The Purifying Fire We Call God’s Wrath

Thursday in the Fourth Week of Lent: Exodus 32: 7-14, John 5:31-47.

Today’s readings give us the iconic scene in Exodus where God sees the Israelites waiting for Moses at the base of Mt. Sinai making “a molten calf and worshiping it.” God utterly rejects this, noting, “they have become depraved.” God notes “how stiff-necked this people is,” and He wants to finish creating His Covenant with Moses in the way He intended, with a receptive people. So He says, “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” Let us understand this scene carefully because we may make several theological missteps if we start to go down the wrong interpretative path.

On one hand, we have the fire-and-brimstone set of Christians who would use this passage to claim that God is vengeful and filled with wrath for anyone who strays from the straight and narrow path. This is the gospel of fear, which is not really compatible with Christ’s message of agape. On the other hand, we have the everything-is-love set of Christians who would happily disregard this passage as “that’s not really what He meant” because nothing about this scene jives with their vision of a God they want to believe in.

Let’s cut through what we want to believe and how we want to change the world and start to see the God that is revealed to us through sacred scripture. There are a few points of doctrine that Western and Eastern Christians have always agreed upon: God is all-good, God is complete (that is, does not need anything outside of Himself), and God is unchanging. He explains these facts about Himself in His statement to Moses: “I AM who I AM.” In other words, He is defined by nothing outside of Himself. He is fullness of being, and as His interactions with us throughout our history show, this fullness is essentially good.

Untitled painting from Glory to God Alone, Tron-Eilert Holst-Pedersen | image found on tehpbilledkunst.com.

A logical extension of these beliefs is what is called Impassibility, or the fact that God is free from affections or emotions. To explain: if He is complete and unchanging, he doesn’t get angry, he’s not surprised, he’s not jealous, etc. Yet this leads us to imagine an impassive (note the difference from “impassible”) God who seems not to care one way or another about anything. That can’t be right, Christ proves the opposite! Plus, we hear about wrath, anger, jealousy, delight, and more all throughout the scriptures. What’s going on here?

One of the better articles I’ve read on this conundrum of an impassible yet wrathful God was posted on the Catholic Standard by Monsignor Charles Pope last year.  He explains that we must understand God’s wrath is experienced by us, not as an emotion raging within Him. He writes about the analogy of trying to mix water and fire:

God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix; they can’t keep company. Think of fire and water; they cannot coexist in the same place. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of a small amount of water poured into a large fire: the water droplets sizzle and pop; steam rises as the water boils away. … We must be purified before entering His presence, otherwise we could not tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth, turning away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change, so we must be changed or else we will experience wrath.

So we can affirm impassibility in that God does not lose self-control or experience emotions in the ways that humans do. I tend to agree with our Church Father, Tertullian, though, who writes, “Angry He will possibly be, but not irritated, nor dangerously tempted; He will be moved, but not subverted” (Against Marcion, II.16). Tertullian’s point, in part, is that we can’t really know about the essence of God in its perfection since it is beyond our capacity. But, he notes, one thing is for sure: “it is yet palpably absurd of you to be placing human characteristics in God rather than divine ones in man, and clothing God in the likeness of man, instead of man in the image of God” (ibid, II.16). As I wrote in Mercy is the Master Principle, there is something in the original Greek that points to God’s visceral reaction that we might interpret (by analogy) as “emotional” or “affective.” When he is viscerally moved to compassion, the verb has its root in the word for intestines and internal organs: σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splanchnistheis). This is a nice nuance to add to Msgr. Pope’s analogy of the fire, which is by definition an element that is impassive and will burn anything regardless of its good or evil nature. Let me tentatively put this forward: because God is all goodness and purity, the purifying fire of his nature has a valence, meaning that it is weighted with all things good and against all things evil. Thus, when goodness approaches it, the reaction is unity, which we experience as delight, warmth, and embrace. When evil approaches it, the reaction is rejection and elimination, which we experience as wrath, anger, and jealousy.

Transfiguration of Jesus (2004), Armando Alemdar Ara | Wikimedia Commons. I think this beautiful interpretation of the Transfiguration might also be a nice way to visualize the purifying fire of God.

Let’s return with these thoughts to our story from Exodus. God says, “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.” Two things to note: first, He maintains His discourse and relationship with Moses, not to mention the promise to build for him “a great nation.” When he asks Moses to “let him alone,” we might see this as a test for Moses, probing to see if Moses is able to fully inhabit the mercy of God and reflect this same mercy in a request to save his people. In any case, God is exhibiting His mercy here simply in the fact of conversing with Moses about it, giving him a chance to halt the purifying essence of God from burning through his people.

The second thing to note is that God is not consumed by wrath; He is not out of control with human-like emotions. He is measured, speaking frankly and with mercy to Moses. In fact, He presents His wrath as a fundamental part of who He is, a purifying force that simply blazes up in rejection of the sin it encounters. This shows us the mercy and compassion of God while maintaining His essential, indivisible nature, “I AM who I AM.”

Moses steps into his role of chosen prophet and law-giver admirably, reflecting back to God the mercy that he himself was shown. He pleads for the sinful people to be saved. God, ever merciful, grants his prayer. We hear, “So the LORD relented in the punishment, he had threatened to inflict on his people.” In some ways this wording is unfortunate because the words “punishment” and “threatened” feed a misunderstanding of God as one who is overly emotional and fickle (the theological terms would be passible and changing). This sentence could have also been written “So the LORD granted Moses’s prayer and mercifully spared the sinful people from His purifying essence.” In this way, we should understand his “punishment” as simply the incompatibility of sin and blasphemy with the presence of God. Likewise, “threatened to inflict” is “told Moses would occur if His presence fully encountered and burned/purified the sinful people.”

The Worship of the Golden Calf (1519), Raphael | Creative Commons, courtesy arthive.com. This fresco is in the Papal Palace at the Vatican.

The problem that caused this whole kerfuffle was that the Israelites couldn’t even make it a month in the desert without seeing miracles or a sign of their God before they turned away to embrace an idol. This brings us to the gospel reading and the theme Jesus picks up: unfaithfulness to God when you cannot see Him.

The first line Jesus speaks in today’s reading is a little fuzzy without context: “If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.” He is not contradicting what He will say later, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6); instead, He is drawing a distinction between speaking on one’s own behalf and speaking with the authority and power of God. He is clear in the verse prior to the one we read: “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

Thus, “If I testify on my own behalf” means “if I’m standing here preaching to make a name for myself.” And rightfully, then, his testimony would not be “true,” since Truth comes from and points to the Father. He makes this point again in the second half of the reading: “yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?” He refers here to those priests, prophets, and scribes who wish to get fame and glory in this world, who “accept praise from one another.” They are all caught up in a game with themselves and ignore the reality of God, invisible but not unknowable.

Jesus is attempting to counsel the scribes and Pharisees who challenge him for doing work on the Sabbath. He tells them that he is doing the work of his Father, that he is the Son of God. He says, “The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” He is attempting to make visible for them the omnipresent but invisible God. His works testify both “on his behalf” (that He is the Son of God) and they testify to the reality of God the Father. He pinpoints their lack of faith despite all of the signs of his coming, both in his works and in the scriptures:

But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form,
and you do not have his word remaining in you,
because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.
You search the Scriptures,
because you think you have eternal life through them;
even they testify on my behalf.
But you do not want to come to me to have life.

This paints a truly pathetic picture of the ones who are persecuting Jesus. They are blind to God, deaf to God, and do not even have “his word remaining in them,” all because of their act of rejecting Him. He is giving them communion with the divine Lord and they reject it. Even the scriptures to which they cling for salvation are testifying to Christ, but they choose not to see it, they “do not want to come to me to have life.” These people seem just as doomed as the ones worshipping a golden calf at the base of Mt. Sinai. Perhaps even more because they don’t have to believe through an interlocutor like Moses, they have God right in front of them, working miracles and attempting to teach them.

Like God in the Exodus passage, however, Jesus shows them mercy and does not burn them in his purifying fire. He asserts:

Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father:
the one who will accuse you is Moses,
in whom you have placed your hope.
For if you had believed Moses,
you would have believed me,
because he wrote about me.

He shows them that they have created a golden calf in Moses, that they are worshipping an image that is easier for them to believe in than the invisible God on high. But this very idol they have created is true to God and will accuse them to the Father because he knows and has written about the living Word of God long before His coming. 

The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism (Le Triomphe du Christianisme sur le paganisme), 1868, Gustave Doré | Wikimedia Commons.

Today’s readings give me a greater appreciation for the person of Jesus Christ, where the “I AM” in all its pure being is mysteriously united with a human nature susceptible to all of the temptations of this world. By His very nature, God rejects and purifies evil, like fire vaporizing a water droplet. Yet within the person of Jesus, this essence maintains ultimate self-control and obedience to the mercy and goodness of the Father (which He can only do because He is at the same time wholly the essence of the Father, too). The divine essence does not struggle with or burn out a human nature that would, if it was anyone of us, have wanted to yell, punch, or demolish the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees criticizing Him. Christ somehow manages to seamlessly integrate these two natures and persevere in preaching the Truth, the Word, while warning them with mercy about their errant ways. 

Pope Saint Leo the Great writes a fantastic letter that incorporates the ideas we’ve explored in this reflection: the impassibility of God and the union of two natures in Christ. Let us finish with his fine words from Letter 28 (3-4):

To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that was incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. … He was born in a new condition, for, invisible in his own nature, he became visible in ours. Beyond our grasp, he chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, he began to exist at a moment in time. Lord of the universe, he hid his infinite glory and took the nature of a servant. Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering. Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death. He who is true God is also true man. There is no falsehood in this unity as long as the lowliness of man and the pre-eminence of God coexist in mutual relationship. … One and the same person – this must be said over and over again – is truly the Son of God and truly the son of man. He is God in virtue of the fact that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He is man in virtue of the fact that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

5 Comments

  1. Elaine Mozdy

    Love the words of Pope Leo the Great. It is the perfect conclusion to this blog!

    But my favorite part is the discussion of God’s nature and the impossibility of evil or cruel human emotions co-existing .

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