God has a funny way of reminding me of how blessed I am to be married to my McKenna. Recently he did it through a bit of an imbroglio I got into online. As happens from time to time, some mis-communications occurred in a conversation and, in my wife’s opinion, the other dude said some hurtful and unfair things about me—things that she thought were wrong and unrighteous. Although typically the one calming me down, she was so bent out of shape about it she wanted to say something to the guy and was frustrated to the point of tears when I told her it’d be best to leave it to the Lord. (She is little, but fierce.) Her deep love for me and sense of justice led to great indignation at the perceived slight on my character and it moved her to want correct it, to right the wrong–essentially, it provoked her to wrath on my behalf.
Aside from feeling deeply loved and very humbled, this incident reminded me of an important, but little-considered insight into the problem of the wrath of God–the God of the Bible is gloriously triune. Before we see what light that sheds on things, we have to first consider the problem.
The Problem of Self-Regarding Wrath- To be perfectly blunt, the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God is one of the most troubling and confusing doctrines for contemporary Christians to deal with. Let’s be honest, it’s never really been a popular one, but in our modern times, there is a particular animosity towards the idea of God being some angry deity, a jealous God who says “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Ex 20:7); one whose wrath has anything to do with concern about his own glory, his own name, and not simply the good of his people. (Ezek 20:13) The idea that God’s wrath might flow out of what Walter Brueggemann has called, “Yahweh’s colossal self-regard” is incomprehensible to many of us. Even when it’s affirmed or confessed, most people still don’t know what to do with it.
A lot of us can deal with the idea that God gets angry out of love for people. When we see Isaiah or Amos proclaiming God’s indignation at the oppression of the poor, and the violence against the weak, we understand that. That other-regarding kind of anger in God is acceptable to us because it is aimed at human good. We get that for God not to be wrathful against the human evil we perpetrate against each other would be wicked. God can’t look at racism, rape, genocide, and televangelists and just shrug his shoulders. In the face of such evil there ought to be real indignation, anger, and moral opposition–in a word, wrath.
Still, when it comes to indignation flowing from any kind of Divine self-regard, an offended holiness, or anything like that, the charge comes up that this is the picture of some primitive deity, an insecure, tyrannical, emotionally unstable character with obvious self-esteem issues. We read texts like “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name “(Mal 1:6), and we shudder. We ask, “I mean, shouldn’t God be above that sort of thing? Shouldn’t he be able to brush that off? I thought a God of love wouldn’t be that petty and narcissistic?”
Divine Self-Regard and Truth The first question that comes to my mind when I hear these sorts of objections is, “What kind of ‘love’ is it? Is God’s love the kind that’s concerned with truth?” If so, then it must be a love that hates lies. (Rom 12:9) The God who is perfectly true loves truth and hates lies. For that reason he must hate the lies that we tell about him. He must hate blasphemy, idolatry, and all the different ways that we deny God his godness. In fact, that’s exactly what the Bible says he does. (Rom 1:18-24) On the one hand, yes, he hates it because it distorts our understanding of him and hurts us, but the Bible is clear that he also hates it simply because it is a lie about Him, the Truth Himself.
Think about it, the reason self-regard is so putrid in humans is because it is usually based on a lie, an arrogant over-estimation of one’s value or characteristics. Self-regard in God is not a lie, though. It is truth. When he demands regard, it’s because He himself is the ultimate in beauty, glory, majesty, love, compassion, strength, justice, holiness, and loving-kindness. For God to have great regard himself is just an accurate estimation of what is the case. It is righteous, holy, and ‘impartial’ , which is one of the many ways that God’s self-regard is unique and unlike ours.
Put it another way, one of the attitudes encouraged in the Scriptures is zeal for God’s Name—we should feel affronted when God’s Name is trampled, not just because it hurts people but because God is beautiful and righteous—He Himself is worth the indignation. (Ps 69:9) Now, would it be wrong for God to command us to have zeal for his Name if he didn’t have it? Am I to love God, praise his name, be concerned for its trampling before people just for the sake of others or is it also right for God’s own sake? In that case, isn’t it appropriate for God to think he’s worth it?
Divine Self-Regard and the Trinity While these questions about self-regard and truth are necessary and important, often-times we stop there, and fail think through to the deeply Triune shape of God’s Divine self-regard. In Jesus’ high-priestly prayer we are given a small glimpse into the beautiful life of the Triune God:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
Before the creation of the world, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have been in a perfect, harmonious love relationship of mutual love, admiration, and glorification. Here the Scriptures show this dynamic most clearly in the love relationship between the Father and the Son. From all eternity, the Son has been with the Father, and has always been the object of the Father’s delight and heart, the only-begotten, beloved Son in whom he is “well-pleased”(Jn 1:1, 17; 3:16; 17:23-24; Mk 1:11) The Son has always delighted in the infinite goodness, the righteousness, the holiness, and unimaginable beauty of his Father, and it his will to make his Father known (Jn 17:26) His deep love for his Abba (Mk 14:36), causes him to be obedient and do only what his Father is doing. (Jn 5:19) Their mutual indwelling means an identification between the persons such that “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.” (Jn 14:7)
Trinitarian Self-Regarding Wrath At this point it becomes clear why my wife’s indignation reminded me of God’s own self-regarding indignation and wrath. When we love someone, we are absolutely opposed towards anything that wrongly brings shame on their name or dishonors them. My wife’s love for me is such that any defamation of my character frustrates her, concerns her, is hateful to her. For it to be otherwise would imply a deficiency in her love for me. Here I’m tapping into a very Aristotelian point to say that virtue at times requires certain emotions and certain reactions, and the ability to feel them at the right time and the right place. The very best, most virtuous people are the people who know precisely why and when to be angry, or happy, or sad. I think that holds true maximally of God. Now, again, we need to keep in mind God’s Impassibility, the fact that his emotions and judgments are in very important ways not like ours, subject to the limitations and defects humans suffer. So any analogy between human love and wrath needs to be seriously qualified.
Still, given the great, eternal, burning, over-flowing love that flows between the persons of the Trinity, should we think that the Father would have any less concern about the glory of his beautiful Son? Should the Son be angered at blasphemy and defiance of His gracious Father? Are the Father and the Son being narcissistic in their indignation at the distressing of the Holy Spirit?
In fact, when we look at the New Testament, at Jesus, God in the flesh, this is exactly what we see. Jesus’ most violent moment, when his indignation at sin and evil is most on display, is in his clearing of the Temple at the Passover. (Jn 2) In overturning the vendors’ stalls and the money-changers’ tables he enacts a symbolic judgment on the sin that has corrupted the holiness of God’s house. Jesus’ actions in the Temple flow from his anger, his wrath that his Father’s house was being defiled, that his Name was being profaned by the money-lenders. (Jn 2:16) In fact, at that point, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” (Jn 2:17)
We see clearly then that Jesus’ wrath has a Trinitarian shape—the Son is concerned with the great Name of his Father. When you put things in a Trinitarian perspective it all the more, shows that it is perfectly reasonable, right, and even biblical for God to be concerned about God’s Name–that his indignation, his wrath should be self-regarding in that way. It is precisely because of the perfection of God’s Triune love that God has self-regarding wrath, not any deficiency or lack in it. It is not narcissistic or petty, but beautiful and honorable for God to care about his Name; it is glorious for the Son to love the Father and the Spirit, and the Father to love the Son and the Spirit, and the Spirit to love the Son and the Father with such a great, burning passion that any affront, any lie, any blasphemy of any of the persons is a source of great indignation to the others, that it provokes wrath and anger, holy concern.
This is Good News To make it clear then, both in his other-regarding and his self-regarding indignation, God’s wrath is not opposed to his perfect love but flows from its perfect fullness. I want to make it clear that in no way am I denying God’s utter goodness towards humans, or his basic, self-giving concern and care for them in all that he does. I simply want to fill in the picture a bit to show the fittingness, the rightness, and beauty of God’s own self-regarding indignation. In fact, I think that when properly considered, God’s concern for his own Name should be a great comfort to believers when they reflect on the good news that through Jesus Christ, we are invited into that love, into the fullness of the life of the Triune God.
In his high-priestly prayer Jesus prayed to his Father, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Jn 17:26) Jesus made his Father’s name known so that through him, that same love with which the Father loves the Son is the love that is lavished upon us and poured out into our hearts through the Spirit. (Rom. 5:5) This means that through Christ the same concern with which God is concerned for his own Name, is the concern he places on you!
Ironically enough, it is precisely this passionate, holy, self-regarding love which enables Paul to proclaim with great assurance that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Rom 8:38-39)
Praise be to the great and glorious love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria