Wrath’s purpose in our lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.
Someone once asked, “Do you believe people can change?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also experienced it.”
“What makes them change?” He asked.
“The power of God working from within, but there is only one way to get that.”
“What is it?”
“Humility. Usually precipitated by pain.”
“Huh?” My friend didn’t like where this was going, but I could tell he was still interested so I pressed on.
“Most of us won’t do what the Bible calls repentance—giving up our role as Lord and Master of our lives, as well as giving up our sins, and giving ourselves over to God—until our way of doing things has caused enough pain and frustration to make us consider that God might have a better plan.”
What I didn’t tell him was that the pain that we experience is a manifestation of the mercy of God through the exercise of his wrath. It is one of his greatest, though severest, blessings.
Temporal wrath, the kind we experience during our earthly lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.
When we think of God’s wrath we often think of cataclysmic natural phenomena: the great flood of Genesis or the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Some have even said that hurricanes and the like are evidence of God’s wrath. But a passage in Ezekiel, along with others in the New Testament, offers a different take.
Ezekiel 20:25-26 is a record of God’s wrath against Israel for her sins. It reads: “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror, so they would know that I am the LORD.”
Israel had become hard of hearing. God had sent plenty of warnings by previous prophets; notables like Elijah and Elisha and Jeremiah. But Israel had refused to listen. So God “gave them over.” In other words, he let them experience the full consequences of their choices. Instead of his civilization-building, order-preserving, life-giving Ten Commandments they ended up with a system of frustrating laws under which no one could flourish. Worse, instead of the purity and peace of temple worship they ended up sacrificing their firstborn, murdering their children to appease the new gods they had chosen over Jehovah. This was God’s merciful wrath in action: That they might be so filled with horror at their own behavior they would recognize their folly and return to him.
God’s merciful wrath is also visible in the New Testament. Jesus, responding to his disciples concern over some false teachers, said “let them alone, they are blind leaders of the blind, they will both fall into a ditch.” Paul, in Romans chapter one, repeats the phrase, “gave them over” when explaining God’s wrath. God “left them alone” so to speak. Each time the result is the same: people experiencing the painful and destructive consequences of their choices.
God’s temporal wrath works to induce revulsion in us, disgust at our own behavior, and such horror at the consequences of our choices that we are willing to consider another way to live.
Every one of us deserves God’s wrath, the eternal as well as the temporal consequences of rebellion against him. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Are we any better? Not at all! … There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away. They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Thankfully, eternal wrath—the eternal consequences of our rebellion against his goodness—is not the end God has for us, at least not for those who hear the message in painful consequences of ungodly choices. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ absorbed the wrath of God for us so that the only version of it we would experience is the kind that helps us change, not the eternal version.
God’s wrath in our lives is a blessing in disguise. It is designed to help us see the awfulness of sin so that we will turn to the savior.