Into the hands of a loving God

The Heart of the Good Shepherd
The Heart of the Good Shepherd (19th century Russian icon, Wikimedia Commons).

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?

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  • I grew up in the narrative you describe. I still struggle to view God as love instead of wrath. It takes a daily renewal of my mind to combat the overemphasis of wrath (not love) I was taught in my youth.

    Thanks for this beautiful reminder of the boundless affection of God for me.


    • I the Orthodox tradition, God is called the “lover of mankind.” I’m very grateful for that daily reminder.

  • Great post, Joel. Something we all need to remember. Let me rephrase that: something I always need to remember. Thanks.

    • Geoff, amen. And thanks. This is one of those things that can slip out of our minds as we accuse ourselves for our failings.

  • I loved this post. I have found that loving side of God and for that I am most grateful. I lived in fear in my faith, its what i was taught along with so many others. His anger is quick and His love is eternal, what a comfort!

  • Thanks Joel for this post. In a world so filled with anger and rage and suffering we need to be reminded that “God is love.” Praise God that Edward’s sermon was used by God for the conversion of sinners, but that shouldn’t put that approach at the front center of Gospel preaching. I appreaciated the balance of your writing which reflects an Orthodox understanding.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Joel, first off I want to say that I very much agree, God is first and foremost love at His core. Given His Triunity He is love in a way that no other god can be as His essential being is that of a loving, self-giving community of glorious persons. Wonderful! Great! And it his love that sends Jesus into the world, to live, identify with us, humble himself patiently, kindly, and bear all this for us, (especially our sin, guilt, and the wrath of God.) All of this, you’ve done a great job of pointing out. Still, when I read you talking about the picture that Edwards paints, I have to say that Edwards wasn’t entirely off it. You note that the Bible gives us many instances of God’s wrath. As NT scholar Leon Morris points out, there are at least 580 references to God’s wrath/judicial anger in the OT alone, not to mention the clear references in the NT. Of course this is not the irrational, explosive wrath of the pagan gods. Still, it’s there. It is, in fact, the backdrop to some of the greatest declarations of God’s saving, loving action towards us. Romans 5:6-11 comes to mind, where it says that God shows his love most clearly for us in his saving us from his own wrath in Christ. That’s what’s so mind-blowingly amazing about the love of God revealed in the death of Christ. It is God’s own Son given up to spare us from judicial separation from his presence and consequent death that sin leads to. The point I’m getting at is that, interestingly, as you point out that it’s hard for many to get away from the picture of a God of wrath to a God who is a passionate lover of humanity, I think one of the main problems with the church, the culture, & the world in preventing them from understanding the great love of God is their failure to understand the wrath of God. If you have little idea or sense of the terrible thing from which you have been saved, you have little sense or appreciation for what it took for you to be saved. Consequently, you are little able to worship and love Christ for his sacrifice if you don’t understand the absolute horror of what he endured and saves from. This is little preached any more. This is a loss because
    Edwards’ purpose was not merely to frighten his hearers into repentance and fear. Edwards actually had a deep desire to inspire love for God’s great mercy and turn and benefit from this love. You can get this sense if you read more than just the too-often referenced and caricatured “sinners” sermon. For instance, “Heaven is a World of Love” or “The Excellencies of Christ.” And actually, “sinners” itself shows you this purpose towards the end where he encourages his hearers to run with “hearts filled with love towards him that has loved them and washed them of their sins with his own blood.”

    Long ago, I hoped I’d never be “that guy” who goes around defending crusty old concepts and crusty old Puritans. Still, I dunno, in my conversations with my friends and peers, I don’t think many of them have struggled with growing up never hearing that God loves them. That’s everywhere. What they never hear about is a God who loves them at great cost; a God who loves them while their unlovable and are in a state of opposition and war; a God who loves them even while they do and are odious things. That’s the kind of love that melts hearts, changes lives, and makes sense of the Cross. That’s the kind of love that Edwards’ actually preached. That is, when you read more than 15 pages of him.

    • I trust you are right about the overall message of Edwards being one of love. I’ve read only patches of his work.

      From where I sit, the focus on God’s wrath traps us in a dilemma.

      On the one hand, we know or intuit that we cannot square our sin with a righteous God, so we live our lives in condemnation and fear. We have a caricature of God who is displeased with us and quick to punish.

      On the other hand, we think we can resolve this by giving him less about which to be angry. We can’t reconcile God’s character with sin, so we simply try to eliminate the sin. We start excusing sins or diminishing them. This is the overwhelming choice of our present culture.

      Both situations stem from an inability to see God as righteous and loving. But that’s his revealed character.

      God doesn’t tolerate sin. He expiates it, purges it from us, and empowers us to live righteously — all because he loves us.