Suffering, Understanding and the Wrath of God

Archpriest Michael Gillis | 01 August 2016

Anger and wrath are near synonyms in English, wrath often being defined as intense anger.  But in Bible usage, wrath often refers to applied anger, or what one does or would be expected to do when angry.  Thus, to experience someone’s wrath is to experience something that you associate with anger–whether or not that person is actually angry.  For example, you can experience the wrath of a king in the form of a military attack on your village, even though the king is not at all emotionally involved.  Nonetheless, the destruction experienced is called the wrath of the king.

This is particularly true of God.  God does not get angry because God does not change. God’s disposition toward His creation is always that of love.  Nonetheless, God has so established and works in the creation to save it.  And how the creation is saved, or how it comes to be purified and to be willingly filled with God’s love, depends on human beings.  Human beings are the apex of creation, containing within themselves elements of both the seen and unseen (physical and spiritual) realities.  This is why the fathers of the Church often refer to human beings as microcosms of the universe.  In saving mankind, God saves everything because mankind is composed of everything.

But in that human beings have willingly turned away from God, God works in and through death–the natural consequence of turning away from Life–to turn men and women willingly back to Himself.  And it is this death (in its many forms), this consequence of mankind turning away from God, that mankind often experiences as the wrath of God–or in the language of modern insurance policies, an act of God.

It is a perennial saying among the biblical prophets and in various Church fathers that “God allows war to come upon people just like he allows illness or famine, because of people’s sins” (to quote St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Missionary Letter #277).  In cultures that are more aware of God, this suffering is often referred to the wrath of God.  However, in contemporary North American culture, if we think of God at all, we tend to think of Him as a distant manipulator or string-puller: A great heavenly Someone who can manipulate reality for His own purposes.  Both ways of conceiving of God’s interaction with our experience in the world are problematic, but the later is much worse than the first.

In as much as we conceive of God as the distant string-puller, we have reduced God to a kind of unfeeling or even maleficent machine, a kind of functionary who for no apparent reason (or worse yet, for ungracious reasons) lets bad things happen to good people.  This kind of God we blame for everything bad that we cannot directly control (earthquakes, diseases, floods, death, etc.), and we basically ignore Him when things are going our way.  We have no relationship with this God.  It is just the God-of-the-gaps, the God of everything we think we don’t understand, the heavenly fall guy for all that seriously rocks our boat.

The God of wrath is, at least, a God that can be known; even if misunderstood.  The God of wrath is personally involved in our lives and cannot be ignored.  The God of wrath must be confronted, personally.  And it is in this confrontation, in this encounter with God in the midst of suffering, that we often come actually to know (in some small way) God, and equally importantly, ourselves.  That the God of wrath is not actually angry as human beings are angry may take a lifetime (or more) to understand, but at least a God wrongly conceived as angry is a personal God.  This God is active in the world, in my life; and I have a relationship with this God (whether I like it or not).

As a result of relationship with someone, with God in this case, I can come to know the Other better.  Even if my conception of God is full of errors–often caused by transferring my own fears and passions onto Him–because my relationship with God is an actual relationship, over time many of those false understandings pass away.  I come to know both God and myself as we really are.

I have noticed in myself, and perhaps you have noticed this in yourself too, that when times are good and everything seems to be going my way, I find myself acting and speaking without reflection.  I do what feels good and say what comes to my mind at the moment.  I don’t consider who my actions or words may hurt.  It doesn’t even occur to me that others are hurting.  I construct a storyline, an interpretation of reality in my mind, in which I am good and right and innocent and if anyone else in the world has problems, it certainly is not my fault and there is nothing I can do about it.  But when tragedy strikes me (or someone close to me), then–if I am open to the Grace of God at all–I can begin to become aware of my arrogance, I can begin to beg God for mercy and thus begin to become aware of how I too must be merciful.  Death in one form or another, the wrath of God, brings me to my senses and leads me to repentance.

As a priest, when I am trying to help someone work through a crisis, the sufferer will sometimes ask me, “what sin did I do to deserve this.”  At that moment, I cannot answer that question.  I cannot answer both because an answer is not what is really needed at the moment, and I cannot answer because I do not know.  To answer that question, we actually have to ask different questions, questions such as who am I, what am I, and what is the purpose of life.  These are questions that are not answerable on demand at a moment of crisis, but they are questions that must be contemplated in prayer in the years preceding or following the crises.  Unfortunately, many of us do not devote much energy to prayerful contemplation in between crises, and so the crises overrun us: we are unprepared.  Jesus likened this to the unprepared householder who does not know when the thief will come.  We must always be preparing for death, for we don’t know when the thief will come.

And it is in this preparing that we come to understand who we are, what we are and the purpose of life. We understand not so that we can give answers with discursive logic to others who are suffering or to those who like to play games with hard questions.  We come to understand in the way that we come to know someone, for that indeed is what is happening.  We come to understand in a way that is only known within ourselves and, sometimes with God’s help, is communicated silently to others who are suffering.

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