On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached his most famous sermon and probably the most famous American sermon ever, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The sermon portrays God suspending sinners over the fires of hell with only his arbitrary good pleasure preventing their drop to eternal torment.
Edwards paints a frighteningly vivid picture to provoke his listeners to self-reflection, fear, and repentance. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked,” he says at one point. He uses the words fire, fiery, flame, and flames some thirty-two times. He speaks of the fierceness of God seventeen times and his wrath more than fifty.
Scripture provides many examples of the wrath of God, but I wonder if we’re trapped in a narrative that has emphasized anger and wrath and judgment to the point that we fail to see how loving, tender, and merciful God truly is.
John tells us that God is love. It’s a defining quality of his nature. Peter says that God “is patient … not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” And the same Jesus who prophecies judgment over Jerusalem weeps for its destruction. Unlike the picture that Edwards paints, the Lord is compassionate and does not desire our judgment.
Paul says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Isn’t this the most basic fact of the Gospel, that God sent his Son because he loved the world just that much, that while we wanted nothing to do with him, he nonetheless worked the plan for our reconciliation?
The Good Shepherd doesn’t grumble about the sheep that wandered off. Out of worry and love, he goes to find it. The father doesn’t excoriate the prodigal upon his return. He doesn’t hold his folly over his head. Nor does he demand an accounting of his squandered inheritance. He runs out to meet him and wraps his arms around him.
Even what we perceive as God’s anger toward us is an expression of love. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves,” says Paul, following the Psalms, “and chastises every son whom he receives.”
We should never diminish our sins, nor their gravity, but neither should we diminish God’s boundless affection for his creatures. God’s basic disposition toward us is that of a loving father. We don’t deserve it, but that’s who he is.
What’s your view of God look like? Do you see him as wrathful or loving, and how might/does that affect your experience of him?