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.

Good News for a Weary Parent

I’m reading a book by Paul Tripp, called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, in preparation for a seminar my wife and I are teaching at the JEMS Mt Hermon Family Camp coming up next week. Reading books on parenting, especially books by people of such wisdom and experience as Paul Tripp or Elyse Fitzpatrick, often tend to produce guilt and discouragement in me, as I see how far my parenting is from the grace-saturated and Gospel-driven parenting that is described. Therefore when these writers (whom I look up to so much) honestly admit their parenting failures, God stirs some hope in me–that He can redeem and bring good out of my own failures as a parent too.

One section of Tripp’s book is especially convicting (or maybe I should put it this way: many sections are quite convicting, but I’m only going to write about this one!), in which he is expounding the principle that as parents we “have no power whatsoever to change [our] child.” He writes:

“God has given you authority for the work of change, but has not granted you the power to make that change happen. But we buy into the delusion of thinking again and again that that power is ours. We think that if we speak just a little bit louder, or stand a little bit closer, or make the threat a little bit scarier, or the punishment a little more severe, then our children will change.” [pg. 61]

Instead of using tactics of fear or reward or shame to try to produce change in our children, “Parenting is about your humble faithfulness in being willing to participate in God’s work of change for the sake of your children.” This is hardest for me in the parenting of my adopted daughter with special needs. My hopes that her capacity for reason and communication and self-care would increase through my parenting have gradually been drying up over the course of the almost five years that she has been in our family. Thus my patience is being replaced by cynicism, my kindness by harsh words, and my gentle shepherding by power and control. I have admitted many times in desperate prayer that I cannot bring change in my daughter, and yet I keep going back to these same old strategies to try to prove that I am actually capable of producing change.

Merely admitting my inability to elicit change in the heart of my daughter is not good news. But what IS good news is that God can bring change. He may not bring the kind of change I am longing for, and He may bring it on a different timetable than what I would prefer, but He can indeed bring change–that is within His ability. Therefore as Tripp sums it up:

“Good parenting lives at the intersection of a humble admission of personal powerlessness and a confident rest in the power and grace of God… God is with you. He wants what is best for you and your children, and no one but he has the power to produce it. He has not placed the burden of change on your shoulders because he would not require you to do what you cannot do. God has simply called you as a parent to be a humble and faithful tool of change in the lives of your children. And for that there is moment by moment by moment grace.” [pg. 70]

 

Don’t Act like an Animal

I just completed Day 2 of an 11-day intensive course at Talbot on the spirituality of Jonathan Edwards, and my mind is spinning. It is wonderful to be taught by a scholar who has made the study of Edwards his life’s work and joy (Dr. Kyle Strobel), but at the same time it is quite overwhelming because the level of his thinking and understanding is so far beyond my own.

One of Edwards’ sermons that we are reading for the course is titled The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth. Though this sermon was delivered in 1739, the content of it is immensely applicable and practical to us today. Here are a few quotes that I found especially insightful and challenging.

Edwards main point is: “Every Christian should make a business of endeavoring to grow in knowledge in divinity.” He describes divinity as “all that we need know…concerning God and Jesus Christ, concerning our duty to God, and our happiness in God.” As a pastor myself, I appreciate Edwards complaint that this business “is commonly thought to be [the] work [of ministers]…and most seem to think that it may be left to them, as what belongeth not to others.” But along with the author of Hebrews, Edwards laments: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12) Every Christian needs to make growth in knowledge of God a primary business, in order to grow toward maturity in Christ.

One of Edwards’ arguments is that one of the capacities that distinguish people from animals is our faculty of understanding and reason. “Therefore it must be a great part of man’s principal business, to improve his understanding by acquiring knowledge.” And not just any knowledge, but primarily “divine knowledge… God gave man the faculty of understanding, chiefly, that he might understand divine things.”

It follows, then, “that the knowledge of [these divine things] will richly pay for all the pains and labor of an earnest seeking of it. If there were a great treasure of gold and pearls hid in the earth but should accidentally be found, and should be opened among us with such circumstances that all might have as much as they could gather of it; would not every one think it worth his while to make a business of gathering it while it should last? But that treasure of divine knowledge, which is contained in the Scriptures, and is provided for everyone to gather to himself as much of it as he can, is a far more rich treasure than any one of gold and pearls. How busy are all sorts of men, all over the world, in getting riches? But this knowledge is a far better kind of riches, than that after which they so diligently and laboriously pursue.”

So don’t act like a brute beast and make it your chief ambition to pursue the things that will not last, but exercise that uniquely human capacity for increasing in the knowledge of God. “If God hath made it the business of some to be teachers, it will follow, that he hath made it the business of others to be learners… God hath never made it the duty of some to take pains to teach those who are not obliged to take pains to learn. He hath not commanded ministers to spend themselves, in order to impart knowledge to those who are not obliged to apply themselves to receive it.” Amen to that!! “The name by which Christians are commonly called in the New Testament is disciples, the signification of which word is scholars or learners. All Christians are put into the school of Christ, where their business is to learn, or receive knowledge from Christ, their common master and teacher, and from those…appointed by him to instruct in his name.”

Long-Suffering

I am not a patient man.

People who know me might say that I am pretty easygoing. My personality assessment would define me as one who is not too easily ruffled. Compared with others, perhaps I tend toward patience in many of my interactions. And for the most part, that is true.

But held up against the Bible’s description of patience, and measured against my Savior’s example of long-suffering, I realize how far from patient I truly am.

I’ve been reading a compilation of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons on I Corinthians 13 (the book is titled Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love), and what Edwards says about verse 4 of that “love chapter” of the Bible is very sobering and convicting to me. In modern English we do not use the term “long-suffering,” but that is what the word “patient” in I Corinthians 13:4 means. Edwards says that this patient quality of love is called long-suffering, or suffering long, for this reason:

Because we ought meekly to bear not only a small injury, but also a great deal of injurious treatment from others. We should continue in quiet frame without ceasing still to love our neighbor, not only when he injures us a little but also when he injures us much, when the injuries which he does are great. And we should not only thus bear a few injuries but a great many, and though our neighbor continues his injurious treatment to us a long time…. The meaning is not that we should bear injuries indeed a long time, but may lawfully cease to bear them at last; but the meaning is that we should meekly bear injuries though they are long continued, that we should not only bear it when men injure us a little while and then soon repent of it, but we should meekly bear it though they continue in their injuriousness a long time, yea, let it be ever so long.  [pg 100]

If that is not convicting enough, Edwards further says that the manner in which we meekly bear injurious treatment for a long time is not with a “bitter exasperated countenance” nor with “rash and hasty expression” but with “peaceableness and calmness” and grace. If needed, a person…

…may reprove his neighbor; but if he does, it will be with politeness and without bitterness, which still shows the design to be only to exasperate. It may be with strength of reason and argument and serious expostulation, but without angry reflections or contemptuous language. He may show a dislike of what is done, but it will not be with an appearance of high resentment; but as a man would reprove another that has fallen into sin against God, rather than against him; and as lamenting his calamity more than resenting his injury, and as seeking his good rather than his hurt; more to deliver him from the calamity into which he has fallen than to be even with him for the injury he has brought on him.  [pg 98]

Oh that I could truly see and lament the calamity of another’s sin against God as the far greater problem than that person’s injury to me! What would that look like to meekly bear injury against myself without contempt or resentment but truly with sorrow for the calamity that person will face before God because of their sin?

And lest I bemoan the fact that injuries against me seem to happen so often, Edwards cautions that I should not be so surprised.

If we are not disposed meekly to bear injuries, we are not fitted to live in such a world as this, for we can expect no other than to meet with many injuries in this world. We do not live in heaven, or a world of purity, innocence and love. We dwell in a fallen, corrupt, miserable, wicked world; a world that is very much under the reign and dominion of sin…. Men who have their spirits heated and enraged, and rising in bitter resentment when they are injured, or unreasonably dealt with, act as if they thought some strange thing had happened to them. …it is no strange thing at all; it is no other than what is to be expected in such a world…. A wise man does not expect any other and is prepared for it, and composes his spirit to bear it. [pg 106, 107]

I am not a patient man. I complain all too easily about the short suffering that I face. My spirit gets easily ruffled and resentful from others’ injurious treatment toward me. Edwards’ apt application of Scripture pierces my pretense of patience and shows me how desperately I need the Spirit of God to grow this fruit in my heart.

Strategic Selection

Many years ago, I was taught a useful little motto that has stuck with me ever since: Do few things, and do them wellIn other words, it’s better to be truly effective with a few key plans than to try to do everything and end up doing nothing well.

Jesus didn’t teach this motto per se, but His strategy of making disciples operated by this principle. He selected twelve men to be with Him and learn from Him, and He invested the majority of His time in equipping those few to carry on His work after He was gone. And that strategy was so effective that we who follow Jesus today are the direct result of its genius.

Robert Coleman says it this way in his excellent book The Master Plan of Evangelism: “Though [Jesus] did what he could to help the multitudes, he had to devote himself primarily to a few men, rather than the masses, so that the masses could at last be saved. His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow.”

What is perhaps perplexing, though, is that the men Jesus selected–the men on whom hinged the success of His whole strategy–did not at first glance appear to be the best qualified for the job. They had no academic degrees, nor any professional training. None of them belonged to the priesthood. Only a few had perhaps some considerable means, but none would be considered wealthy. Most of them came from the despised section of the country–the region of Galilee. They were impulsive and petty and prejudiced. Not exactly the most promising bunch of world-changers.

Coleman says: “Yet Jesus saw in these simple men the potential of leadership for the Kingdom. They were indeed ‘unlearned and ignorant’ according to the world’s standard (Acts 4:13), but they were teachable. Though often mistaken in their judgments and slow to comprehend spiritual things, they were honest men, willing to confess their need. Such men, pliable in the hands of the Master, could be molded into a new image–Jesus can use anyone who wants to be used.”

The same principle holds true today for we who would follow Jesus in His grand disciple-making mission. “We must decide where we want our ministry to count–in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we have gone. It will be slow, tedious, painful, and probably unnoticed by people at first, but the end result will be glorious, even if we don’t live to see it. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.”

So if you are following Jesus, who are the few that you will strategically select to pour your life into and train up to do the same?

No Instant Discipleship

I love the title of Eugene Peterson’s book on discipleship: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Following Jesus has no simple, quick formulas for success. There may be instant noodles and instant messaging, but there is no such thing as instant discipleship.

Peterson defines biblical disciples as: “…people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.

It is vital that we understand discipleship in this way, as a life-long apprenticeship relationship with Jesus, because we live in a culture and time that values efficiency over the long, slow work of relationship. Big and fast and glamorous almost always wins out over small and slow and mundane, yet following Jesus and making disciples most often occurs in the small, slow, mundane corners of everyday existence.

Peterson’s assessment of how this instant mindset of the world infiltrates our Christian discipleship is very sobering:

We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. 

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Will you–and will I–get squeezed like instant jello into the mold of this world system in which we live, or will we open our hearts to the small, slow process of transformation that comes through a long obedience in the same direction?

Hurry Up & Learn Patience!

I’m all for patience–I just wish it wasn’t such a slow process!

In my family growing up, anger was often present but rarely acknowledged. Outwardly we were a very calm family who believed that all anger was ungodly, but that simply meant that our anger was only expressed in a simmering, passive-aggressive manner. So I’ve never thought of myself as an angry person.

My perceptiogood-and-angryn of myself has been changing over the past four years since our adopted, special-needs daughter joined our family. There have been far more visible expressions of anger coming out of me in these four years than ever before. God is graciously allowing me to see that I am not the patient, calm person that I thought I was.

So when David Powlison’s book, Good and Angry, was recently published, it immediately caught my attention. Powlison calls the good form of anger “the constructive displeasure of mercy,” and he says there are four key aspects in that: patience, forgiveness, charity, and constructive conflict. His description of patience was very insightful to me:

You bear with difficult people and events, not out of indifference, resignation, or cowardice. You hang in there because you are driven by a different purpose. You are willing to work slowly to solve things. Patience is not passivity. It is how to be purposeful and constructive in the face of great difficulties. You are even willing to live constructively for a long time within seeming insoluble evils. By definition, patience means that what’s wrong doesn’t change right away. (pg 78)

That’s part of my struggle in loving my daughter: I know my impatient anger toward her is wrong, but if I think that the only other option is to have no anger, then I just end up in resignation or indifference, which also is wrong. So to see true patience as the Godly balance between those two extremes is helpful—I can still agree that her mindlessness and disobedience is wrong, but at the same time be willing to work slowly over a long period of time to solve that. To be patient with her means agreeing that something is wrong without demanding instant change. When I stop to think about it, I know that some things are changing in my daughter, but it’s just extremely slow. So I know I need to continue to persist in training her (even though the easier thing is to slide into resignation), and yet in the training accept the reality that change is far, far slower than I would like (rather than pushing for immediate change).

The ironic thing is that my daughter has been far more patient with me in my stumbling attempts to love than I have with her in her stumbling attempts to learn.