What Is the Wrath of God?

In Tuesday’s Mass there was a reference to the wrath of God: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18).

What is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in Scripture but is a concept with which we must be careful. On the one hand, we cannot simply dismiss it as contrary to the fact that God is love, but on the other, we cannot deny that God’s wrath is unfit in terms of His love.

Let’s consider some aspects of the complex reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the topic fully in a single post, so I welcome your additions and subtractions in the comments section, as always.

The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament concept. In fact, it is mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. Here are a few of the many New Testament passages:

      • Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains upon him” (John 3:36).
      • Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:19).
      • Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things [e.g., immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Ephesians 5:6).
      • For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
      • The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath (Revelation 14:19).

Clearly, the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept with which the New Testament has dispensed. Notice also that the wrath of God is not something reserved for the end of the world; it is spoken of as already operative in certain people.

What is God’s wrath, and how can we reconcile it with His love? Consider these explanations. Taken together, they can lead us to an overall understanding.

God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. We see an example of this right at the beginning, in Genesis, when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium: I will make you and the woman enemies … one of her seed will crush your head while you strike at his heel (Genesis 3:15). God is clearly angered at what sin has done to Adam and Eve, and He continues to have anger whenever He beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. He wants what is best for us and is angered by what hinders this. All sins provoke His wrath, but there are five that especially cry out to Heaven for vengeance: willful murder (Gen 4:10), the sin of the Sodomites (Gen 18:20, 19:13), the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 3:7-10); the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex 20:20-22), and injustice to the wage earner (Deuteronomy 24:14-5, James 5:4, Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1867). In terms of sin, injustice, and anything that hinders the possibility of salvation, God has a wrathful indignation and a passion to set things right. This is part of His love for us. His wrath may be manifested through punishment, disturbance of our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience the consequences of our sin.

God’s wrath is not like our anger. In saying that God is angry we ought to be careful to understand that however God experiences anger (or any passion), it is not tainted by sin. God is not angry in the way that we are. When we get angry, we often lose control, saying and doing things that are excessive if not downright sinful. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums, fly off the handle, or lash out unreasonably. The way God does experience anger is not something we can fully understand but it is surely a sovereign and serene act of His will, not an out-of-control emotion.

God is not moody. It does not pertain to God to have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough that God does not change. Consider this from the Book of James: Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17). Hence, God’s wrath does not represent Him suddenly getting fed up, or His temper flaring, or His mood souring. He does not change; He is not variable.

God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix; they can’t keep company. Think of fire and water; they cannot coexist in the same place. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of a small amount of water poured into a large fire: the water droplets sizzle and pop; steam rises as the water boils away. If there is a lot of water, the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished. The point is that they cannot coexist; they will conflict, and one will win. This is God’s wrath: the complete incompatibility of two things, sin and His utter holiness. We must be purified before entering His presence, otherwise we could not tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth, turning away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change, so we must be changed or else we will experience wrath.

The primary location of God’s wrath is not in Him; it is in us. God does not change; He is holy and serene; He is love. If we experience His wrath it is on account of us, not Him.

It is we who change, not God, and this causes wrath to be experienced or not.

Consider the following example. On the ceiling of my bedroom is a fixture with a 100-watt light bulb. Before bed at night, I delight in the light; I become accustomed to it. At bedtime, I turn off the light and go to sleep. When I awake it is still dark, and I turn on the light. Now now it seems too bright, and I curse it. Obviously, the light itself has not changed; it is just as bright in the early morning hours as it was the previous evening. The light is the same, but I have changed. Yet do you know what I do? I blame the light, saying, “That light is so harsh!” The light is not any harsher than it was the night before when I was perfectly happy with it. Now that I have changed, I experience its “wrath,” but the wrath is really in me.

Now consider the experience of the ancient family of man with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening when the dew collected on the grass (cf Gen 3:8). They had a warm friendship with Him and did not fear His presence. After sinning, they hid. Had God changed? No, they had. They now experienced Him very differently.

Fast forward to another theophany. God had come to Mt Sinai, and as He descended the people were terrified, for there were peals of thunder, lightning, clouds, and the blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but let not God speak to us, else we will die” (Ex 20:19). God, too, warned Moses that the people could not get close lest His wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Had God changed? No, He was the same God who had walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening in a most intimate way. It was we who had changed. We had lost the holiness without which no one can see the Lord (Heb 12:14). The same God, unchanged though He was, now seemed frightening and wrathful.

What, then, shall we do? If we can allow the image of fire to remain before us, we may well find a hopeful sign in God’s providence. If God is a holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:26; Is 33:14), how can we possibly come into His presence? How can we avoid the wrath that would destroy us? Well, what is the only thing that survives in the presence of fire? Fire! It looks as if we’d better become fire if we want to see God. He sent tongues of fire upon the apostles and upon us at our Confirmation. God wants to set us on fire with the Holy Spirit in holiness. He wants to bring us up to the temperature of glory so that we can stand in His presence.

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years (Mal 3:1-4).

Indeed, Jesus has now come: For you have turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10-11).

So, there is a “wrath of God,” and it is more in us than it is in Him. I will not claim that there is no wrath in God. Scripture seems clear that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how He experiences it is a mystery to us. We can say to some extent what it is not, but we cannot really say what it is exactly. A far richer point to meditate is that the wrath of God is essentially in us. It is our experience of the incompatibility of sin before God. We must be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and purified. Most of us will need purification in Purgatory, too. However, if we let the Lord work His saving work, we will be saved from the wrath, for we are made holy and set on fire with His love—and fire doesn’t fear the presence of fire. God is love, but He will not change; His love must change us.

One of the greatest cinematic depictions of the wrath of God occurred in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazis sinfully think they can open the Ark and withstand the presence of God; what they get, however, is His wrath, for sin cannot endure the reality of His presence. “Enjoy” this clip:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Is the Wrath of God?

“And in the Morning Watch, the Lord … Cast a Glance”—A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

There is an astonishing verse in the Exodus account, which we read this week at daily Mass. The Lord had parted the waters of the Red Sea with a strong easterly wind and the Israelites had just made the crossing with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

And in the morning watch, the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud, cast a glace on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic (Ex 14:24).

Just one look … that’s all it took! One can imagine many other ways that God could have stopped them: lightning, angelic forces, etc. Instead, He merely “cast a glance.”

Was it an angry glance? The text does not say. I would speculate that it was a look of love, for if God is love, how could it have been anything else?

Why, then, the panic among the Egyptian forces? Perhaps it was like the reaction of those accustomed to the darkness, who wince in pain when beautiful light shines. Love confronts and drives out hate the way light drives out darkness. Love is what it is; it cannot be something else. To those held bound by hatred, though, love is like kryptonite. Thus, the Egyptian army falls at the glance of God, panics at the weakness it experiences. Yes, love can be like kryptonite to those who choose the darkness of hatred and exploitation. To those who hate the truth, it seems hateful, but God’s truth is an aspect of His love for us, and only truth will set us free.

I propose that despite the panicked reaction of the Egyptians, God’s glance was one of love. God does not change. Even when we speak of His wrath or anger, we are speaking more of our experience than of what is in God. God is love and so He looks with love. That we experience something other than love is a problem in us, not in God.

Indeed, sometimes we see the look but miss the love. In the Gospel of Mark is told the story of a rich young man who sought perfection but somewhat on his own terms. Jesus looked at him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). The young man saw the look and heard the words, but missed the love. As a result, he went away saddened.

And lest we reduce God’s look of love to one of mere sentimentality, we ought to recall that God’s look of love can also convict us and move us to repentance. Peter’s denial of the Lord is recounted in all four of the Gospels. Simon Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest warming himself by the fire; he had just denied knowing the Lord for the third time when the cock crowed. The Gospel of Luke recounts, The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Lk 22:61-62). Here was a look of love that caused pain, but it was a healing pain that led to repentance.

Those of us with deeper faith learn to count on the look, the glance of God, to save us. An old hymn says, “Though billows roll, He keeps my soul. My heav’nly Father watches over me.” Another says, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Yes, the glance of God may make us feel sad, or mad, or glad; but it is the look of love, always seeking to console us or to set us right and bring about healing.

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. The following expression, or one like it, appears more than 25 times in the Gospel of Mark: And looking at them He said, …

Looking on Christ and allowing Him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus Himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:40). And in the First Letter of John we read, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

Keep looking to the Lord through the art that most moves you and especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Look at Him and let Him look at you. Be not dismayed as were the Egyptians of old. God is love and therefore His look is always one of love, no matter how we experience it.

The Lord is casting a glance at you right now. What do you see?

This video is a collection of clips from the movie The Passion of the Christ, set to music. It shows many of the looks of Jesus as well as some that come from us. Look for the “looks.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “And in the Morning Watch, the Lord … Cast a Glance”—A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

Why Does Jesus Say That the Father Is Greater Than He If the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?

A common question arising around the time of Trinity Sunday is rooted in this passage from John’s Gospel:

If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28).

This is somewhat puzzling because we are taught that each Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity fully possesses the nature of God and is equally to be adored and glorified. What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, “the Father is greater than I”?

The most common (and correct) answer is that in this passage Jesus was speaking in reference to His human nature, in which He is inferior to the Father; in His divine nature He is equal to the Father. Many of the Church Fathers spoke in this way. For example,

    • St Augustine said, Let us acknowledge then the twofold substance of Christ, the divine, which is equal to the Father, and the human, which is inferior. But Christ is both together, not two, but one Christ: else the Godhead is a quaternity, not a Trinity. Wherefore He says, If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go to the Father; for human nature should exult at being thus taken up by the Only Begotten Word, and made immortal in heaven; at earth being raised to heaven, and dust sitting incorruptible at the right hand of the Father. Who, that loves Christ, will not rejoice at this, seeing, as he doth, his own nature immortal in Christ, and hoping that He Himself will be so by Christ (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at John 14:28).
    • Didymus the Blind said, When he says “greater” he indicates that his divinity can be equaled to the Father, since he is of the same substance as him, but the Father is greater because the Son accepted a body…The Son’s nature is understood to be less than that of the Father inasmuch as the Son became man (Fragments on John at 14).
    • Hilary of Poitiers said, By the birth of the Son the Father is constituted greater … in that the Son, born of the Father, after assuming an earthly body, is taken back to the glory of the Father (On the Trinity, 9:56).
    • Theodoret of Cyr had Jesus speak, saying, Sometimes therefore I, [Jesus] say that I am equal to the Father, and at other times say that the Father is greater than I. I am not contradicting myself, but I am showing that I am God and a human being … If you want to know how the Father is greater than I, I was talking from the flesh, not from the person of the Divinity (Dialogue 1:56).

Thus, the first answer is clear: As God, Jesus is equal to the Father, but as Man, He is inferior to the Father.

In a qualified way, however, it is also possible to speak of a particular greatness of the Father even within the Trinity. While all three persons of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Source in the Deity). So, although the members of the Trinity are all equal in dignity, there are processions in the Trinity. The Father is the Principium, the Son eternally proceeds from Him and is eternally begotten by Him (Jn 8:42); the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principal (Jn 15:26).

Thus, even from the perspective of His divinity it is possible for Jesus to say, “I delight that the Father is the eternal principal of my being. Even though I have no origin in time, I do eternally proceed from Him.”

The Athanasian Creed says the following regarding these processions:

The Father is made by none, neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, neither made nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, not made, nor created, nor begotten, but he proceeds from them.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks poetically of the Trinity in the familiar hymn “Tantum Ergo”:

Genitori, Genitoque … Procedenti ab utroque … compar sit laudautio.
(To the One Who Begets, and to the Begotten One, and to the One who proceeds from them both, be equal praise.)

So, although the Persons of the Trinity are equal, the processions within the Trinity do have an order. The Father is “greater” in the very qualified sense that He is the Principium Deitatis, the Principal of the Deity, but is co-eternal and equal in dignity to the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Devotionally, Jesus may also be speaking of the Father as greater in the sense that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father; He’s crazy about Him. He is always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father “greater,” Jesus says (in effect), “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). As God, we share one will; as human, my human will and His will are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Why Does Jesus Say That the Father Is Greater Than He If the Members of the Trinity Are Equal?

The Delay and Silence of God

I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but God doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry about most things. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

We live in a loud, fast-paced world, one of constantly breaking news. Crisis and urgency always seem to be the order of the day. Instant communication and quick responses are expected, if not demanded.

On the national level, there is little reporting by the media before there is a rush to analyze, comment, and then demand a response and plan of action from public officials.

On a personal level, I seem to irritate people frequently by not responding sufficiently quickly. “I sent you a text, didn’t you get it?” If I don’t respond back to an email within a day, I may get another one with a subject like this: “*** Second Attempt ***.”

In many companies voice mail has been discontinued because it’s “too slow.” Many younger people seldom answer their phones let alone initiate calls. Communication is more commonly accomplished through instant messages, texts, and tweets. This results in a clipped quality to conversations that limits thoughtful discussion.

Yes, we are in a big hurry, but back to my question: Have you noticed that God doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry? God could easily solve everything instantly with a mere snap of His fingers, but he doesn’t—and He has His reasons. Perhaps it is important for us to live some of our questions in order to appreciate their depth. Maybe the problems we want solved are themselves part of a deeper solution that God is working to make us humbler, wiser, and/or stronger.

God’s slow pace can be dismaying as well as puzzling. Why does God allow the wicked to inflict so much damage for so long? Why does He allow error and heresy to go unchecked? Why does He permit sinners to remain uncorrected and unpunished?

The Church, too, is often slow to respond or act. She will go on for decades, even centuries, pondering and reflecting while the world rushes forward into error, darkness, and confusion. We want the Church to turn on a dime, but that’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around.

Though at times imponderable, God’s delay is sinless. The Church’s delay, however, may be admixed with sin, sloth, and resistance. This does not mean that all the delay of the Church is sinful. Especially in today’s world of quick, often rash reaction, there is still the need for careful, thoughtful, prayerful deliberation. Our faith doesn’t reduce easily to sound bites. The gospel does not fit on a bumper sticker. The Church should not be reduced to an emergency response unit. The urgent should not eclipse the important.

All of this has been hard for me to learn; I am impatient by nature. I tap my foot incessantly in meetings, thinking, let’s get to work already! I am a bit like the field hand in Matthew’s Gospel (Mat 13:24ff) who wanted to tear out the weeds from amongst the wheat. The Lord cautioned against doing so because it might harm the wheat. He said that they should be allowed to grow together until the harvest; the day of judgment would come in due time.

Rash actions can cause harm, even if unintentionally. Overly quick or draconian measures to eliminate error and sin may hurt the saints and ration the Holy Spirit. Conflicts do have their place. They can serve to sharpen the distinction between the good and the wicked; darkness can permit the light to shine even more gloriously.

But Father, but Father! What about the many souls who are lost and confused in the silence while the Church delays, reflecting and pondering? I have no simple answer except to point back to God. While the Church’s delay may or may not be given today’s expectations, God’s delays and lengthy silences shine before us and challenge our instinct to respond rashly and/or too quickly.

God takes His time. The Jewish people were 400 years in slavery and 40 years in the desert. From then it was 1800 years to the Christ, who spent 30 of His 33 years in seclusion and silence.

Yes, for reasons of His own, God is in no rush. For my part, I must learn this hard lesson and be careful to enter into the silence of God through prayer. Having prayed in that silence I must emerge to teach and preach the faith He has revealed. I can do no more, but I can do no less.

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s words are a fitting conclusion to this difficult lesson for us moderns:

Silence is of capital importance because it enables the Church to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, imitating his thirty silent years of Nazareth … and his intimate dialogue with the Father in the solitude and silence of the desert ….

Light makes no noise. If we want to approach this luminous source, we must assume an attitude of contemplation and silence …. The true nature of the Church is not found in what she does but in what she testifies. Christ asked us to be light. He ordered us not to conquer the world, but to show men the way, the truth and the life.

I know well that God’s silence constantly runs into man’s impatience … [but] nowadays man fosters a kind of compulsive relationship with time. One day we will understand everything. Until then it is necessary to seek without making noise.

Who can understand God? … As with all questions connected with God, there is a stage when the search can go no farther. The only thing to do is to raise our eyes, to stretch out our hands toward God, and to pray in silence while awaiting the dawn … [Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, pp. 219-221].

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  The Delay and Silence of God

The Gifts of Wonder and Awe Are More Necessary Than Ever

There is a remarkable interaction with God in the Book of Exodus that shows the balance we must develop in how we understand and relate to Him. Many of us get the balance wrong by turning God into a doting grandfather figure or seeing Him as an angry despot just waiting for any misstep. Trivializing or domesticating God is the more common error today, but we ought not to underestimate the number of people who struggle to find in God a loving Father.

Therefore, consider the passage from Exodus. It begins with a description of God’s loving tenderness for Israel.

In the third month after their departure from the land of Egypt, on its first day, the Israelites came to the desert of Sinai. After the journey from Rephidim to the desert of Sinai, they pitched camp.

While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, Moses went up the mountain to God. Then the Lord called to him and said, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites” (Exodus 19:1-7).

Yes, they are a people dear to Him, His special possession, holy and set apart. The Lord did not just lead them out of Egypt; He carried them. Later, through Hosea, God spoke of His tender love in similar language: I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:4).

Yet, as God descends upon Mount Sinai, the Israelites do not experience a tender Father stopping to feed them; their reaction might better be described as terror.

Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. Trumpet blasts grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder.

When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, they all feared and trembled. So they took up a position much farther away and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we shall die.” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come to you only to test you and put his fear upon you, lest you should sin.” Still the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the cloud where God was (Exodus 19:15-20:18-21).

It was surely frightening for them. Yet recall that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced intimacy with God. Scripture spoke of God as walking in the garden in the breezy time of the day (Genesis 3:8). How different that experience was from the one described in Exodus! Had God changed? No, we had changed. On account of sin and its debilitating effects, the evening walks with God ended. After sinning, when Adam and Eve heard God walking, they hid from Him. Although created in the image of God, they could no longer endure His presence; almost as if in mercy, God let them live at a distance. So the Lord drove out the man and stationed cherubim on the east side of the Garden of Eden, along with a whirling sword of flame to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). Ever since, we have yearned to see God’s face (e.g., Ps 27:8). Yet Scripture warns, For who can look on the face of God and live? (Ex 33:20)

Only with the coming of Christ and His reparative grace could we ever hope to see the face of God again and walk with Him. Indeed, Christ did open the way to the Father. At the moment of His death, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mat 27:51). Jesus restored access to the Father. The Book of Hebrews says, Therefore, brothers, we now have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way opened for us through the veil of His flesh (Heb 10:19-20). As the Centurion pierced the veil of Christ’s flesh with a lance, the very heart of God was revealed. Through Jesus we will one day enter into the Holy of Holies in Heaven and forever behold God’s radiant and beautiful face. St. Paul says beautifully, And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image with ever-increasing glory. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

In all these texts there is for us a tension that must be held, a balance that must be found. There are some who are overly scrupulous and must often be reminded that God loves them—even likes them! God wants to save us and so loved us that he sent his only Son. More common, though, are those who too easily dismiss the reverence that is due to God. They have trivialized and domesticated God, forgetting that He dwells in “inapproachable” light such that none of us, in our current state of imperfection, can endure it. Their tendency is to reduce God to a doting grandfather, diminish Jesus to a harmless hippie, and think that the Holy Spirit exists only to console and affirm us. This made-up, “designer God” just happens to agree with everything they think and do. He never challenges, rebukes, or sets expectations of beyond what they already want.

Back in the day of “that old time religion,” making up and worshiping your own god was called idolatry. In these days of wordsmithing and euphemisms we prefer to speak of the “god within” or the “god of my own understanding.” The idea that God would reveal Himself on His own terms and expect us to respect who He is—this is contrary to the notion of the modern anthropocentric “god” whom we contrive. This manufactured god is not the God of the universe but rather a personal deity who serves only us—and “serve” is just the word, for this “god” is more of a butler does things for us and offers sage advice but asks nothing much in return except that we follow some vague ethic like empathy.

I exaggerate somewhat, but only a little. Even some Catholics find the biblical God—who punishes, warns of Hell, has set high standards, and expects better of us because of His grace—to be a God they can’t accept. If the real Jesus of Scripture were to step into a Catholic pulpit today, He would unsettle many with His talk of repentance, parables of warning, and assertions that if we do not have faith in Him, we will die in our sins. “Doesn’t he know that we’re a welcoming community? We don’t upset people by talking about sin and judgment! Who does this guy think he is?”

Yes, we have lost the balance that reveres God and takes Him seriously, while gratefully acknowledging His grace, mercy, and love for us. The real God has shown us mercy; He offers us grace because we need it, lots of it, if we are to stand a chance of being able to endure His presence.

Recall that even St. John, the beloved disciple, fell on his face before the glorified Lord Jesus (Rev 1:17). The heavenly Jesus He encountered was no hippie; He was and is the Lord of Glory. Of Him, John says,

He had a loud voice like a trumpet … He was One like the Son of Man, dressed in a long robe, with a golden sash around His chest. The hair of His head was white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. He held in His right hand seven stars, and a sharp double-edged sword came from His mouth. His face was like the sun shining at its brightest …. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come—the Almighty (Rev 1:12-16).

The same passage also says,

To Him who loves us and has released us from our sins by His blood, who has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and power forever and ever! Amen. (Rev 1:5-6).

Does your prayer and understanding of the Lord have this balance? Do you love Him and know that He loves you? Do you also revere Him and hold Him in awe? Do you rejoice in His saving love while also realizing the gratitude, worship, and praise you owe Him? Do you render to Him the obedience of faith and gratefully receive from Him the fruits of faith or do you view Him as merely a butler who serves you on your terms?

When you pray or go to Mass are you aware of the glory of being in His presence? Personal prayer can be a little less formal and impromptu, but do you ever just tremble in awe as you approach His Church and His presence? Do you ever kneel, stand, or even sit in His presence, saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”? Do you bring to Mass a joyful and grateful sacrifice of praise to God, who has been so good to you, or is Mass for you more an egocentric event at which you demand to be entertained? Is your parish a clubhouse, or a lighthouse? Is it a cruise ship or a battleship? Is God on the throne in your life or do you imagine him more as your butler, stepping and fetching for you?

The Lord Jesus has opened the way to the Father, but not to trivialize or domesticate Him. Rather, it is so that we can enter the narrow path that stretches on a thrilling journey toward wonder and awe, toward unspeakable joy and untold glories. Rejoice in God’s love for you, but let it be a joy that is wrapped in reverence, one that makes us fall down in awe before so great a God. Indeed, our God is an awesome God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gifts of Wonder and Awe Are More Necessary Than Ever

“And in the Morning Watch the Lord … Cast a Glance” – A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

There is an astonishing verse in the Exodus account, which is read this week in the Office of Readings. The Lord had parted the waters of the Red Sea with a strong eastern wind and the Israelites had just made the crossing with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

And in the morning watch, the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud, cast a glace on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic (Ex 14:24).

Just one look … that’s all it took! One can imagine many other ways that God could have stopped them: lightning, angelic forces, etc. Instead, He merely “cast a glance.”

Was it an angry glance? The text does not say. I would speculate that it was a look of love, for if God is love, how could it have been anything else?

Why, then, the panic among the Egyptian forces? Perhaps it was like the reaction of those accustomed to the darkness, who wince in pain when beautiful light shines. Love confronts and drives out hate the way light drives out darkness. Love is what it is; it cannot be something else. To those held bound by hatred, though, love is like kryptonite. Thus, the Egyptian army falls at the glance of God, panics at the weakness it experiences. Yes, love can be like kryptonite.

I propose that despite the panicked result, God’s glance was one of love. God does not change. Even when we speak of His wrath or anger, we are speaking more of our experience than of what is in God. God is love and so He looks with love. That we experience something other than love is a problem in us, not in God.

Indeed, sometimes we see the look but miss the love. In the Gospel of Mark is told the story of a rich young man who sought perfection but somewhat on his own terms. Jesus looked at him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). The young man saw the look and heard the words, but missed the love. As a result, he went away saddened.

And lest we reduce God’s look of love to one of mere sentimentality, we ought to recall that God’s look of love can also convict us and move us to repentance. Peter’s denial of the Lord is recounted in all four of the Gospels. Simon Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest warming himself by the fire; he had just denied knowing the Lord for the third time when the cock crowed. The Gospel of Luke recounts, The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Lk 22:61-62). Here was a look of love that caused pain, but it was a healing pain that led to repentance.

For those of us with deeper faith, we learn to count on the look, the glance of God, to save us. An old hymn says, “Though billows roll, He keeps my soul. My heav’nly Father watches over me.” Another says, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Yes, the glance of God may make you feel sad, or mad, or glad; but it is the look of love, always seeking to console us or to set us right and bring about healing.

I have a large icon of Christ in my room. In my opinion, what icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the look.” No matter where I move in the room, it seems that Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality, icons are windows into Heaven. Hence, this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ; it is an image that mediates His presence. When I look upon Him, I experience that He knows me. He is looking at me with a knowing, comprehensive look.

The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:13). Christ’s look in the icon in my room is not fearsome; it is serene and confident.

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. The following expression, or one like it, appears more than 25 times in the Gospel of Mark: And looking at them He said, …

Looking on Christ and allowing Him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus Himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:40). And in the First Letter of John we read, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

Keep looking to the Lord through the art that most moves you and especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Look at Him and let Him look at you. Be not dismayed as were the Egyptians of old. God is love and therefore His look is always one of love, no matter how we experience it.

The Lord is casting a glance at you right now. What do you see?

This video is a collection of clips from the movie The Passion of the Christ, set to music. It shows many of the looks of Jesus as well as some that come from us. Look for the “looks.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “And in the Morning Watch the Lord … Cast a Glance” – A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

balance-1475025_1920One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.

A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).

The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.

In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.

So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.

In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.

As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.

Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.

A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.

Balance or bust!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

The Gospel in Miniature

Most of us are familiar with this famous passage from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him might not perish but might have everlasting life (John 3:16). For many people it serves as a kind of mini-gospel.

There is something of that same quality in St. Paul’s beautiful summary of salvation and of the gospel message: For we were, by nature, children of wrath, like the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved (Ephesians 2:3-5).

There is a compact beauty to this text from Ephesians. It paints a beautiful picture of the love of God the Father for us despite our terrible condition: we are children of wrath and are dead in our sins. The breakthrough begins with two simple words: “But God ….” From there, love comes to the rescue.

Let’s examine some of the teachings in this mini-gospel, this summary of salvation.

The Condition of our Salvation Salvation presupposes there is something from which we must be saved. This brief text lists two fundamental conditions from which we must be snatched and saved: disaffection and death.

Disaffection – The text says, By nature, we were children of wrath. The word wrath seems to be a synonym for anger, but in the New Testament it points to an ongoing state of aversion to or disaffection with the holiness of God. Wrath speaks to our inability to endure the holiness of God in our present sinful state. Only the grace of God can adequately prepare us to endure the day of his coming and stand when he appears (Malachi 3:2).

The Greek word translated here as “wrath” is orgḗ, and it speaks to a settled anger or aversion arising from an ongoing or fixed opposition; it is different from a sudden outburst of anger. Wrath is a disposition that steadfastly opposes or recoils from someone or something that cannot be endured.

Experientially, “wrath” speaks to the utter incompatibility of the Lord’s holiness and our current condition. To speak of the wrath of God does not mean that God is angry. Rather, it speaks to our inability to endure the light of His truth and heat of His love. It is like a man who emerges from a dark room into the bright sunshine and finds the light of day too harsh to handle. The problem is not with the sunlight; it is internal to the man, who has become accustomed to the darkness. Nevertheless, he continues to protest that it is the light that is harsh. This is our human condition without grace. We simply cannot endure the light and heat of God, who is like a blazing sun of love and truth. Only Jesus Christ, by His grace, can prepare us to enter into the full presence of God.

Before Christ, we were children of wrath, like the rest. Even to the great and holy Moses, God had to say, You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live (Ex 33:20). Only Jesus can enable us to see the Father’s beautiful face.

Death – The text says that we were dead in our sins. Thus, this problem was not going to go away through any action of ours. A few more spiritual push-ups or alms for the poor were not going to be enough—or even possible—because we were dead in our sins. Dead people cannot do anything but lie there and be acted upon by others. It doesn’t get more serious than being dead in our sins. Only God, who is life and existence Himself, can resolve this for us.

The Cause of our Salvation – The text speaks to the primary cause of our salvation: But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the great love with which he loved us ….

To love is to will the good of the other. We who are human almost always have imperfect love. We love others, but we also expect to get something in return. If we don’t think we are getting enough back, we easily become resentful and may begin to withhold our love. God’s love, however, is perfect and gratuitous. All that God got back in return for loving us was the cross!

This is the beauty of the text: we are saved by God on account of the great love with which He loved us.

Why does God love us? Because God is love and that is what love does—it loves. Love is more than an emotion, something we feel—it is willing the good of the other. Loving does not always involve affirmation; at times it will involve rebuke and correction. Sin and error are never the good that God wills for us. Thus, even when he must punish us or allow us to endure tribulations, it is only for our greater good, that we come to wisdom, repentance, goodness, and truth.

Love and richness in mercy are also connected in this passage. Even our imperfect love for others brings forth an understanding and a compassion that makes us more patient and more willing to presume good faith on the part of those we love. Due to our imperfections, our mercy can err by excess or defect. We may grow overly angry with those we love and be more severe with them because the blows they inflict upon us are more painful. On the other hand, sometimes we are overly merciful to those we love, becoming too tolerant and overlooking serious issues. Thus, imperfect love and imperfect mercy are often our lot.

Of course, God is perfect love. While He is rich in mercy, His mercy is His willingness to suffer on our behalf, but not in a way that harms us or inhibits our freedom. That is why one of the great evils of our time is the preaching of mercy detached from necessary repentance. Repentance is the key that unlocks mercy. It is the door we freely open to God, admitting our need for mercy and allowing Him to apply its healing affects. His rich mercy is freely offered, not imposed.

As the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches, if we take one step by God’s grace, the Father takes two steps and starts running toward us. Yes, our Heavenly Father loves us and is rich in mercy, rejoicing in our return and summoning the angels and saints in Heaven to the celebratory feast!

Here, then, is the cause of our salvation: God’s great love for us and the richness of His mercy. We have but to say yes by turning the key of repentance and opening the door of our heart to His rich, necessary, freely-offered mercy.

The Cure of our Salvation The text says that God gave us life in Christ. It is by this grace that you are saved.

We who were dead in our sins and who were children of wrath like the rest are brought back to life in Christ. Notice that it is in Christ that we are saved. That is to say, Jesus does not act upon us in a merely extrinsic way. Rather, He takes us to Himself and makes us members of His Body. He is the Life as well as the Way and the Truth. He incorporates us, makes us members of His body, so that we live in Him and through Him.

  • Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:27).
  • Are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in resurrection. … Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him (Romans 6:2-8).
  • Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him … so also the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me (Jn 6:54-55).

So, the Father gives us life in Christ not just by Christ. To be saved and no longer be dead in our sins, to live, is to be in union with Him. This is more than a juridical act, more than an imputed righteousness; it is a saving relationship and incorporation into Christ’s Body. Christ’s Body is no mere abstraction or allegory; it is the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. It is the living, active presence of Christ in the world (see Eph 5:23, Col 1:18, Eph 1:23, Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 12:22ff, inter al).

It by this grace that we are saved, but by what grace? By the grace of a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. The grace by which we are saved is Christ Himself and our incorporation into Him. It our remaining with Him through the relationship that is the grace of faith. He saves us by the rebirth and washing of baptism, strengthens us in the Sacrament of Confirmation, feeds us with His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, and heals our wounds in the Sacraments of Confession and Anointing of the Sick.

Here, then, is a kind of mini-Gospel or a summary of our salvation from St. Paul. It is beautiful and compact, worthy of a framed copy in a special place—or better yet, hanging on your refrigerator door.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gospel in Miniature