Does God’s Anger Explain His Love?

Good & Angry is a book with a bright red cover, written by Professor and Biblical counselor David Powlison. In chapter 10, Powlison makes the startling statement: “You can’t understand God’s love if you don’t understand his anger.” God’s anger and his love are two different but complementary expressions of his goodness. It is precisely because God loves so deeply that he has to be angry at anything that harms the ones he loves.

In the chapter, Powlison spells out four ways in which God expresses his love for his children through his anger:

  1. “In love, the anger that your sin deserves fell on Jesus, not on you.”
  2. “In love, God’s anger works to disarm the power of your sin.”
  3. “God’s anger will deliver you from the pain of other people’s sins.”
  4. “God’s anger serves as a warning and check to protect us from returning to a lifestyle of sin.”

For the Christian, these four aspects of God’s anger and love serve to comfort different aspects of our human struggle. In our fearfulness or self-condemnation, we can remember that Jesus took God’s anger against our sin. In our discouragement and weakness, we can remember that God’s anger works within us against what is wrong with us. In our feeling overwhelmed by aloneness or the unkindness of others toward us, we can remember that God’s anger will one day destroy every cause of pain and sorrow, and he will defend us. In our despair and temptation, we can remember that God’s anger will discipline the ones he loves, including us, so that we might share in his holiness.

In this season of my life, I especially resonate with this reality that in my discouragement over my weakness and regular failure to love my daughter rightly, God’s anger is working to right what is wrong within me. He is not angry with me or disappointed in me, but his anger is aimed at breaking the sin that still clings so closely to me and that keeps me from experiencing the fullness of life in him. To have a God who merely “accepts me as I am” would not be comforting–it would eventually lead to despair–but to have a God whose deep love for me is committed to making me holy, that is truly a comfort, even in the uncomfortableness of wrestling with my habitual sin. God’s anger that works to rid me of my sin explains his love as something far deeper than niceness or tolerance. The love of God expressed in his anger is a holy love…and a love that gives all to make the beloved holy also.

Powlison concludes: “God’s wrath is your hope. God’s wrath is my hope… Wrath is our hope because love masters anger. God’s loving anger resolves the entire problem of evil in a way that brings him inexpressible glory and brings us inexpressible blessing. The God who is love justly condemns evil, severs the power of remnant evil, brings relief from suffering, and protects us from ourselves.”  [pg. 121]

May you–and may I–experience the hope that comes through the loving anger of our righteous and good God.

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Is Discipleship Different than Psychotherapy?

In his paradigm-shifting book called Connecting, Christian psychotherapist Dr. Larry Crabb comes to the conclusion that “we have made a terrible mistake.” What is that mistake? He writes: “For most of the twentieth century, we have wrongly defined soul wounds as psychological disorder and delegated their treatment to trained specialists.”

From that mistaken definition and delegation, Crabb identifies three significant implications for the church. One of those implications especially catches my eye because it has to do with discipleship:

The work of discipling has been wrongly defined as less than and different from psychotherapy and counseling. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe discipleship, defined properly as caring for the soul, is the reality, and psychotherapy is the imitation. Perhaps husbands and wives should be discipling each other; perhaps parents should be discipling their children, and friends should be discipling their friends. Maybe they can, and maybe discipling (or shepherding) was designed to do what we think only therapists should tackle.    [pg. 201]

I’m not sure that I would define discipleship solely as “caring for the soul” (though soul-care may be a part of discipleship), but even with a more robust definition (such as this one from discipleship.org: “helping people to trust and follow Jesus”) I do agree that a shift in understanding is needed. We tend to think of discipleship only in academic terms of teaching Biblical truths to a new Christian, but miss the vital aspect of walking alongside one another to help each other trust and follow Jesus in all of life. And maybe, as Dr. Crabb is suggesting, that kind of connecting with one another not only applies in something “spiritual” like learning to pray, but also in something “psychological” like addictions or narcissism or anxiety.

This is not a simplistic solution that promises a cure-all by just throwing Bible verses at a person, but it recognizes that what is actually helpful in therapy is often simply the opportunity to share deeply and be understood and loved in the midst of great struggle. And that mercy is something that Christians are uniquely equipped to offer to one another because that is what we ourselves have received from Christ. Trained therapists may be able to offer a certain level of grace and love to a needy person, but God demonstrates His astounding love to us by extending an even greater love and mercy through Christ, and doing so “while we were yet sinners” and enemies of God (Romans 5:8). Because that is how God has loved us, we are enabled to “encourage one another every day…so that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

Thanks for Noticing!

Melancholy, gloomy Eeyore (of the Winnie the Pooh stories) has a line I use quite often, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes with a bit of my own pessimism and cynicism: “Thanks for noticing!” Throughout my life, I have often felt unnoticed and unappreciated (perhaps largely due to my ISFJ personality, which is described as “the hard-working unsung hero who gets the background jobs done”), but now that I am the parent of a child with special needs, I feel that “invisibleness” and “aloneness” even more keenly.

My wife and I just returned from a week at Mt Hermon Family Camp, together with our younger two children (one of whom is our daughter with special needs). Though the staff of the conference center do a wonderful job of accommodating and caring for children with special needs, the reality is that our child’s limitations become our limitations that keep us from experiencing camp in the same way as families without special needs. And though we were surrounded by wonderful friends and families who love God and love us, we can still feel terribly alone because everyone is so busy doing all the things they can do that they don’t notice the few on the sidelines who would love to enter in but can’t.

Thus I was deeply touched and tremendously grateful for a little girl named Sophia, who throughout the week of camp, showed genuine interest in getting to know our Anah. Sophia’s kindness to my daughter was an even greater kindness to me, though I’m sure she had no idea how much it ministered to me. At mealtimes Sophia’s smiling face would appear, just to say hi to Anah, and she would linger long enough for Anah to get a slow, stilted reply out. One mealtime, as we sat at the table alone, Sophia even asked if she could join us, and we got to know her a bit over lunch. Another afternoon, after all the kids who competed in the 3-on-3 basketball tournament had cleared out and Anah was granny-shooting a beat-up volleyball on the hoop that the gracious staff person had lowered for her, guess who showed up? The few other people in the gym hadn’t bothered to say hi at all, but when Sophia arrived she came right over and cheered for Anah’s uncoordinated attempts to get the ball in the hoop.

On our last full day of camp, my son wanted to go on the canoes and then swim in the pool with his new friend, and at the last minute I decided to bring Anah along, knowing that she loves the water, but also knowing that she would hate the hike down to the pool and back. Well, it just so happened that my son’s new friend (and his dad) go to the same church as Sophia and her family, and they decided to come along too, so it ended up to be three dads and five kids. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a girl like Sophia would have a dad who is also patient and kind, but no one complained or even commented about Anah’s painstaking slowness down the steep trail, and for one time during the week, I didn’t feel so alone.

So thank you, Sophia–thanks for noticing a little girl (and her dad) who would have otherwise been very alone in a place that is meant for relationships and fun. I know you weren’t trying to do anything heroic or special, but that is what made your genuine kindness so wonderful. May God bear much more fruit from your compassionate heart as you love others like Jesus does!

Waterfalls & Rotten Logs

From way back in my childhood, God has often wooed me to Himself through the stillness of the forest and the beauty of mountain streams and waterfalls. One of my first experiences of the discipline of solitude–before I knew what spiritual disciplines were or that solitude was one of them–was as a youth serving at Trout Creek Bible Camp in Oregon. On the days when the campers went home, I would hike through the woods to my favorite spot by the creek, where there was a small waterfall and I could be alone to think and rest. In all the years since those times by the creek, I have always loved being alone with God in the woods and along streams–that is where I feel closest to Him.

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So here at another camp–Mt. Hermon Conference Center in the mountains around Santa Cruz, California–I took a walk alone in the woods today and discovered a little waterfall I had never seen before. Amidst the beauty of the sun filtering through the giant redwoods around me, surrounded by the pleasant cadence of the falling water, and breathing deeply in the few minutes of time alone, I again felt the gentle wooing of God and relaxed in His presence and love.

In remembering my times alone with God next to the waterfall at Trout Creek, I recalled seeing something there that made a lasting impression in my mind. There was an old tree that had fallen across the creek many years prior, but as that dead log decayed, there were all kinds of new plants–including a new young tree–growing out of the fertile soil of the damp, decaying wood. As a youth by that creek so long ago, God used that image of life springing forth from death to illustrate the Gospel reality of my life coming out of Christ’s death.

So here at Mt Hermon, as I sat and enjoyed the stillness and beauty, I realized there was brokenness and deadness here too: a section of the fencing was broken down next to where I sat, there were thorns intertwined with the plants growing by the stream, and there were dead limbs and leaves in some of the trees. Yet even in the midst of such evidences of the curse of sin and death, the beauty and life of God’s redemption and creation far surpass it.

In this season of life for me–especially in marriage and parenting–God is allowing me to see much of my own brokenness and sin, and there is much that feels like it is dying. At this point, while I do not yet see the life and redemption and beauty that God is bringing out of that death and loss, I trust that He is at work and that He is indeed bringing beauty out of ashes and gladness out of mourning (Isaiah 61:3), because that is who He is.