this is my favorite bit so far from our upcoming fusion series...
Cf. 1.10, 2.16, 5.9
I can already hear some of you saying “Are you serious? In what world is ‘wrath’ a lovesign?” [p.s. "lovesigns" are the term we're using to reference major themes in the book]
It’s true that it is unpopular, even unwise, to speak openly about God’s wrath in our world culture today; but we must be very careful not to sanitize the scriptures and force them to fit our 21st century American molds. God’s wrath is a delicate and complicated subject – not easily understood well or grasped fully – and we must be cautious about assigning additional attributes and characteristics to this emotion if we are to better seize what the scriptures are saying about this lovesign [because, yes, I do maintain that his wrath is a manifestation of his love].
There are certain reasons I advocate wrath-as-love within the context of 1 Thessalonians. First, I think it must be clear that God’s emotions have none of the taint upon them that ours do – such that we must understand that his love is love in its truest form, unmingled with lust or possessiveness or selfish pursuit. The same is true of his wrath – it is wrath in its truest form, untouched by pettiness or base anger or the corruption of mood and temper. God’s wrath is reserved for evildoers [that is, those who choose evil over good], and that wrath is not swift – he always gives opportunity for repentance because he is unwilling that anyone should suffer his wrath, desiring instead that everyone returns into right relationship with their creator and his creation.
In short, God’s wrath is diminished by his mercy.
When we behave in ways that undermine his wise and generous designs for us and for the world, he doesn’t instantly punish us – he allows space for reconciliation. If we choose never to reconcile, our wickedness builds, sin accumulates, until the point where God must say enough is enough.
But, sometimes we question why that wrath is necessary at all – isn’t it enough for God to be displeased with evil? Why does he have to punish those who do it?
In other words, we want to know how a loving God can also be wrathful.
In response, we might ask how a loving God can NOT be wrathful. For example, look at all the horrors of the 20th century – holocaust, genocide, regicide, war, greed, ecological irresponsibility to the point of famine, starvation, and the extinction of species – and ask whether or not it is just for God to absolve himself of his responsibility for divine justice.
He must do something about evil precisely because he is Goodness and Love.
Now, sometimes people try and dismiss the very notion of God’s wrath from the scriptures altogether – claiming that we have misinterpreted the Ancient Near Eastern mindset or context; but this cannot be so, for the development of God’s wrath passes through space and time and crosses both testaments and more than a dozen authors from differing parts of the ancient world.
Others say that “wrath” is better understood as “karma”, but which they mean that any disastrous side-effect of sin [such as venereal disease or environmental damage] is only the natural result of poor judgments by the human species or selfishness affected upon one person by another.
But this is silly – wrath and karma are not synonyms in any culture, lexicon, or etymological reference on the planet. If I steal your car and am arrested, the karma is the jail term, but wrath is your reaction. The only way to believe these things are true is if we ignore a great many scriptures – the prophets, for example, certainly understood God’s wrath as personal, seeing the hand of God in both the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked; similarly, the apostles John and Paul write explicitly about God and his wrath being worked against the purposes of those who defy him [cf. John 3.36, Romans 1.18 + 9.22, Ephesians 5.6, Colossians 3.6, Revelation 11.18 + 14.10,19 + 19.15].
God’s wrath shows how actively opposed he is to evil – and, conversely, how committed he is to the good of those who love him and are his.
That’s why I think it’s a sign of his love – his twin decisions to stop evil and forestall judgment on the penitent are absolute demonstrations that he loves the world and is actively working towards the redemption of everyone on it.