort these days in reading from the Church fathers and saints who spent their lives truly living the life. Their experience and wisdom makes the folks you describe in the article look like children dressing up in their dads army outfits and pretending to go to war, barely able to walk in their dad’s oversized shoes. It’s not that these men are evil, they’re just, all too often, totally inexperienced in the life of God.

  1. You are entering a whole new level of communication Andrew…brilliant! I think it is also fair to recall some of the historical context of the Psalms…a songbook of a tribe of people (Israel) with whom the better part of humanity was dead set against. Who were following their god and clutching dearly to His promises of getting the out of slavery and back onto the top side of human existence…and the songs they wrote and the songs they sang to encourage their faith when things didn’t happen the way they thought it should, as well as to remember their story when they were delivered and the process to get to that point. As well as one of their leaders who was dealing with the angst of his own sin and recovery from it.

  2. Yes! This is such a beautiful description of the God I love. A God who desperately loves the world and the people in it and will stop at nothing to see it and them made whole! May we lift him up for all to see. Thank you Andrew.

  3. I agree that God is love and that the view of wrath as a equal attribute is flawed, however, I do not agree in demonizing these two pastors and those like them. They are men after God’s heart and for the most part lead God’s children well. They preach the gospel and people are being changed. To say they do not believe in the real God seems extreme and false to me. We are on the same team.

    • Hey Cody – thanks for commenting. I should have been clearer: when I used lowercase ‘g’ to talk about the god I think those videos depict, I was doing it because I think when you take what they’re saying (if in fact they mean it as such) to its logical conclusion, you’re left with a different god. That’s my own rhetorical play to help point out some bad/fuzzy theology. I’m fairly confident we’re on the same team, worshiping Christ the Lord. Peace.

  4. Hey Andrew,
    Good thoughts, a very helpful post. I think your second point is perhaps the most powerful for me. If Jesus is truly the image of the unseen God (Col 1:15) then we should know God’s disposition towards [insert anything or anyone] by watching how Jesus acts towards it/him. It was (and still is) the failure of the Pharisees to integrate what they knew of God’s disposition towards sin and sinners into what they saw in Jesus. They watched him eat with unclean sinners and simply could not reconcile that with their image of God.

    I confess that I still have a hard time finding a coherent and integrated understanding of God’s wrathful nature as revealed in the OT with what I see in Jesus, but as you’ve stated well, I’m unwilling to settle for merely pitting the attributes of love and wrath against one another. We must contend for coherence in our view of God even if it means holding on to paradox. For it is one of the profound paradoxes of Scripture that God’s settled disposition of wrath towards sinners leads to the cross where his settled disposition of love for sinners is fully expressed. Both are true and present on Calvary.

    This is greater than my mind or heart can comprehend, and I’m led to the sentiment of Paul in Romans 11:
    33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
    34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
    35 “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
    36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

  5. Hey Andrew… thanks for this post. It’s timely for me… I’m one of the pastors over at Platt Park Church and I’m preaching Sunday on Hosea and was thinking through how to weave these themes of judgment and love together. Your thoughts here ring of truth and have the scent of eternity. All the best!

  6. I think it’s sad. Driscoll states that he carries a “heavy weight to lie,” given the size of his church, their amount of money, and their influence. He comes to this conclusion by appealing to the standards that are set by US and western culture, rather than the Biblical perspective, regarding organization and financial success. He lets the culture that he is in define power and influence, and it creates anxiety within him. Then he reacts. How? By preaching a message of hate. The question I ask is: What would be a healthy reaction to the perceived ‘weight’ that he describes? Would it be to fear that I would lie to people?
    If I am aware of my tendency to not be truthful, to hide, and to deceive, then I may go about life with a subtle anxiety that I may be found out for what I believe am: a liar. It is when we are pressed that the truth of who we really are comes to the surface. The sad part is that Mark may be afraid of lying because at some point he has labeled himself a liar. And a liar usually has something to hide. So he focuses on two things: Sin and lies.
    Here’s why this is so sad to me. The Church is raising up people who are deeply insecure in who they are and their position in Christ, and we are preaching out of our own hurt and pain, our secrecy and our fear, rather than out of the newness of who we really are as redeemed and loved. Andrew, I love what you’re saying because it’s a plea to present our Creator to this world as he is presented in scripture. If we’re not healed, if we are not free, then we may present a false view of God that is largely informed by our own hurt and pain, or even worse, a view of God that allows us to transfer our self-hatred onto others.
    Keep preaching it, brother. And keep looking to God to define you and your ministry.

    • David, Bingo! Listening to Driscoll scold those whom God supposedly hates reveals Driscoll’s own frustration with certain people in his life. It’s clear for anyone who can read other people’s emotional intelligence levels that he wants to tell certain people: “I hate you,” but can’t for whatever reason. Therefore he has God do his dirty work instead. I think probably everyone has been guilty of using God like this in the past, but Driscoll’s display is unique in its tenor.

  7. Greetings from across the pond! Really appreciate your thoughts on this, very important to understand and savour the fullness of God.I did wonder though, are you saying that any theology that attempts to describe God in terms of attributes necessarily sets them in opposition? Because that would extend the justified critique of Driscolls misuse to quite a well established theological tradition, which doesn’t seem as justified. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re aiming for, but there might be a potential for misunderstanding there. Grace and peace from Scotland,
    Kiran

    • Hi Kiran!

      Are you the guy I met at Bloom some weeks ago?

      To answer your question about “attribute” theology – no, not necessarily. My point #3 was that we need to make sure that however we articulate God, we do so in ways that do justice to the radical unity of (loving) intent that must lie at the core of who God is. If you can do that within the linguistic framework of attribute theology, I’m all for it. If you can’t, then find a better set of symbols to talk about it 🙂

      Grace and peace.

      Andrew

  8. Thanks for the post Andrew. This is helpful on so many levels.
    Can I ask what you meant by “He is “God against” us in our rebellion first and foremost because he is Immanuel”?
    (Specifically, how does ‘Immanuel’ tie in with the idea of God being against us?)
    Thanks!

    • Hey Mark – I think that God is so “for” us… so “for” our being everything we’re supposed to be – full of light and love and holiness, partakers in his infinite brilliance and perfection… that at whatever level our lives defect from that trajectory, he “opposes” us and is “against” us… but that is because, like I said, he is first “with” us and “for” us in terms of his deep purposes for us… does that make sense? Not unlike an artist being “against” her work when it falls short of her ideals first and foremost because she is “for” the perfection she longs for out of it.

  9. “Wrath is what happens when love pursues the beloved into the outer darkness to drive the demon of depravity out of her and bring her back.”

    I keep coming back to the beauty and profound imagery of this. Exposing our lewdness before our lovers. Bringing us back. Tenderness. Mmm so good.

  10. Thank you for your post. I happen to be a fan of David Platt. At the same time, you make a very good point, and one with which I agree.

    We certainly fall off the theological horse if we talk about God’s hatred for sin but fail to articulate the holy, loving reason for it. “I, the Lord, am a jealous God”, not “I, the Lord, am a vengeful God” (although vengeance does belong to Him).

    On the other hand, as Bob Stamps (the chaplain at ORU when I was there back in the day) used to say, we don’t follow “an icky-sweet Jesus”. The same disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast in the gospel of John fell at Jesus’ feet as dead in the book of the Revelation.

    Perhaps that notable theologian, Mr. Beaver. should weigh in here: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? He isn’t safe, but He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

  11. you have said true things beautifully in many ways, but I think your choice of opposition (rather than clarification or something else perhaps) against these men is very possibly mistaken. You may want to listen to e.g. Mark Driscoll’s whole sermon, from which the above is excerpted (http://marshill.com/media/luke/jesus-sweats-blood), and perhaps a few more before drawing conclusions. And remembering that, at least by account, many who attend his church are coming from outside the church, and often from communities directly antagonistic to the church, not having heard either law or gospel. (I speak this as one who is not a member of his church, only having watched a bunch of his sermons online and, though his way of speaking is quite different from what I’m used to, found him to be mostly theologically strong and sound, and been blessed by his sermons in the past; and no, I’m not removed from non-church society – hope I didn’t give that impression).
    Peace.

  12. Yes, of course Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost, which is all of humankind. In Matthew 9:11-13, Jesus’ disciples were asked, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In essence, Jesus was saying that everybody is living in sin if they have not surrendered all to Him, and everyone is in need of His healing and His salvation if they want to have eternal life. He didn’t tell the tax collectors and sinners that they were fine the way they were. He didn’t join them in their sin in an attempt to relate. He wasn’t down with how they were living. He boldly declared that they needed His healing and His salvation!

    Yes, the entire world is His focus. The Bible tells us that He doesn’t want any to perish, and all to come to repentance. However, Jesus’ own sobering words seem to indicate that isn’t going to happen. Of course, anyone who goes to Him in genuine repentance, seeking forgiveness, turning and walking away from sin, surrendering one’s allegiance to Him and living in obedience to God the Father will live eternally in Heaven. Yes, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, and those of us who have surrendered our allegiance to Him are His sons and daughters – sisters and brothers of Jesus.

    There are natural consequences to living sinfully because, being holy, God cannot wink at sin. Not all will respond rightly to God’s love, for “few there be that find it (eternal life).”

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