Sunday, January 23, 2011

Does God Get Angry? (Judges 2:11-12, Mark 3:1-6)

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger.

Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, & a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart & said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, & his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Today, we are continuing in our series of messages I have simply entitled, “Ask God.” We are wrestling with real questions that thinking people have either for God or about God.

Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or pencil as we wrestle with this week’s question: “Does God get angry?” The key to understanding these questions lies in understanding the character & nature of God; let’s open ourselves up to what God reveals to us about God’s self. May we pray.

When I was growing up, I had a little bit of a mischievous streak in me. Hard to believe, knowing me now, but it’s true. Sometimes, the line between mischief and misbehavior was hard to distinguish, and I found myself crossing that line more than I probably wanted to. My Grandma Thomas always had the worst punishment when I’d acted up. She never spanked, she never yelled, and she didn’t even give “time-out.” She would simply look down, and quietly say, “It makes Jesus sad when you’re naughty.” I’ve gotta tell you, as a five-year-old, that was like the worst punishment ever.

Through the years since, it has got me thinking a lot about whether or not God has “emotions.” The most straightforward, correct answer is “yes,” because we know that God became human in the person of Jesus. As Jesus walked on earth, fully human and fully divine, Emmanuel, God-with-us, we know that he experienced everything we as humans experience. He experienced joy and sadness, hunger and thirst, being tired, temptation, fear and rejection and peace and acceptance. Certainly, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions throughout his life.

We know that God is love; the Scriptures are clear about that and tell us over and over again that God’s primary attribute is love. We know that God hears our prayers and responds, the Scriptures tell us about God being moved with pity, suggesting that God must feel something like empathy or sympathy. We are told that the heart of God is moved to sorrow when there is suffering in the world. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that God has emotions, perhaps not quite the same way we understand and experience our human emotion, but God’s heart certainly does rise and fall with what happens in the world.

But, what about anger? Does God get angry? Whether we realize it or not, we have inherited a populist theology in this country that traces its roots back to the early Puritan settlers in New England and the period of history called “The Great Awakening.” The most famous Puritan preacher was Jonathan Edwards, and his most famous sermon – one that typified the theology of his day, was entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

For many people, religious and non-religious alike, this view of God is still buried down somewhere in our subconscious. In response, there have been attempts to distance ourselves from the theology of New England Puritans. After all, these were the same people who would burn you at the stake for being a witch for something as simple as forgetting the words to the Lord’s Prayer. According to that view, I could be put on trial and convicted for being a witch! And so, some have come to the conclusion that it is against God’s nature to get angry.

What should we believe? Are we merely sinners in the hands of an angry God? Or, is it against God’s nature to get angry? On which side of this debate should we come down? Who’s right and who’s wrong? This will not be a surprise to you, but as a good Methodist, I want us to live somewhere in the tension between these two positions. This is not an ‘either-or’ proposition, but a ‘both-and.’

God’s reigning attribute is love. We know that. And at the end of the day, love conquers all. Love always wins. But, just because God is love doesn’t mean that God can’t get angry.

Love and anger are not always mutually exclusive. Parents sometimes get angry with things their children do. Put your hand up if you’re a parent. Now, keep your hand up if you’ve ever gotten angry at your children. Or, to keep us all honest, put your hand up if you’re a parent and you’ve never gotten angry at your children! Now, answer this – just because you’ve gotten angry at your children, did you ever stop loving them?

A parent might get angry when a child does something that puts the child or someone else in danger. A parent might get angry when a child does something that hurts themselves or someone else. A parent might get angry with a child for doing something that damages relationships within the family. Precisely because the parent is concerned with the well-being of their child, the parent can get angry when the child does anything that threatens that well-being.

Likewise, God is so wrapped up in love for each of us, so concerned for our well-being, that God may become angry when we do things that threaten ourselves, others, and the sacred relationships that weave us all together. Precisely because God loves each of us and wants what is best for the entire creation, God may become angry when we are not as loving as God has called us to be. It comes back to Jesus’ core teaching, his summary statement that what we are supposed to do as his followers is love God and love our neighbor. That’s the litmus test for everything we do – just stop and ask if it is loving toward God and loving toward neighbor, and if it’s not, then we shouldn’t do it.

Let’s consider some specific examples. In Judges 2, which we looked at before the sermon, God is provoked to anger when the people worship other gods. We have a word for this – idolatry. Worship comes from an old English word that means “to give something worth,” so in a manner of speaking, whatever we think has the most value in our lives is what we worship. It’s really just a matter of getting our priorities mixed up and putting things in the wrong order.

Think of it this way. You are throwing a 100th surprise birthday party for your beloved Aunt Sophia. She finally gets there, and everyone jumps out and yells “Surprise!” She’s touched and moved that so many people have come together from so far away just to honor her. Then you move into the dining room for dinner, and you decide that you’ll sit at the head of the table, in the position of greatest honor and there are no seats left, but you reluctantly agree to set up a card table in the hallway for Aunt Sophia. Happy birthday, Aunt Sophia!

God is supposed to be in the seat of honor, but too often, we give the seat of greatest honor to someone else or even take it ourselves. God is supposed to be in first place in our lives – that’s the very first one of the Ten Commandments for a reason – but when we give God’s place away to something or someone else in our hearts, in our lives, in our church, or wherever – then we are practicing idolatry, and that’s something that makes God angry.

Or, in the passage we’ve already read from Mark, Jesus enters the synagogue and encounters a man with a disfigured and useless hand. In that day, it was against the law to do any work on the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of worship and rest. And so, if Jesus heals on the Sabbath, it would be considered work. And everyone wants to know, is Jesus going to break the law and heal the guy, or is Jesus going to follow the law and allow the guy to continue to suffer? The text says Jesus looked around at the self-righteous religious snobs with anger, because of their body language.

Yes, body language. Body language doesn’t lie – it’s impossible to mask, and it reveals how we really feel about something. We can say one thing with our lips, but our bodies can say something entirely different. You can do a cultural study in this sometime. Go to the mall, and watch a teenage girl who wants to buy a certain shirt and has just been told “no” by her mother. Even if the girl doesn’t say anything with her mouth, her body language will tell you everything.

Likewise, God reads body language. God is always looking past what we say to the depth of who we are to see what is really going on within us. But the part of the body God pays the most attention to is the heart. The heart is the center of our emotions and the very core of our being, and when God looked to the heart of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the sight wasn’t pretty.

What about this angered Jesus? The text says they were hard of heart. They were stubborn, they were arrogant, they were rigid, they were inflexible, they were so caught up in their own self-righteousness that they couldn’t see the righteousness of God right in front of their own noses. They were not open to God and had closed themselves off, so convinced of their own correctness that they couldn’t even open themselves up to the possibility that they didn’t have the corner on understanding who God is and what God is up to in the world. This made God angry, and anytime we act the same way, we can be assured that God will also be angry with us.

There is also a correlation between hard hearts and stiff necks. Many times in the Old Testament, the people are referred to as a “stiff-necked people.” This is an equestrian term – anyone here do much horseback riding? Some horses are just more stubborn than others, and a horse being stiff-necked is a sign that they are not going to go your way and are going to insist on going their own way and doing what they want to do. You pull on the reigns trying to direct the horse in the way you want to go, and the horse bows its neck and resists and wants to go the opposite direction; maybe the horse stops all together, maybe the horse tries to buck you off for trying to give it direction. That’s what we mean by “stiff-necked.”

In the same way, people can be “stiff-necked” when it comes to following what God wants us to. Our wills are strong, powerful things, and independent people like us resist being told what to do. We don’t like someone else telling us what do to, even if that someone is God. Who here has seen the movie Meet the Parents? One of my favorite scenes is right toward the end when Greg is boarding a plane to head back to Chicago after a distrastrous few days at his fiancĂ©’s family home in New York, and his bag won’t fit in the overhead bin. The stewardess tries to take the bag and check it with the other luggage, and it mounts into a rising escalation, and finally Greg says, “Hey, hey, If you would take a second, take the little sticks out of your head, clean out your ears, and maybe you would see that I'm a person who has feelings, and all I have to do is do what I wanna do and all I want to do is hold on to my bag and not listen to you! And the only way that I would ever let go of my bag would be if you came over here right now and tried to pry it from my dead, lifeless fingers, okay? If you can get it from my kung-fu grip then you can come and have it, okay?”

Precisely because we have to do what we wanna do, we can be stiff-necked. We can be inflexible, we are stubborn, we are insistent on following our own way and refuse to bend to God’s way.

How else did the Pharisees’ hardness of heart make God angry in this text? Because they were hard of heart, they placed religious rules ahead of people. Any time we are more concerned with enforcing rules, or insisting that people conform and do it our way to be accepted, we are in a losing situation. God cares more about people than rules.

I have a few very direct questions for each of us to consider this morning, because I want each of us to think about whether or not our actions and the condition of our hearts may be provoking God to anger. All of us, myself included, fail to get it right sometimes and need to examine our priorities and bring them back in line with what God wants. Jot these questions down in your notes, and do some honest soul-searching as you consider their answers.

First, does God have first place in your life? Or, is someone else or something else sitting in God’s seat?

Second, check your spiritual body language. Is your heart hard and your neck stiff? Where are you insistent on your own way? Where is your heart resistant to the movement of the Holy Spirit?

And third, how have you placed religious rules ahead of people?

All of these things make God angry, not because God is moody, but because God loves us better than a parent, and these things threaten our well-being. All of these represent sin in our lives, things that keep us from being in the loving relationship God that desires and designs for us. But friends, hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. We are not merely sinners in the hands of an angry God, because God so sincerely desires reconciliation with us, God desires restoration of our relationship with God, God loves us and wants us to be in love with God.

While God gets angry, God is, first and foremost, a loving God. Love is God’s reigning attribute, and love wins every time. Indeed, the Scriptures tell us, “The Lord God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).

And so, when we realize that God isn’t first in our lives, that our hearts have been hard, that our necks have been stiff, that we have placed religious rules ahead of people, God can be provoked to anger. Even so, God’s default mode is love and mercy and forgiveness, not anger and condemnation and judgment. And so, when we realize that we have done things in our actions and by the disposition of our hearts that anger God, the best thing we can do is repent. To swallow our pride, to say, “not my will but yours be done,” to really mean it when we say, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Yes, God gets angry, but we are all invited and given opportunity to repent and do something different with our lives. That is the best news any of us could hear. Today is a great day to turn another way and live as God calls us to live. God is knocking on the door of each of our hearts. For those who open the door and let God in, you’ll find the Holy Spirit at work within you to shape your attitudes and your desires and your actions and your entire disposition toward what God wants. But the question remains for each of us here: Will you open the door?


  1. Dear AJ,

    We must always be working from the starting point that God is Love. Love is not an attribute of God, in which case it would be that 'God is loving' or 'God has love'.
    It is difficult for us to appreciate the difference because of the structure of language but I am sure that we must always make the difference.
    Whenever I think on this subject I replace the word 'God' with the word 'love' and see whether it still makes sense. If it does, and it is what I am trying to say, then
    I am confident that it is true.
    Please read the testimonies at the Near Death Experiences Research Foundation

    with love

  2. Hi anonymous -

    Good thoughts here. Indeed, God is love - precisely what I intended in that love is God's reigning attribute. Language is a tricky thing, to be sure!

    What I hoped to convey in this sermon is that the thing that angers God is when we allow our own stuff to block God's love -

    1. when we place something else ahead of God, and therefore do not return God's love as fully as God loves us,

    2. when our hearts are hard and our necks stiff, demonstrating our resistance to God's love.

    3. when we place our own rules ahead of people, demonstrating ourselves, rather than God's love, to be the superior influence in our lives.

    Hope that makes sense!