Some people have a mental image of an angry God. This might be due to preachers like Johnathan Edwards from the 18th-century, or from listening to others who portray God as primarily full of wrath and punishment. This is a tough image of God to live with, and probably makes most of us want to avoid too much contact with Him, lest we make a mistake and suffer for it.
As we can find when we read through the entire Bible, though, God is much more complex and multi-faceted than that. Limiting our view of His nature to only His distribution of justice to the sinful (which would describe each of us) causes us to miss out on His other attributes. When the only manifestation of His power that we think of is punishment, we miss out on the creativity and majesty of His creation. When the only attribute of His that we remember is anger, we forget that He reached down to a sinful population of people, and gave up what was most precious, so that we could return to Him in freedom and peace. When we can only see His glory and transcendence, we don’t accept the friendship and personal relationship that He offers to us.
Hopefully, we’ve gotten past the image of God waiting in the clouds, ready to throw thunderbolts down at anyone who makes a mistake. That idea is better aligned with views of the Greco-Roman pantheon, whose “gods” were a lot more like men, and – while powerful – were neither righteous nor holy. Instead, the actual God is holy, just, and powerful, while also being loving and merciful. (I appreciate that finding human beings who can manifest fairness and grace at the same time is much more challenging, so we sometimes have to look deeper into God’s nature – as expressed by His words, actions, and creation – to understand Him more.)
Still, even when He is patient with sinful humankind, God is not devoid of righteous anger and His wrath is real. What makes Him angry might not be what we expect, though. Perhaps more to the point, what makes Him angry may not be what makes us angry!
Have a look at these verses from the book of Romans:
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them.
Romans 1:18-19 NLT
Even in God’s patience (see 2 Peter 3:9), these verses suggests that there is a limit. Notice what characteristic of people makes God demonstrate His anger, here: suppressing the truth. I don’t want to read too much into these verses, but they suggest to me that God is not angry with people who don’t know better (although all of us know better, to some extent, see Romans 1:18-23, which includes the verses above). Instead, this anger is directed towards those who know the truth, and then subvert it. We might call these people “false teachers”, but that specific description might narrow our focus too much, and cause us to miss those who block the truth in more subtle ways.
This passage serves as a warning, whether for us to prevent ourselves from becoming false teachers, or to use discernment in telling the difference between the truth and falsehood (or “incomplete truths”, which can be the same thing as lies). I’m not suggesting that it is an easy directive to follow, though: Our pride, our selfishness, and our sinful tendencies pull us away from facing the facts, and we are more comfortable with embracing only what supports our current behavior or desires.
It is one thing for someone who doesn’t follow Jesus to do manipulate the truth. Without the help of the Holy Spirit’s direction, and the joy of finding one’s sins paid for, the motivation is pretty high to just keep doing whatever one wants to do. By contradicting, marginalizing, dismissing, or simply ignoring the truth, it remains easier to not face the conviction of our minds and consciences, which know better.
Even Christians can fall into this trap, though. When teaching about God, it’s a lot more fun to talk about His love, compassion, mercy, grace, and provision. When we don’t explain God’s holiness, though, and the imperative for Him to remain separated from sin, there seems to be nothing for others to be saved from. Certain instructions that God gave to humankind aren’t necessarily popular, and it it tempting to tamper with the truth by just leaving out the more difficult parts of God’s message to people.
Regardless of whether or not we find ourselves to be like the people described in these verses, may we use this as a reminder that we are called to know the truth, and to share the truth – both the easy parts and the difficult parts. May we appreciate that God’s holiness leads to both love and justice, and do our best to avoid the things that make Him angry – not because we fear punishment (once we have accepted Jesus as our Savior and Lord), but because we love God in return and wish to please Him.