Anger is not a pleasant emotion. It’s ugly to watch and it’s awful to be on the receiving end of it. It transforms someone we think we know into someone else. It’s awful.
Why don’t we like anger? It’s because human anger is usually self-centred. It involves losing our temper, losing control, being quick and ill-considered. When anger wells up, we express frustration, not justice, and we wreak damage on property and people (especially weaker people). So we don’t like anger—and rightly so.
The execution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, was chilling. He was sentenced to death for bombing a building in April 1995, causing the deaths of 168 people and seriously injuring another 500. Individually, these people had done him no harm; he killed them simply out of his hate for America. Nineteen of the deaths were children in crèche—they had not even chosen to be there. Apparently he had no regret for his actions.
There was no sympathy for Timothy McVeigh. He wanted none and he got none. But, as we watched the scenes on television, what shocked us was the anger of the American public. Hundreds of family members of victims wanted to see the execution. The very idea of executing a human being is appalling to us. But it seems especially ghoulish and horrible that the family members might want to watch it.
This is because we did not lose our children, our husbands or our wives in the Oklahoma bombing. We did not dig out the human remains from the blast site. We did not nurse injured or traumatized people. We did not deal with the aftermath. And so we do not understand the anger.
But people who love want justice. Justice requires that anger be slow and true. People who love want to make sure the right person is accused—the one who is truly guilty. People who love want to see justice done.
This is the kind of anger which is right. If we love someone, we cannot be indifferent to them. Whenever children have been abducted or abused or killed—whenever innocent people have been robbed or defrauded—outside courtrooms everywhere, you will see their families gathered, crying for justice. It is love that drives this cry. Real love must have the capacity for real anger.
Though we often portray love and anger as opposites, they are not opposites at all. The opposite of love is indifference, not anger. Anger—right anger—is simply another aspect of love. Consider our anger towards war criminals. We are right to be angry about what happened in Kosovo, in the USSR under Stalin, in Cambodia under Pol Pot. We are right to be angry when someone hurts a loved one. Anger is serious when hurt is serious, and the hurt is most serious when we love most.
God gets angry. In Exodus 20, God outlines his relationship with his people like a marriage contract. They are to be faithful to him, and there is to be room for no other. There is to be no idolatry or misrepresentation of him. Like a marriage partner, the people of Israel promised to worship God alone. He promised to care for them, for they were precious to him.
But the people of Israel committed adultery. Anyone who has seen adultery knows that it is a terrible betrayal of loyalty and love. It is awful to so betray the person who has committed their life to you. Proverbs tells us that theft is bad, but adultery is destructive.
Israel committed adultery on her wedding night, worshipping god in the form of a golden calf. God was outraged. Moses pleaded for Israel—even offering to bear the punishment on their behalf. Moses knew how terrible their deed was but he still wanted to save them. Yet Moses was not able to do that. It is not possible for the innocent to die for the guilty. Moses could not take Israel’s guilt upon himself. The guilty must die for themselves.
Now, you may not like this image of God as the angry husband. You may even feel superior to him, thinking, “I would never be the jealous husband, calling for the death of my wife or her lover”. But you do not know your own heart. Perhaps you have not known what it’s like to feel so betrayed that it makes you cry out for justice. Perhaps you have never sat beside someone and listened to them pour out their hurt, their rage and their despair because they’ve been deceived by someone they once trusted. When betrayal comes—particularly betrayal by one you love—anger is entirely understandable.
God decrees death for those who forsake him—who forsake the one who made us and gives us everything. We owe him everything and yet we have betrayed his trust. God is rightfully angry. The punishment he declares is entirely fair.
But God took this punishment himself. In one sense he had to. He loves us so much. He could not bear to wipe us out. In order for justice to be done, the punishment had to be carried out; our betrayal of him is that enormous. But his love for us is so much greater.
God is angry at us but only because he loves us so much. Only by understanding God’s anger can we truly see God’s love. Don’t despise God because of his anger. Love him because of his love—love so great that he bore the brunt of his own anger to turn it away from us. There is no greater love than this.