If I was going to write my mission statement on a t-shirt, it would be: The love of God is the most powerful force in the universe. He loves you madly, truly, deeply and eternally. Okay, maybe two t-shirts.
This certainty has not always been my reality, so I cling hard to it now. I will, for the rest of my days, position my writing and teaching with His love in first position – it is the lens through which I see everything else. This sometimes leads to the assertion that I am teaching too much of a good thing and that an overemphasis on His love will lead to too little emphasis on His wrath, which could have catastrophic consequences.
Now, sometimes people position this argument as “Love vs. Truth” and I hate that idea. I don’t believe there exists any smidge of a “vs” between love and truth. Love and truth are not opposing forces. I think a more accurate title for this particular debate is: God’s love for mankind vs. God’s wrath toward the things that hurt mankind. And the term “wrath” here is pretty fierce. It’s hard to reconcile this word with a God who dances joyfully over His creation (Zeph. 3:17). And yet, I do agree on some level with those who say any attempt to erase God’s wrath from His emotional makeup is both theologically incorrect and personally damaging – though I often disagree quite fervently with how and why they are saying it.
So, can we make God mad? The short answer, as I see it, is: Yes. But it’s not the same as making each other mad and it’s not God’s default emotion toward our sin, mistakes or even our stubborn resistance to truth.
Here’s the text I’m leaning on for this post, but there are a bunch of them that read similarly all through the Holy Script:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourself of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. Colossians 3:5-8
The word wrath here is the Greek word, orge and it means “violent passion”. It occurs 13 times in the Bible, four times it’s about our wrath and nine times it’s about God’s wrath. And in every instance where this emotion is attributed to humanity, it is condemned. Here’s an example:
Get rid of all bitterness, wrath, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:31-32
This is a fascinating, because what we’ve just discovered is an emotion that God is allowed to have and we are not. In all the ways we are instructed to become like God, this is one place where He says, “Nope. Not there. That one belongs to Me alone.” I could write a whole bunch about this, but the takeaway point for me is: The wrath of God is so motivated and shaped by His unending and unconditional love that He can be trusted with wrath and we cannot. We are fully deputized to handle and distribute the love of God, but we are forbidden from handling His wrath (in fact, James 1 says the wrath of man can not produce the righteousness of God.) This principle tells me that there is something about the wrath of God I do not and cannot understand when I view it through my foggy human filter. The only way I can begin to grasp the truth of my ability to make God mad and still be loved by Him is to bring it into my human relationships.
My husband loves me more than anyone loves me, but if I had NO ability to make him mad or frustrate him, that wouldn’t really be love at all – that would be indifference or ignorance and it would be a facade of a relationship. If I can’t make him mad, I can’t make him proud. If I can’t frustrate him, I can’t delight him. One example that is most prominent in my mind: If treated Cliff’s children badly, even if I treated Cliff like a king, even if I loved him more and better than he’s ever been loved before, even if I believed exactly as he does about politics or vocation or justice or finances – if I hurt his kids, it would not only make Cliff angry, it would do real damage to our relationship. My relationship with Cliff doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in community. My relationship with God also exists in community and the things listed that incur His wrath, are the things we do that hurt His kids: anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language (<— a study of these words and their meanings is fascinating but too long for this post! Short story: They all have to do with using words or actions to intentionally hurt other people.)
So, yes, I definitely believe it’s possible to make God mad and I believe that begins with the way I treat other people. I also believe it’s possible to make Him proud and that also begins with the way I treat other people. Perhaps God isn’t mad AT me, He’s mad FOR me. He’s mad about the ways I am deceived and broken and the ways that brokenness is conferred onto other people. And here’s a crazy kicker: God’s anger does not change His heart of love for me one scintilla of an iota. I can’t pull that one off, not even with my very favorite people. My love grows weary, worn and cold in the face of anger, but God’s love does not. Sheesh, that’s almost too beautiful to comprehend.
I’m a bullet points girl, so here are some handy-dandy bullets that I think represent at least some of the biblical truth about the wrath of God:
His wrath does not look like our wrath because everything He is and does is birthed out of His love for us.
His default emotion toward our sin is not wrath. Sometimes it’s heartbreak. Sometimes it’s disappointment. Sometimes it’s forbearance. Sometimes it’s sorrow. Always, it’s love because God is love and that never changes.
I am invited to join God in loving His world extravagantly but I am forbidden from wrath. This actually takes a lot of pressure off of me, because when I try to appropriate the wrath of God toward those He loves (which last I checked is everyone), I run the risk of incurring the wrath of God upon myself.
In summation, I am certain that I have the ability to make God angry, but I am more certain the truth of the gospel is not “But God so loathed the world, that He gave His only son.” Nope. It’s love. God’s love is the motivating, animating force in our world and I will always keep it at the very front end of what I speak, teach, write and – hopefully – what I live out in my world.
P.S. Remember, the thesis of this post is whether or not sin makes God mad, not whether or not it’s okay for us to get mad at those who sin or to withhold love. I’ve touched on that a bit here because it was so interesting to me that every reference forbids us from this “orge” wrath – perhaps a more nuanced case could be made by including more words for anger etc., but that’s not my goal here. And honestly, it’s not my goal to find biblical backup to live indignantly toward my world, so I probably won’t be doing that study any time soon.
The room is tiny, but cozy. The walls are studded with photos and paintings that have been carefully curated by family members who know the room’s occupant well. A few ceramic roosters occupy spaces on shelves and bedside tables, each one lovingly selected from an overflowing collection gathered across the course of a whole lifetime. The blinds are pulled almost shut, hiding away the Portland rain, and the lights are dimmed. Peaceful piano music merges with the rhythmic hum of an oxygen tank – one of the few things that marks this room as “medical.”
In the very center, stands a hospital bed, surrounded by a rocking chair, an easy chair and several folding chairs. These seats are usually filled with visitors, who talk in soft tones and pray and sometimes cry. But mostly, they trade stories with the woman in the bed. She is tucked in beneath a fluffy white duvet so cloud-like it almost looks as if Heaven has come to meet her halfway.
Loretta is 87, but I’m pretty sure her mind is still 24. Named after a movie star, she is as aware and intelligent as anyone I have ever known. Her dark hair, fair skin and dancing blue eyes hint at her heritage, and when she speaks, there’s no doubt – traces of Ireland and Brooklyn lace and lilt her words. She has impeccable grammar and beautiful handwriting. She has an old world charm about her that is impossible to fake or to shake. Gracious. Elegant. The things I wish I could be, but I was born in the wrong era and the wrong country. I’ve seen the pictures of Loretta when she was young and they tell the clear story of a beautiful woman who loves fashion, loves fun and loves life.
Now, as I enter the room where she is living out her last handful of days, she is still that woman. Though she is in a great deal of pain, and though I am the newest member of her family, her eyes sparkle when she sees me. She takes my hand in hers and says, “Oh Bo, pray with me, please.”
I’m always struck by the way our lives gather in around us when we are nearing the end. Mostly, what gathers here is: people. Her people. Her six kids and 34 grandkids. My kids joined that big grandkid number when I married her son in 2019, and she did not hesitate to claim them, and me, as her very own.
I start to pray…”Jesus, you’re welcome here…” but I’m struggling. She’s struggling to breathe and I’m struggling to pray. The moment is thick with the weighty presence of things I cannot see. Anticipation for eternity. A little fear because this is uncharted territory. Hope for the healing that is coming. I am undone, as I consider all that is waiting for her just outside the confines of this hospital bed. I grab my phone and pull up Psalm 139 and start to read out loud. Oh, Lord, You see me and You know me. I see her breathing calm and her expression settle into something that’s not quite peace, but also not fear.
Throughout the morning, her kids come and go and so does her awareness of what’s happening in the room. Medication and illness have clouded some of her quick wit, but not much of it. When she wakes from a five-minute sleep, she almost always has something clever to say that makes us laugh or cry or pretend to be shocked at her faux-swearing (“It’s a melluvahess”).
When Cliff and his sister leave the room, she crooks her finger, motioning me to come up close. She looks me straight in the eye and says, “Bo, my children…I just want my children to be fine…”.
I smile and squeeze her hand gently. “Oh, mom, your children will be better-than-fine. I’m sure of it. You don’t need to worry.”
She fades from me for a minute, because holding focus is so difficult at this stage of life when sleep is always reaching in to steal her away. But her eyes flutter open suddenly and she lifts her head from the pillow and says straight to my heart: “I LOVE your husband.”
I want to cry. Partly because we share the very same feelings about my husband, but mostly because I am also a mom.
I have agonized over four humans more than I have agonized over anything. I have prayed and cried and thought and planned and manipulated and failed and forgiven and been forgiven a thousand times over. I have held their broken toys and their broken hearts, boldly promising that we can fix them both. I have felt like the best mom and the very worst. I have dreamed a thousand dreams for them and fought some ill advised battles for them. Now, I have added another six to the same space in my heart. When my story moves toward the door of heaven, and my life begins to gather in around me, these are the faces that will hold my attention. They carry the full weight of my love in a way that no one else does, no one else can.
When Loretta Brady looked in my eyes and said, ‘I love your husband,” she was trusting me with something so dear to her, so invaluable and incredible that has always belonged to her in a way that he has belonged to no one else. But now, as she prepares to make her great escape to eternity, she wants to make sure that I am on her team. With the knowing and the dreaming and the fighting and the fixing. She has been a daughter and a wife and a cousin and a friend – but first and foremost, she is a mom. And moms do not let go until the very end – and maybe not even then.
The road to his resting place is not long or winding, but my stomach is in knots as I drive. I feel carsick and heartsick. On impulse, I turn into a grocery store parking lot to grab some flowers to place on his headstone. I’ve never done this before, because I hate the way they die and add to the sadness of cemeteries, but today I want to carry beauty into this space, if only for a day or two. That’s how life is anyway. We show up, we blossom, we fade, we bloom again – but only on the other side of sorrow.
Today would have been my husband’s 60th birthday. I feel the weight of the milestone-that-will-never-be creating an ache in my chest for the party we will never have. I miss the years that didn’t get to be, even though he’s been gone long enough that I can no longer build detailed images in my head of how they might have looked. This is so disorienting to me. In a world filled with plenty of hard, cold, tangible pain, it’s frustrating to process something so nebulous and ethereal that still has razor-sharp edges.
I know exactly what flowers to buy. Red roses. We had an ongoing argument in our relationship about roses. I like pink best and he felt pink roses were “something you give your grandma.” He loved the romance of red roses; the passion. I grab a single rose and resist the urge to explain it to the cashier. “These are for my husband,” I want to say, “it’s his birthday.” But I don’t.
Back on the road to the cemetery, my heart beats something fierce. I take a deep breath and try to name what I’m feeling. Fear. Sorrow. Both at once, a chaotic chorus flooding my brain with warnings to run. Go get coffee! Go visit a friend! Target is right there! I can’t figure out why this is so hard. I am not sad for Steve, I know he is living his best life. I know he is not really buried six feet deep. I am not sad for me, exactly, because my life is truly lovely. And yet – I am wary and I don’t know why.
Lost in the spinning of my own mind, I drive right past the entrance to the cemetery and have to backtrack and that little mistake presses on a raw nerve, adding anger to an already overloaded emotional bucket. I let out an expletive just as “I’ll never be more loved than I am right now,” floats through my headphones. I pull over and breathe those words in deep. I close my eyes and visualize that truth making its way through the hallways of my heart, knocking on a secret door, and settling into the place that needs it most. If you asked me, “What place needs it most?” I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll know soon enough. Because, turns out, I’m going to run into an old friend here.
Aside: Apart from losing someone I love, the icons surrounding death are the hardest part for me. Grave stones. Funeral homes. Caskets. Mausoleums. These images create a surreality around Steve’s absence that casts a weird haze over everything.
Steve’s headstone is simple and lovely. It took six months after he was buried for me and my kids to decide on which words we would etch into stone, the words that would capture the miracle of his life and his love and his faith. I still don’t know if we did it, but his stone simply says: Father. Friend. Faithful. I run my fingers over the white letters as image after image rushes through my brain like a grainy reel-to-reel movie. Our wedding. Holding our babies. The first night in our first house. That day in a doctor’s office. The day he held his grand baby. The day he flew away Home. Image. Image. Image. Finally, the movie stops on one, and I know it well. It’s a literal photograph that lives on my instagram.
Thirty years after becoming a wife; ten days after becoming a widow.
I see her pinched face and I know: this is why I’m here. She is the one I’ve come to meet. Our relationship is complicated. I admire her and I’m disappointed in her. I’m proud of her and ashamed of her. She is my secret frenemy. But today, I realize, is the day I set her free. So I walk through the rows of graves, and I talk to that scared, sad widow. I tell her all her emotions are valid. I forgive her for not being enough. I thank her for stepping up to the plate, no matter how imperfectly. I tell her, for the first time ever, that she is not responsible for as much as she thinks she is. Her kids, her husband, her friends – they are all held within the love of God and it’s not up to her to keep His reputation safe for them. Finally, I tell her that we’re both going to be okay. Even better than okay. We’re going to find love, we’re going to heal, and we’re going to hope again. Not everyone will like the way we do it, but we’ve cared way too much for far too long about what other people think and there is so much beauty coming.
I don’t know how long I am there, but it’s awhile. I stay, silently waiting until I feel finished. I want to feel better, but I don’t really; not yet. I am sad and I hate feeling sad, but I’m learning to let myself feel it instead of trying to fix it. Finally, I lay my roses on the headstone with the three words and the name of someone so dear to me that I could never capture the love I feel in a million words or a million years. I am grateful. I am exhausted. I am loved.
I do not for a minute understand the way life twists and bends and turns. I only know that every single stretch of the road we are on is significant and sacred. The beauty. The battles. The sorrow. The triumphs. These are the days ordained for me, and this is the story He is writing. I can trust Him with the pen as I allow myself to fully feel and live all of it… all the way Home.
I read a quote that I loved today (or maybe the quote read me:)
“The fears you don’t face become your walls.”
I am easily shut in by fear – I’ve been dealing with it all of my adult life. I’ve tried praying it away, rebuking it away, denying it exists and berating myself into bravery. None of that had any long-lasting impact. What has – and continues to work miracles in my life – is a little trick I learned a few years ago.
In every scary situation when I feel fear closing in on every side, I ask myself: Where/what is the door? Sometimes it’s an honest conversation. Sometimes it’s a visit to a doctor. Sometimes it’s an appointment with my therapist. Often, it’s a finding a piece of truth about the love of God that has gotten pushed to the background of my life. But there is always a door – and the thing is, the door almost always feels scary too. So I usually have to get to the place where the fear of staying locked up is more intimidating than the fear of taking the next right step to get free.
Do you feel stuck in a suffocating room of fear today? Maybe start with this question: Where is the door? Where is the truth that will set you free? All of my experience in those dark spaces makes me certain of this: Our great God will lead the way to your liberation and give you the courage to follow. I can’t wait to see who you become on the other side of that beautiful, dangerous door.
We are in such a talky time. We talk to be heard. We talk to gain power. We talk to defend our positions. We talk to defend God. We talk to process our own pain. We talk with voices. We talk with pens. We talk with keyboards.
Jesus said: I can’t do a solitary thing on my own; I listen, then I decide. (John 5:30* The Message.)
Jesus, who already knew the answers, made listening the priority.
Jesus, who only had a short time to save the world, made listening the priority.
Jesus, who could have talked anyone into anything, made listening the priority.
I make a living talking, but I’m learning – more than any other thing right now – that listening is the better part.
Talking has often gotten me in trouble. Listening never has.
Listening is teaching me more about God than I’ve ever known, and it’s teaching me so much more about people. Listening to people AND THEN to God about what I’ve heard is one of my newest and fondest spiritual practices.
I love what I’m discovering as I listen between the lines to the people I love without simultaneously preparing my response.
I am learning about fears and joy and passion and pain.
I am learning about dreams and hurts and doubts and delights.
My ears are turning my heart so soft.
Last night, after an exasperating round of stubbornness with our puppy, I heard Cliff call her “My little pudding pop.” And that made me fall in love with him all over again. Four words reminded me of the way Cliff loves his people and his puppy. Four words showed me parts of his heart that not everyone else can see. Words carry so much weight, but they are meaningless without someone to listen.
Listening is beautiful and it is a weapon in the war against hatred and indifference.
May we grow ever more passionate about hearing His voice more clearly than all the other noise, and hearing each other with Spirit-fueled grace.
*Sheesh, the gospel of John is working me over right now. I started with the Johanine letters they show so much of John’s heart for people. Now I’m reading his gospel through the lens of what I learned in his letters and – holy Moses! – this is beautiful. Just wanted to share that down here in the footnotes for anyone who might be looking for a reading plan. Also wanted to share it because most of the words you’ll see or hear from me for the foreseeable future are plagiarized from the apostle John.