Joy or Wrath
It has just occurred to me more clearly than ever the relationship between true joy and the essence of what the Bible calls God's 'wrath'.
Joy, as I have been coming to learn, is the description of what we experience inside whenever someone is glad to be with us, one who cares deeply about us and wants to be close to us in every way possible – spiritually, physically, emotionally – no matter what we are experiencing or feeling. Our deep cravings to experience companionship, bonds of caring and love and intimacy lie at the very foundation of the human psyche. Scientists have observed this in their recent studies of how the brain is designed to function and have even decided that one of the best words to describe this fundamental need of our makeup is the word joy.
I don't know why I have not thought of it this clearly before (or maybe I have and have just forgotten), but it suddenly struck me this morning that the exact opposite of joy is what the Bible describes as wrath. But before anyone jumps to incorrect assumptions about what I mean, the word wrath must be carefully examined to unpack how the Bible defines it rather than perceived from all the connotations that have been improperly assumed about it.
In my personal examination of Scriptures over the past few years I have come to see that God's anger and wrath are radically different than what we think of when we experience anger and wrath. This is one reason God explains that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not like our thoughts. When we attempt to define God's attitudes based on how we feel and react we immediately fall into deception and confusion. It is vital that we first try to release our minds from the deeply entrenched assumptions we have and then allow God to reveal Himself and the truth about His feelings to us directly from the Word and interpreted by His Spirit.
Romans 1 is one of the clearest places in the Bible where God's wrath is explicitly defined. Here Paul spells out rather plainly three times that God's wrath is His act of releasing or finally letting go those who have persistently chosen to separate from His will, to suffer the natural consequences of their own decisions. Religion usually presents a God waiting to punish and condemn, yet the true God of the Bible is very different from that model. God is always full of love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion and is always fair. Yet our ideas about fairness and justice are also contaminated by our desires for revenge which never enters into the mind of God. Justice from heaven's perspective is far different than what we call justice in our fallen world.
When God talks about His wrath in Scripture it is always consistent with the concept of 'giving over' rather than arbitrary imposition of punishments meant to harm or destroy or get even. Wrath biblically speaking is a demonstration of the final respect that God shows to everyone who so totally resists and rejects the drawing of His loving Spirit that they destroy all of their capacity to even want to be in harmony with His love anymore. When it becomes clear there is nothing more God can do to salvage them, God respects their final choice by withdrawing His protection of mercy from around them that they have spurned and allows forces of evil to do what evil has always desired to do – steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10).
What became so clear to me this morning in the light of these true definitions for both of these words, joy and wrath, is that they are perfect opposites. Because joy is the experience of God always being with us no matter how we react inappropriately, what feelings we may be experiencing or how much we live immaturely, as long as we are willing to accept His love and guidance and correction in our life we will find new strength in the joy of the Lord. (Nehemiah 8:10)
On the other hand, wrath is what we experience when there is an absence of the joy of God due to our choices to not believe the truth about Him. When we cling to lies about how God feels about us, when we refuse to let Him love us, to transform us, to salvage us from our sinful condition and we reject the convictions of the Holy Spirit meant to bring us into harmony with His reality, then the absence of His life-giving and protecting presence in our lives exposes us to all the horrors of loneliness, vulnerability to satanic attacks, fear, shame and all the evil that can happen to a person when God is no longer their shield and protector, redeemer and friend.
Those who continue to insist that it is God who is angrily initiating punishment against those who disobey Him rather than sadly abandoning them in the end to the natural consequences of sin actually set themselves up to experience those tragic consequences by their own rejection of this truth about Him. I have observed that we can experience a reality that we create by what we choose to believe whether it is actually true or not. The view of reality we embrace becomes a strong filter through which all facts and evidence are twisted to reinforce our own preconceived opinions.
It is only when we become willing to lay down our filters, immerse ourselves in the true Word of God personally and allow the Spirit of God to instruct us with new perspectives from that Word to introduce us to the true God of heaven do we have hope of being conformed to the image of the Son of God and be prepared to live in the presence of His consuming fire. (Isaiah 33:13-17) For those who enter into the joy of the Lord, the consuming fire of God is life-giving and causes them to thrive. But for those who insist that God is double-minded, that He intends to arbitrarily punish and torture all who reject His offers of love and mercy, they come to the place where they will interpret even the most benign evidences of His love as threats and will live in fearful foreboding of destruction from His hand.
It is becoming ever more clear to me that my picture of God is the most important thing I must pay attention to. Properly understanding this truth lies at the foundation of my future destiny and influences everything I think, do and say as well as how I relate to everyone around me. To the extent that my concept of God is still messed up and out of harmony with the reality of who He really is, I will malfunction both internally and in my relationships with others. Conversely, as my picture of God clarifies and I see more and more of His beauty and loveliness, goodness and charms, like Moses I will become enamored with Him and will long to see His glory more explicitly with a growing passion that cannot be quenched or turned away. I will then really begin to know far better than ever before what it means to enter into the joy of the Lord and experience the strength that comes with that joy.
There is a choice for each person to make. Will I live a life moving toward God and entering deeper and deeper into the joy that is inevitably found when in harmony with Him in His presence? Or will I refuse to embrace the truths about Him that His Spirit seeks to impress on my heart and steel myself against His efforts to bring me into conformity to His will and His character? If I choose repeatedly to live independent from God, to cling to traditions and lies about Him, to make myself or someone else the source of my existence and the authority that defines my value and identity (the true definition of worship), then someday God will finally respect my determined choices to reject Him as my lover and Source of life and will release me to the terrible effects of my choices. He will turn me over with great grief to the results of living apart from the only Source of life that exists anywhere to suffer the only alternative there is, the wages of sin which is death.
Joy or wrath? Intimacy or abandonment? Which will I choose to embrace in my relation to God?
He gives me complete freedom to decide for myself, but the consequences of either decision are enormous while His grace and mercy continue to presently shield me from many of the immediate effects of making wrong choices while I make up my mind. We all live in a time of probation where we have a chance to sort out which direction we will decide to move. But there is coming a time when everyone will have shaped their characters so fully through the choices they have made and the picture of God they have settled in their hearts that nothing more can be done to change them. Then God will respect everyone's choice and will bring this time of probation to a close (Revelation 22:11) so He can finish the war and settle the dispute in favor of those who long to live in perfect joy with Him forever.