We are often told to trust in God, and many of us have counseled others who are anxious or downcast to do so. But what does that mean?
In some cases, when people give this counsel they mean this: Don’t worry, God will eventually give you what want. God will come around to your way of thinking at some point. Hang in there and wait for God to answer (your way). He’ll take care of things (in a way that pleases you).
This is not trust.
To trust is to move to the stable conviction that whatever God decides to do is the right thing. It means being at peace with what He does, what He decides. It is to accept that God often acts in paradoxical ways, in ways that are different from, or even contrary to, our notions of what is best. God often permits evils for some greater good, even if this greater good is hidden from us.
At the foot of the cross, we realize that even a total disaster can produce immense good. We call that terrible day “Good Friday” for a reason. The apparent “total loss” of that day ushered in the New Covenant and made more than enough grace and mercy available to save the entire human race—if we but ask.
Many of us have experienced difficulties that were quite devastating to us at the time. In some cases, we have subsequently come to understand why God permitted them. We can see how we grew from the experience or how new opportunities were opened to us that, while not our preference at the time, were in fact best. In other cases, however, what went through still make little sense to us. But if we have learned to trust God, we can be at peace with His apparent “No” to our desired outcome. Trust says, “It is well with my soul.”
An old hymn with that title says,
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
That is trust: the ability to say, “Whatever my lot, it is well with my soul.” It is not wrong to present our wants and wishes to God, but trusting Him means being at peace with His answer, not resenting it.
We are forever asking God to bless what we are doing, but when do we ever seek what God is blessing and then do that?
Trusting God doesn’t mean thinking that He’ll eventually give me what I want. Trusting God means being at peace with whatever He wants; knowing that He wants it is enough for me; there is peace and it is well with my soul.
There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high you can’t get over Him. He’s so low you can’t get under Him. He’s so wide you can’t get around Him. You must come in, by and through the Lamb.”
It’s not a bad way of saying that God is “other.” He is beyond what human words can describe, beyond what human thoughts can conjure. On the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery that cannot fit in our minds.
A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition, the word “mystery” refers to (among other things) something that is partially revealed, something much more of which remains hidden. As we ponder the Trinity, consider that although there are some things we can know by revelation, much more is beyond our understanding.
Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and observing how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.
I. The Teaching on the Trinity Explored –
Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God, whole and entire (Catechism, 253).
There is one God and each of the three persons of the Trinity possesses the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise, the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And the Holy Spirit is God, not merely one-third of God.
It is our human experience that if there is only one of something, and someone possesses it fully, then there is nothing left for anyone else. Yet mysteriously, each of the three persons of the Trinity fully possesses the one and only divine nature while remaining a distinct person.
One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. It compactly and clearly sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:
It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying, Holy, Holy, Holy …
Wow! It’s a careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: Triune (or Trinity). Triune literally means “three-one” (tri + unus), and “Trinity” is a conflation of “Tri-unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.
If all of this baffles you, good! If you were to say that you fully understood all this, I would have to say you were likely a heretic. The teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and it is surely beyond human understanding.
Here is a final image before we leave our exploration stage. The picture at the upper right is from an experiment I remember doing when I was in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the intersection of the three circles the color white appeared. Mysteriously, the three primary colors are present in the color white, but only one shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) for Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God, but it does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)
II. The Teaching on the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture also presents images of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the ones I want to present here are from the Old Testament.
As a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of these texts; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting into a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have. Why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide whether you think these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Here they are:
1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gen 1:26)
God speaks of himself in the plural: “Let us … our …” Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning in Genesis there is already a hint that God is not all by himself, but rather is in a communion of love.
In the passage above, the word used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting to note that this word is in the plural form. From a grammatical standpoint, Elohim actually means “Gods,” but the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much debated point, however. You can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular.
(We have certain words like this in English, words that are plural in form but singular in meaning such as news, mathematics, and acoustics.) My point here is not to try to understand it as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even as a present day Jew. Rather, I am observing with interest that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. God is one yet three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God, and I see an image of the Trinity.
3. And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said” (Gen 18:1-5).
From a purely grammatical standpoint this is a very difficult passage because it switches back and forth between singular and plural references. The Lord (singular) appears to Abram, yet Abram sees three men (some have said that this is just God and two angels, but I think it is the Trinity). Then when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The tortured grammar continues as Abram suggests that the Lord (singular) rest “yourselves” (plural) under the tree. The same thing happens in the next sentence, in which Abram wants to fetch bread so that you may refresh “yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) answers, but it is rendered as “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one and God is three. For me as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Because the reality of God cannot be reduced to mere words, this is a grammatically difficult passage, but I can “see” what is going on: God is one and God is three; He is singular and He is plural.
4. Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5).
When God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.
5. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3).
God is Holy, Holy, and yet again, Holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the three persons of the Trinity. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels praising each of the three persons of the Trinity. God is three (Holy, holy, holy …) and yet God is one (holy is the Lord …). There are three declarations of the word “Holy.” Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.
6. Here are three (of many) references to the Trinity in the New Testament:
Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
Jesus also says, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
Have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula, Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the name (not names (plural)) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the beginning.
III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us, and sure enough, we do.
It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. We humans cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us, but even beyond that we need one another for completion.
Despite what the Paul Simon song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, the product he makes was likely the result of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
We are individual, but we are social. We are one, but we are linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one, yet we are many.
We have entered into perilous times where our interdependence and communal influence are under-appreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism: “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the community, Church, or nation. That I am an individual is true, but it is also true that I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me, but for others. What I do affects others, for good or ill.
The attitude that it’s none of my business what others do needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does concern for what others think and do, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. A common moral and religious vision is an important thing to cultivate. It is ultimately quite important what others think and do. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.
Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but rather a man and a woman together in the lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. When God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God then says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as He sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.
We must be careful to understand that what humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually, for God is neither male nor female in His essence. We may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. So real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband and wife love each other and their love bears fruit in their children (See, USCCB, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”).
So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward so as to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.
In the Gospel today (Thursday of the 5th Week of Easter), Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to set law in opposition to both love and joy. He joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.
Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
To remain, to habitually abide in God’s love, has this effect: we keep the commandments. Love and law are connected as cause and effect. This is not our usual thinking. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil. While this is the best assessment of it, the more routine assessment is that law is somehow an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, Pharisaical—you fill in the adjective) Church on decent people. Law is something that restrains, not something through which we experience love or joy.
Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them. Jesus says that we both experience love and show it by keeping the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love! Jesus sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands.
As we love God, we begin to love what and whom He loves. We love justice and mercy, generosity, chastity, and truth. We love our neighbor and even our enemy. We do this as the fruit of love. Having experienced God’s love, we see our hearts change; our desires and priorities become more like God’s and less like those of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Our obedience and joyful adherence to His commands comes from remaining or abiding in God’s love. It also points back to it, because our obedience is an act of love for the Lord.
The “loving” God, according to the world, has few or no rules; He affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking. The real Jesus, however, is far more complex. He is surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages; He includes the outcast; but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision, even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, and then adds that the law brings joy!
Of this, I am a witness. God’s law gives joy to my heart. As a priest, I live as a celibate (like Jesus) and my life is very fulfilling. I have been faithful to my celibate commitment without fail. I have not strayed from proper boundaries. I stay away from pornography. I am not in any way sexually active with women or anyone else. In all this I do not feel “repressed.” I am not sad or lonely. In fact, my life is joyful. I am fulfilled and see my celibacy as a gift.
To those who cannot marry, whether because they are too young, have not met the right person, or have same-sex attraction, I say that God can and still does bless you. Living celibately is fulfilling and joyful for those who are temporarily and/or permanently called to it.
The Church cannot and will not affirm or call good what God calls sin, whether it is greed, violence, illicit heterosexual acts, or (more controversially) homosexual acts. In so doing we are not any more unloving, repressed, or sad than Jesus is—and He is none of these things. Neither can we affirm any other acts or attitudes that the Bible calls sinful. These things are all taught in love and they bring joy to those who will accept them.
The Lord is no liar and He promises that love, joy, and His commandments are all interrelated. I am a witness that this is true.
The law is an expression of God’s love, not some terrible imposition. If we have been loved by God, we will keep his law by that very love. Our obedience itself is love, not grudging fear. And oh, the joy of living in God’s truth and experiencing the effects of His love as we see sins put to death and our very desires increasingly transformed!
Beware of those who would say that a loving God doesn’t mind what we do. Of course He does! He knows what sin does to us and how it harms us and others. Therefore, in His love, He commands. If we know His love and remain in it, we will keep the commandments joyfully, because we want to, not merely because we have to.
Law, love, and joy are connected. We ought not to separate what God has joined. We will hear more about this in Sunday’s Gospel.
Consider this song as directed to God, and see that His love changes everything:
The clip below is of a commercial that must have taken weeks to film. And regardless of the intent of the commercial (selling insurance), there is something of an admonition, in both the video and the music, that life and the things of life slip away.
While the music sets forth the theme, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here,” the objects in the house start to get up and leave the house and its owners. The owners themselves begin to be swept away as well. By the end, all that was within, and all who were within, are swept outside.
This is a paradigm for life. No thing and no person in this world will survive the passage of time. All will be swept away; all will pass. Even lofty mountains were once on the sea floor, and to that floor they will eventually erode and return. Jesus said in last week’s Gospel: Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mat 24:35).
Scripture also says,
For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray (1 Peter 4:7). But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
This commercial is not morbid. Rather, it is almost joyful. For indeed, though earthly glories fade, Scripture says (in many different passages) that trouble doesn’t last always (cf Psalm 30:6).
The commercial ends with a photograph being taken. Ultimately, each moment in life is but a snapshot in time. Time itself and all things are moving downstream and slipping away. God alone remains forever. Our only hope is to be anchored to Him. He is our rock, our firm foundation. His Kingdom is our lasting city. All else fails and slips away.
In Tuesday’s reading at daily Mass (Tuesday of the 28th Week) there was a reference to the wrath of God: The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). St. Paul goes on to set forth a host of social ills that result from the suppression of the truth, including the approval of homosexual acts, as evidence of a darkened intellect and debased mind (Rom 1:28).
But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in Scripture and is a subject we must treat carefully. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss the concept as contradictory to the fact that God is love, but neither can we deny God’s wrath as unfit in terms of His love.
It seems worthwhile to consider some aspects of the very complicated reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in this post, but the comment section will stay open, as always, for your continued additions and subtractions. What are some ways that we can explain and understand the wrath of God? Let me propose a few.
The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament concept. It is mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example, consider the following 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 on him” (John 3:36).
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18).
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., sexual immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Eph 5:6).
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:9).
The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath (Rev 14:19).
There are at least a dozen other New Testament texts I cite, but allow these to suffice. So it is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept with which the New Testament has dispensed. And notice, too, that the wrath of God is not something reserved simply for the end of the world. It is also spoken of as something already operative in certain people.
So again, what is God’s wrath and how can we reconcile it with His love? Consider some of the following images or explanations of God’s wrath. None of them alone explains it, but considered together, an overall understanding may emerge.
Image: God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath right at the beginning in Genesis, when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium (the first good news): 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 continues to have anger whenever He beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. God wants what is best for us. He is angered by what hinders us. Surely all sins provoke His wrath, but there are five that especially cry out to Heaven: willful murder (Gen. 4:10); the sin of the Sodomites (Gen. 18:20; 19:13); the cry of the people oppressed (Ex. 3:7-10); the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex. 20:20-22); and injustice to the wage earner (Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4) (cf 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. God’s wrath may be manifested through punishment, by disturbing our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience the consequences of our sin and injustice.
Clarification: 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 the way we are. When we get angry we often experience an out-of-control quality; our temper flares and we often say and do things that are excessive, if not sinful. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums or to “fly off the handle,” to combine anger with an unreasonable lashing out. The way God experiences 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.
Clarification: God is not moody. God does not have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough on this subject when it indicates 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). The fact that God shows wrath does not mean that He has suddenly had enough or that His temper has flared, or that His mood has soured. God is. He does not change. As Scripture says, He is not variable. And this leads us to the next image.
Image: The primary location of God’s wrath is not within God; it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of God’s wrath is this: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. Consider fire and water. They do not mix; they cannot coexist in the same spot. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of water spilled on a hot stove; hear the sizzling and popping; see the steam rising as the water flees away. If, on the other hand, there is a lot of water, the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished. But the point is that they cannot coexist. They will conflict and one will win. This is wrath: the complete incompatibility of two things. It is this way between sin and God’s utter holiness. We must be purified before we can enter the presence of God otherwise we could never tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth and turn 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, otherwise we experience wrath. But notice that the experience is in us primarily and not in God; He does not change. He is holy and serene; He is love. If we experience His wrath, it is on account of us, not Him. Consider the next image.
Image: 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 light with a 100-watt light bulb. At night before bed, I delight in the light; I am accustomed to it. But then at bedtime I turn off the light and go to sleep. When I wake up it is still dark (at least in the winter), so I turn on the light. Ugh! Grrr! Now the light is too bright and I curse it! Now, mind you, the light has not changed one bit. It is still the same 100-watt bulb it was hours earlier. The light is the same; it is I who have changed. But do you know what I do? I blame the light and say, “That light is too harsh!” But the light is not harsh; it is just the same as it was when I was happy with it. Because I have changed I experience its wrath, but the wrath is really in me. 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? He had not, but they had, and they now experienced him very differently. Fast forward to another theophany. God had come to Mt. Sinai. As He descended, the people were terrified, for there were peals of thunder, flashes of lightning, clouds, and the loud blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses, “You speak to us, but let not God speak, else we will die!” (Ex 20:19) God, too, warned Moses that the people could not get too close lest His wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Now, again, had God changed? No, he had not. He was the same God who walked with them 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. Since 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 itself! So it looks as if we’d better become fire if we want to see God. And thus it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles and upon us at our Confirmation. God wants to set you and me on fire with the Holy Spirit and in holiness. God 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). And 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.” As I have tried to show, it is more in us than it is in God. But I will not say to you that there is no wrath in God. Scripture is clear in indicating that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it is mysterious to us. We can say to some extent what it is not (as we did above), but we cannot really say what it is exactly. But far richer is the meditation that the wrath of God is essentially within 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. But if we let the Lord perform His saving work, we are saved from His wrath, for we are made holy and set on fire with God’s love. And fire never fears the presence of fire. God is love, but He will not change. So it is that 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 of the Covenant and endure the presence of God. What they get is wrath, for sin cannot endure the reality of God’s presence. “Enjoy” this clip:
I’ve been enjoying the Geico “It’s what you do” commercials (in the less than one hour of television I watch each day). They remind me of a sort of syllogism I’ve used to explain why God’s loves us: God is love. When love is what you are, love is what you do. Therefore, God loves.
Why does God love us? Because God is love and that is what love does: it loves.
God does not love us because we are good or we deserve it; He loves because he is love.
Enjoy these “It’s what you do” commercials. They illustrate an old truth, agere sequitur esse (action follows being; what one does follows from what one is).
When reading Scripture that mentions the wrath of God, most think of His wrath in human terms. But we must be clear that God does not get angry the way we do. Further, our God is not moody: pleasant and patient one moment and then angry and punishing the next. No, God does not suffer from mood swings or throw tantrums. God is love; stably, serenely, and consistently so.
So then what is God’s wrath? I have written on this topic in greater depth here: What is the Wrath of God? However for this post, allow me to summarize by saying that God’s wrath is His “passion” to set things right. His wrath is His work to root out sin and injustice and bring forth holiness and righteousness.
Another thing to note about God’s wrath is that the anger is really more in us than in God. The wrath of God is our experience of the total incompatibility of our unrepentant sin before the holiness of God. It is like fire and water: they do not mix. And one can hear the wrathful conflict when fire and water come together. So the sinner in the presence of the all holy God is going to experience a conflict. It is not so much that God is angry as that the sinner is incapable of enduring His glory, so bright and awesome. It is like wax before the fire.
In this post I would like explore how God’s wrath is also a work of revelation. St. Paul says, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). And so St. Paul speaks of God’s wrath as being revealed, as being a work of revelation. As such, it exposes our injustice, error, and sin.
A recent text we read in the Liturgy of the Hours (from Isaiah Ch. 9) also develops God’s wrath as a kind of light of revelation, as a hand pointing out our iniquity. Within the longer passage below there is this refrain: For all this, his wrath is not turned back, and his hand is still outstretched! For indeed, God’s wrath casts a light on our wrongs and his outstretched hand points to them, revealing them and executing their results. Let’s consider Isaiah’s treatment of the revelatory wrath of God.
The Lord has sent word against Jacob,
it falls upon Israel;
And all the people know it,
Ephraim and those who dwell in Samaria,
those who say in arrogance and pride of heart,
“Bricks have fallen,
but we will build with cut stone;
Sycamores are felled,
but we will replace them with cedars.”
But the Lord raises up their foes against them
and stirs up their enemies to action:
Aram on the east and the Philistines on the west
devour Israel with open mouth.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
and his hand is still outstretched! (Is 9:8-12)
And thus we see that the wrath of God reveals in Israel a bold, prideful resistance to His warnings. “Bricks have fallen … [and] sycamores have been felled.” These were warnings from God that neither natural nor man-made structures can stand; they crumble under the weight of sin and injustice. Yet instead of heeding the warning, the people doubled-down on their sins, arrogantly thinking that they could replace what God had established with designs of their own.
For us today a similar pattern is evident, as our families crumble and we twist nature. But even seeing the darkness and deep confusion we have ushered in, we still do not seek God’s light again. Rather, our culture “doubles down” and arrogantly asserts that we can redefine marriage, family, sexuality, and even the nature of things themselves. We sweep aside the “bricks and sycamores” that God has established, thinking that we can do better with the stone and cedars of our imagining.
Having instructed Israel through His law and warned her to no avail, God handed Israel over to her enemies, just as today we are being handed over to the enemies of our rebellion: STDs, depopulation, divorce, cohabitation, sexual confusion of a colossal nature, the tragic loss of our children through abortion, the decline of our children (lack of discipline, lack of proper psychological formation) due to broken families—the list could go on and on.
When the text says that God “handed them over,” it means that He let them have their own way and allowed them to suffer the consequences. As would any loving father, God seeks first to teach and warn His children. Next, He resorts to punishments that seek to draw us back from the full impact of our sin. But if all these fail, He finally hands us over to our own designs.
When we experience wrath, we experience the total incompatibility of our sinful stance with the glory for which we were made. There comes on us, collectively and individually, a burning indignation toward God and any who represent Him or remind us of the truth for which we were made. We project our anger on God. But God is not angry. Rather, He has a passion, a will to set things right. His justice and love are one reality.
How is the wrath of God a work of revelation? It shows us the full consequences of our sinful rejection of God and His plan for us. The fact is, we grow weak and become easy prey for our enemies, both literal and figurative. For Ancient Israel this meant Aram and the Philistines. For us in the decaying, once-Christian West it means we become too weak to resist enemies like lust and greed. We can no longer make commitments and keep them; we have little self-control. These enemies devour our strength, cloud our minds, and erode our progress.
This wrathful condition is a revelation from God, showing us what we are when we reject His favor, His mercy, and His call to truth. As a work of revelation, there is always the hoped-for response: repentance. But, sadly, the text continues in this way:
The people do not turn to him who struck them,
nor seek the Lord of hosts.
And so the wrath continues, revealing to us in ever-deeper and darker tones the full depths of our condition, of our sad state. Sin grows; the young especially suffer from the sins of parents and elders. If we do not want grace, we will not have it; if we do not seek His mercy and grace, we will be increasingly without them. We cannot endure God’s holiness and justice apart from grace and mercy, and so we experience His holiness as wrath. This reveals to us our grave condition.
Time does not permit further commentary on the text below (from Isaiah). But as you read it, is there not a sobering sense that what is described is all too familiar? Is not this wrathful recitation a revelation?
The leaders of this people mislead them
and those to be led are engulfed.
For this reason, the Lord does not spare their young men,
and their orphans and widows he does not pity;
They are wholly profaned and sinful,
and every mouth gives vent to folly.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!
For wickedness burns like fire,
devouring brier and thorn;
It kindles the forest thickets,
which go up in columns of smoke.
At the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land quakes,
and the people are like fuel for fire;
No man spares his brother,
each devours the flesh of his neighbor.
Though they hack on the right, they are hungry;
though they eat on the left, they are not filled.
Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh;
together they turn on Judah.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!
Woe to those who enact unjust statutes
and who write oppressive decrees,
Depriving the needy of judgment
and robbing my people’s poor of their rights,
Making widows their plunder,
and orphans their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
when ruin comes from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
Where will you leave your wealth,
Lest it sink beneath the captive
or fall beneath the slain?
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!
Yes, as the text asks, what will we do on the day of full judgment? Even when we are in our worst state, God allows His wrath (our experience of His holy justice) to be a revelation to us, in the hope that before our final judgment we will finally call on Him. For on that day, the door of possible change will close and our condition will be final and forever fixed.
Woe to us that God’s wrath must be our revelation,his wrath is not turned back, his hand is still outstretched. Better for us to repent and allow His beautiful truth and mercy to be our light, our revelation. Have mercy on us, Lord. Give us added graces to repent!
To outsiders, religious people can seem like entirely different kinds of people – a bit strange sometimes, fanatics to some, archaic at times, and a bit superstitious.
This is all to say that, to some people, religious beliefs are thought to work like emotions. That is, sometimes you get sad, and sometimes you don’t. Some days you feel this way, and some days you feel that way. Some people are happy, and others aren’t. They conclude: some people believe in God – this god or that god – and others don’t. There are all sorts of opinions and all sorts of people.
However, the answer to today’s “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” question clarifies the true nature of the desire that human beings have for God.
The reality is that all human beings have a natural desire for God. The desire in our hearts for God does not come from any mere or passing conversation we might have with our friends, nor does this desire for God well up in our hearts principally from an inspiring book we’ve just read, or from a movie. The desire that human beings can and do have for God is not like an emotion – it’s not a fleeting sensibility that some have and others don’t. Thedesire for God is written into our very nature as human beings. Every single person has it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for”(CCC 27).
If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that there is a hunger for the Truth deep in our hearts. It is not just in some of us; it is deep in the heart of every human being. It is our desire for the infinite, the perfect, and for Love itself. We desire to experience the fullness to which we are called, but this fullness can only be fulfilled in God.
The Second Vatican Council said it this way: “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 19)
Love allows us to reach from the confines of our own limitations and connects us to its very source, who is God Himself.
Saint Augustine said it best: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”
Join us on November 29th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.