Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:7-10
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. Micah 7:18
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8
The LORD is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. Psalm 145:8
Then the LORD passed in front of Moses and called out: “The LORD, the LORD God, is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness…” Exodus 34:6
The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in loving devotion, forgiving wrongdoing and rebellion. But He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…” Numbers 14:18
But You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and truth. Psalm 86:15
The Foundation of God’s Character
Who is God? I believe that question is the most important we can ask in theology and the question we have to be very sure we answer correctly. We know that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, that he sees everything, that he is everywhere. It is important to know these attributes, to believe them and to meditate on them and their implications for your life and the world. But these attributes answer the “what” question more than the “who” question. They tell us what God is, what type of being he is, but not really who he is. The question of who he is the question of his character. What is God like? What is God’s most fundamental motivation? Does God even have a most fundamental motivation? If you don’t answer this question and you believe in God, your heart will answer it for you, because it is very difficult or even impossible to have faith in a God whose fundamental nature is unknown to you. What are you trusting in if you don’t know who God is? There is nothing to trust in if you don’t know what God’s nature is, which means that you have unconsciously or subconsciously answered it. But that’s spiritually dangerous, because there’s no telling what that subconscious answer is and whether it is correct. Is it right to think of God as having some attribute or quality that is fundamental, dominant or preponderant? Is God just sometimes like this, and sometimes like that, with no fundamental quality drawing together all of his holy decrees, his commandments and his Word? There is a fundamental quality and I believe we see throughout the Bible that the apostles and prophets thought that way as well. That fundamental quality is love.
The Love of the Father
It is all well and good to say that God is love, as we read in 1 John 4:7, but what does that mean? What does love mean? Love is goodwill. To love someone means to will their good, to will that they have the Good, and the various instantiations of the Good, in their lives. But what is good? Lots of things are good. Worship and service of God is good, moral action is good, food is good, nature is good, happiness and pleasure are good, relationships are good. But perhaps we should ask this question differently. What is most good? Love will seek to maximize that thing in the objects of its love above all other goods. That question is more difficult to answer and different cultures and religions and thinkers have answered it quite differently. Our own culture tends to think that happiness is most good. However, the Bible’s answer to this question is clear. It is most good to worship and serve God properly. It is most good to be in right relationship with God. God’s love, therefore, will seek to maximize this good above all the other goods. That is not to say that God’s love is unconcerned with the other goods, but he regards those goods as secondary compared to the primary good of serving him properly. It is most good for human beings to serve God properly because that is what they were made for, which means that ultimately, the good of serving God is the secret to bringing together all the other good things of Creation in a harmonious whole. But given that our world is fallen, the good things that our Creator has given us are scattered and spiritually isolated. God does reward those who seek him ( Hebrews 11:6), but in this life of sinful hearts and a fallen world, happiness will never predictably track true devotion, but it often does so in subtle and unexpected ways. If God’s love means goodwill, then God’s love wills all good things for us, primarily the most good, but secondarily the other good things that we’ve identified. We will take a look at different aspects of the character of God’s love.
The Faithfulness of the Father
The Old Testament prophets constantly emphasized something called God’s “steadfast love”, a love which precedes and persists through disobedience and faithlessness and which is ready to hear the cry of a contrite heart. In the Old Testament, God makes a covenant with the people of Israel and even though they repeatedly break their part of the bargain, sometimes flagrantly and severely, God punishes them, but he does not abandon them. He returns to heal and restore them, but he does finally destroy some of the people. The book of Judges shows this quite viscerally. It tells repeatedly of how the people chase after other gods, God allows them to become oppressed, and then he saves them when they cry out to him. Then they chase after other gods, bad things happen, they cry out to God, and he saves them. This happens over and over again. In the book of Hosea, God likens his relationship with his people to Hosea’s relationship with a prostitute, who constantly sleeps with other men. But Hosea, at God’s behest, brings her back into his confidence after every betrayal. The love of God, however, precedes our obedience and faith. This is shown in the rightly iconic verse showing God’s universal goodwill toward a sinful world prior to redemption: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”(John 3:16). Also, we read in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In other words, God’s love for us is prior to obedience and redemption and is there in spite of disobedience and evil. The reason the Atonement happened at all is because God loved the world and provided a universal invitation to redemption. This love is unconditional in the sense that it is always available to the anyone who is repentant and willing to believe in Jesus, in spite of any disobedience, but not in the sense that it demands nothing of those who want to be a part of it. The passage from 1 John 4:7 confirms this character of God’s love as being independent of or prior to what we do “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” These verses show why the Atonement is rightly seen as the central way to understand God’s love and therefore his character.
Another very profound expression of God’s faithfulness in the face of disobedience is 2 Timothy 2:11:
“If we died with him, we will also live with him; If we endure, we will also reign with him; If we disown him he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”
As we’ve seen, this is constantly reemphasized in the prophets too. God punishes his people, sometimes severely, but he does not cut them off or abandon them even though he could by rights. He could justly abandon them because they have broken the terms of the contract, but he does not. We are told that this quality of steadfast love is dominant in God even to the point of defining his nature. It is not merely that God has love, but that he is love. It defines his nature. That means that everything that he does, including his punishments and his wrath, are motivated by it. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” This is astounding. To remain faithful regardless of how faithful we are is so central to the nature of our Father that he would deny or disown himself if he behaved differently. He would cease being who he is at the deepest level.
The Providence of the Father
When Jesus speaks directly about the character of God, he calls him a “father.” This is a radical notion. The religious impulse is to regard that as impertinent and disrespectful. We think of God as distant and far-removed and as too great and fearful for us. But this is not respectful. We see in this the same attitude of the rebellious Israelites who were too afraid to go up to Mount Sinai, and wanted Moses to be their mediator (Deuteronomy 5:5). They were too afraid because they didn’t trust God as a loving father, but as distant and terrible, which formed the foundation for their rebellion. Often when the Israelites grumble or rebel against God in the wilderness, it is normally precipitated by a rationale that God is being cruel to them or doing them some sort of wrong (Numbers 21:5, Deuteronomy 1:27). The writer of Hebrews confirms that the Israelites didn’t enter God’s rest because of “unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). They didn’t trust that God was being a good Father to them. The idea of God being our Father is not a metaphor as it is sometimes thought of being. Jesus doesn’t use it as a metaphor. That becomes very clear when Jesus tells us not even to call our earthly fathers “father” because we have only one Father in heaven (Matthew 23:9). God is more responsible for our biological existence than our biological fathers. God is more responsible for caring for us day-to-day during our childhood than our earthly fathers, and it is God who continues to care for us and sustains our existence. The teaching that God is our father is supposed to engender trust, because God already cares for you as a father loves his child, with all the good qualities of fatherly affection without any of the bad qualities associated with human sin. So you can trust him. We know how good fathers care for their children and we must liken that to how God cares for us. Jesus specifically encourages this sort of analogical thinking when he says: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13). Jesus is here appealing to our existing sense of what it means to have love toward someone else, and that the fatherly affection that is generous and provident toward children is so much greater in God’s attitude toward to us. When the gospels speak about God’s love it is often in universal terms, such as God loving the “world” so much that he gave his own Son, so that “anyone” who believes in him might be saved . Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies, and the rationale he gives specifically appeals to the character of our heavenly Father. We are to love our enemies “that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) We are to will good for our enemies, because that is what God does. In the parables, God primarily makes an appearance as judge who parses the actions of his servants and sentences them for what they’ve done with what he’s given them. When Jesus does teach directly about God’s character, the overall picture is that of a loving Father with goodwill to all who judges wrongdoers. We are led to believe then that his judgments and punishments come out of his identity as a loving Father.
The Comfort and Kindness of the Father
More than once when I’ve read about the wrath of God, the pastor or blogger or Christian writer started by claiming that the wrath of God is a neglected doctrine and that no one gives sermons and talks about God’s wrath. They never provide any evidence that the wrath of God is a neglected attribute, but seem to rely most on their own anecdotal experience of the Christian subculture. It may indeed be the case that the wrath of God is a neglected attribute in mainline Protestant circles. But is it a neglected attribute in theologically conservative Protestant ( evangelical) circles? I don’t know if it is. Perhaps it is. But it is probably a bad idea to generalize if you don’t have some objective evidence. Also, the measure of the wrath of God being a neglected or an equally honoured attribute is not whether pastors give whole sermons about it, or whether Christians writers write whole books and chapters about it. I have only once heard an entire sermon just about the wrath of God and I’m not sure it is good to do it that way. Neither the apostles nor prophets ever isolate one attribute of God for consideration. The wrath and judgment of God are always placed within the broader context of God’s redemptive purpose. This is why you will often find the most terrifying depictions of God’s wrath side by side in the prophets with some of the most moving expressions of God’s mercy, faithfulness and kindness. Similarly, in the letters of Paul, warnings about God’s judgment are woven into the telling of God’s story of redemption. If the measure of doing justice to an attribute of God is having whole sermons and blog posts about it, then ask yourself the following. Have you ever heard an entire sermon only about the comfort and kindness of God? I don’t believe I’ve heard pastors and writers in the conservative Protestant world talk much at all about God’s identity as the “God of all comfort”( 2 Corinthians 1:3). The only name given to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, that is not “Spirit” or “Holy Spirit” is “the Comforter” in the King James Version or “Advocate” or “Helper.” The Greek word is “Parakletos”. The Greek word for comfort in the New Testament is “parakleseos” which is translated variously as “comfort”, “consolation”, “encouragement” and “exhortation.” However the term itself is translated it seems clear that “comfort” is one of the Holy Spirit’s mandates. We read that God is “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3). “He will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4). “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 58:8). “Your rod and staff protect and comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) There are many other passages in the Psalms and prophets which imply God’s action to comfort and console. The virtue of “gentleness” and “kindness” is often mentioned when Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit. If these are the fruits of the Spirit it is reasonable to believe that they are attributes of the Spirit. If they are signs that the Spirit dwells in us then they are a part of the character of the Spirit.
It is possible to focus so much on the idea that God’s love is more than kindness that we come to believe instead that God’s love is less than kindness. All warmth and kindness and affection come from God and he instantiates them more inexhaustibly than any human being. It is possible to believe that our happiness is an important concern for God without believing that it is his highest priority.
The Patience of the Father
Sometimes our faith can become captured by a neurotic fear of God’s wrath. We imagine that God is going to punish us for some wrong we’ve done and we panic, wondering what misery is going to befall us for losing our temper or indulging a wrong thought for a second too long. But the Biblical picture of God’s wrath is quite different. There are times in the Bible where God’s judgment does seem to be immediate for a specific act of disobedience. But most of the time, and especially in God’s judgment of nations and large numbers of people, it takes a long time to build up. Also, the reason for punishment in the Old Testament prophets is not a single act but a pattern of persistent unrepentant disobedience and unrepentant apostasy (forsaking devotion to the true God, worshipping other gods and refusing to turn from those gods even when warned by a prophet). One inspiring quote that shows God’s patience is Genesis 15:16: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” The Amorites were finally punished when the Israelites left Egypt to occupy Canaan a few centuries later. So it took a few centuries for the Amorites to be punished by God, even though this verse implies that they were already sinful. In Genesis 18:16, we see another way in which God is patient. He tells Abraham that he would spare an entire city of sinful people if there are only 10 righteous people there. So God is very patient. He gives evil people all the time in the world to repent, and then some, before he punishes them. He provides them much more time than any human being would were he in God’s position. But when God does punish, it is terrible. And God’s punishment itself flows out of his love for humanity. Because he loves humanity, he must ensure that there is justice as well as mercy. He cannot allow evil people free reign when they have rejected his every attempt to be merciful. “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good”(Isaiah 65:2). But you might ask, “Why does it mean that I’m evil if I refuse to serve and trust in God?” If the Christian God exists, he is the highest instantiation of the Good, the Good itself, and so to refuse to serve God is, by definition, to be evil in a fundamental sense.
The Anger of the Father
Goodwill also implies the wrath of God. If God is perfectly and absolutely concentrated Goodwill, then this means that he will not will what is not good. Simple. But what then if you are not good? We should not exempt ourselves from the sovereign Goodwill. We may want to focus on the implication God’s goodwill has for us, in that God wills the good things in Creation for us. But we as human beings are also part of his creation, which means that his goodwill also applies to us. As much as God’s goodwill applies to the things God wills for human beings, it also applies to human beings themselves, because human beings are also bad or good. This means that if you are not good, God will not will you. That is to say, God will not will your continued existence in his good creation or kingdom if you are not a part of the Good that he wills. All human beings are good in a basic sense because they were made by God, and God goes to extraordinary lengths to salvage that original goodness of his creation in humanity, even to the point of going through immense agony as a human being himself. But at the end of the day, if a human being refuses to identify with the Good, then God can no longer recognize him as part of the goodness of his creation. That human being becomes so corrupted by evil that God may no longer recognize his original creation. And if something is irredeemably evil, what is then good for it? What would pure Goodwill will for something that is irrevocably bad? It is then only good for destruction. In the Bible, God is often likened to a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29); a pure and absolutely intense Goodwill that burns like a thousand-degree inferno against anything that is not conducive to true worship, morality, life, liberty, vitality, truth and happiness. If you reject God’s goodwill then it is God’s goodwill which must destroy you, because you are then opposed to life and goodness and you will destroy it in yourself and others until you are stopped. How could goodwill destroy? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Not if what is being destroyed is opposed to the Good and if there is nothing redeemable in what is being destroyed.
When thinking about God’s wrath, it is important to remove any idea of human anger from your mind. Human anger is always sinful to some degree. Even the most righteous human anger contains a hint of malice, a hint of sadism, of taking pleasure in destruction and pain. Even if it does not start out that way, it very easily becomes malicious. Human anger also usually entails a loss of self-control. The Bible is repeatedly skeptical of human anger and seems to forbid entirely. But it is extremely extravagant in its descriptions of divine anger. For example: “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Psalm 37:8 tells us, “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath.” Ecclesiastes 7:9 says, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” Colossians 3:8 says “But now you must also rid yourself of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (By the way, forbidding anger is not the same thing as forbidding speaking up ,when you have calmed down, about something that’s wrong.) So the Bible denounces human anger but it affirms Divine anger. This implies that Divine anger must be very different from human anger and you must not project a vision of an angry person onto God in order to understand his wrath. Even though human anger easily takes some pleasure in pain and destruction, and implies a loss of control, God’s anger does not share these characteristics. Ezekiel 18:23 says “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” The same idea is repeated in Ezekiel 33:11: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live…’” The reason God provides a way out for the wicked through repentance is precisely because his desire or his preference is for them to be saved rather than destroyed. This means that he does not desire or gain pleasure from destroying them, even when this is what his perfect justice demands. Job 37:23 says “The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.” Lamentations 3:33 says “For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” This is difficult to understand because just a verse or two before it said “ Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” So how can he bring grief without “willingly” bringing grief on anyone? The New Living Translation renders it this way: “For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow.” So God causes grief but it is not something he wants. It is not his original will or his preference. It is his response to human evil. By contrast, we read in Micah 7:18 that God “delights to show mercy.” That is quite an astounding thought. Think about how reluctantly you forgive people who have wronged you. Even when you do it and do it well, I think most of us cannot say that we delight to do it. Delight means “great pleasure.”
Another important point is that God’s wrath is a secondary characteristic, not a primary one. It is conditional, not essential. In other words, God’s wrath is conditional on the presence of evil. If there is no evil, then God’s wrath would never occur. The idea that God is slow to anger and abounding in love, which occurs multiple times in Bible as a description of God’s character, carries the implication that wrath is not something that defines his character and is not part of his ordinary state of being.
Finally, some people might be bothered about the fact that there is such a thing as God’s wrath at all. Why must God simply be slow to anger? Why should he get angry at all? Mercy without judgment is nihilism. A mercy that does not have any limits or accountability is just permissiveness, because by not demanding some accountability, it shows it does not actually care about the standards of goodness and justice. If it doesn’t care about the standards of goodness and justice then it can’t claim to be mercy, because mercy presupposes the legitimacy of those standards. Without the acknowledgement of a wrong, there cannot be mercy. Mercy requires the acknowledgement that a legitimate wrong has been done and it recognizes that immediate retribution would be just. In order to absolve someone of something, there must be something wrong to absolve. That is why any legitimate mercy must require at least the possibility of retribution. There must come a time when the door is closed and the voice is heard “Away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). So mercy has to have limits, but God sets those limits broadly and generously. Anyone who wants to repent can do so no matter what they’ve done or how many times they’ve done it. But they have to repent and if they repeatedly refuse to do so, there will be retribution.
Unrepentant unbelief and unrepentant immorality seem to be two things which are not forgiven by God, because in both the Old and New Testament, they merit the utmost of divine retribution. The Bible uses the concepts of intense suffering and utter destruction to describe the fate of those who are unrepentant.
The Holiness of the Father
Whenever we speak about the character and identity of God it is always important to remember God’s holiness. This is God’s “otherness” or “apartness” and his perfection. God can be known, but he is also very different from any idea we might concoct in our minds, and any image of a loving being we might have. That is why the Bible forbids idolatry. ““To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.” (Isaiah 40:25) A certain idea of a loving being can inform our concept of God, but we must never irrevocably identify God with that idea or image. We can know and trust that God wants the best for us, that God is motivated by a pure and absolute goodwill. But we must recognize that our own idea of what is good is incomplete and often flawed. God may do and command things which are very different from what seems good to us. In those cases, we must continue to believe in God’s goodness and that God knows what’s best and we do not, rather than rebelling and setting up our own little moral universe where we get to decide what is good. If God is perfectly good, then he will by definition have a much better idea of what is good than you do, because you are not perfectly good. Also, if God knows everything then this will affect what he thinks is good in every circumstance, because he can see every possible outcome and the implications of every event. Compared to this, we know pretty much nothing. Even if you assume that God has exactly the idea of goodness that you do, his omniscience means that what he thinks is good in a particular circumstance may differ radically from what you think is good in that particular circumstance, simply because you see a very small and very incomplete picture of reality.
The good news is that we don’t need to understand God fully in order to trust that he is good. We don’t need to know what is good at every level of our lives and for Creation as a whole in order to trust that our Father is fully loving, that he is far more merciful than we are capable of being, and that he is far more kind than we are capable of being. God’s plan is the best plan!