Friday, 19 November 2010

On God's anger


Last week I spoke about the love of God

This week is much harder. If I am trying to be faithful to Joshua 7, I need to speak about the anger of God.

The background is this:
God has given a decree – very plainly and very clearly – in Joshua 6:18-19.

The war against Jericho, against Ai and against the other cities in Canaan, was not to be a war for stuff, plunder or for land. They don’t need land. They already have land on the other side of the Jordan.

The war against the Canaanite cities is not their war. It is God’s war. That is why they did nothing at Jericho apart from walk round the walls and shout! They are acting as God’s instrument of punishment on the Amorites, a people who have persistently and consistently rebelled against God, and against his word, and who have become increasingly sinful. Nations and peoples can become increasingly rebellious.

God has been very patient with the Amorites. They were already a big problem back in Genesis 15:16. Sodom and Gomorrah were just two of the cities. And God says to Abraham, ‘One day your descendants will be the people who live in Canaan’ (the Amorites lived in Canaan). ‘But’, he says, ‘not yet. I will wait. I know what will happen, and how the sin of the Amorites will increase’. ‘In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure’.

The Bible tells us that the reason that God waits is to give people a chance – a chance to hear and a chance to repent.

And even now, with the Israelite army in the land, it is still not too late for the Amorites. They can still turn to God. Rahab does, and she and her family is saved. Some of the other peoples recognise the way that things are going, and at least publicly acknowledge the God of Israel, and are not destroyed.

And what God is doing in Canaan is effectively what he did in the flood. In the flood the sin of the world had become so great that God decided he would start again with Noah and his descendants. And now, at this particular land at this particular time (you can NEVER use the Old Testament to justify genocide at any other place or any other time), God is using the descendants of Abraham, as he used the waters, to cleanse the land and refill it with a people who would be faithful to Him, to his promise and to his word. This is not ethnic cleansing, but a cleansing of the land from sin.

However, if you are chosen by God to be an instrument of God – to bring about God’s reign of peace and love and obedience and trust in him on earth – even if it meant here, in this case at this time, resorting to war – you need to make pretty certain that you are living in a right relationship with him. You need to make sure that you are obedient to him.

And that is not happening.

And these verses are about the anger of God – not against the sin of the people of the land, of the Amorites, but against the sin of the people who are meant to be living in a relationship of trust and obedience to God, the people of Israel.

That is why this chapter begins with a reference to the anger of God: ‘But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel’. (Joshua 7:1); and it ends with a second specific reference to the anger of God. After Achan and all that belonged to him has been destroyed, ‘the Lord turned from his fierce anger’ (Joshua 7:26).


I wonder what you make of the anger of God.

We get uncomfortable when we talk about the anger of God.

So often when people talk of an angry God, we think of human anger and rage. That is often uncontrolled, irrational and unjustified. It is also unfocussed and completely out of perspective. We’re hungry, we’ve had a bad day at work, it’s the time of the month or we’ve got manflu - and some poor innocent who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time gets it.  And the bible warns us that ‘our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires’ (James 1:20). Of course we will get angry, but we are warned ‘not to let the sun go down on our anger’.

God’s anger is not like that. It is right and just and focussed.

I get angry when people do not show me respect; when they treat me, or I think that they are treating me, just as a cog in the system, an irrelevancy, or as someone who can be walked over. Actually that is a bit of joke. If I’m really honest, who am I that people should respect me?

But God is right to get angry when we do not show respect to him, when we treat him either as irrelevant – because the creator and giver of all things, the one who loves us, really is worthy of respect. If we cannot respect that which is worthy of most respect, who or what will we respect, apart from ourselves?

It is actually a good thing that God gets angry – and that it is a right anger.

It means that when we desire fairness, we desire something that is real. In a world without God, or in a world in which there is God, but no boundaries, there can be no ultimate fairness.
But if God gets angry with sin, then we know that there is ultimate fairness.

It also means that we can hand over our anger to him – when we pray.
We get it wrong. A few weeks ago I received an email. I got all steamed up about it, and fired off a stroppy reply. Then, when I reread the email, I began to realise that it wasn’t saying what I thought it was saying.

So when we get angry, we can pray: ‘God, I’m really really angry about this. I want to do this or that. I want to smash them. But God, I may well be very out of order here. I may be angry with the wrong people for the wrong reasons. So I hand this one to you. You’ll be angry with me if I’m wrong, and I ask for mercy; and you will be angry in the right way if I’m right’

That is why I would not run away from some of the very difficult psalms, where we talk about smashing our enemies babies heads on rocks. Please remember that the people who prayed those prayers, were people who had seen their pregnant women ripped open and their own children slaughtered by the enemy. It was far better to express our real anger in our prayers, to give it to God, rather than to try and take that anger into our hands.

And I prefer talking about God’s anger rather than some notion of absolute justice – to which, I assume, even God is meant to be subject. First of all, that implies that there is something bigger than God. But secondly, justice is impersonal. If the problem for us is that we are answerable to some absolute justice - you do this and then that inevitably follows - then there is no hope for us. But if the problem for us is that we are answerable and subject to God’s anger, then there is really is hope for us: God’s mercy.



And this passage makes absolutely clear that God’s anger is a reality.

God hates sin. In this case, we are talking about direct disobedience. God had said, ‘Do not take’. And now God says, ‘Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen; they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions’. (Joshua 7:10-11)

What happens here – and it is a warning we need to listen to - is that Achan puts love of stuff before love of God. And God hates it.  He hates sin, because sin is a denial of everything that he is; he hates sin because it is a rejection of his love and of his goodness. God hates sin because he sees what sin does. Covetousness leads to theft leads to lies. It destroys other people and it destroys us.  

And here we see God’s anger expressed

1. in the sentence that is passed on Achan and his family

The fact that Achan’s children suffer because of Achan’s sin is an offence to our sense of justice. But we need to be aware that we live in a very different society to that of Achan and ancient Israel. There the head of the family involved the whole of the family. Because Rahab was saved, her family and all that belonged to her was saved. Because Achan was condemned, the whole of his family was condemned. It was the principal of corporate solidarity. The whole community is represented in one member.

We live in a very different society where each individual is personally accountable for their own sin. That is an emerging biblical principal. In Ezekiel 18 we are told that the child will not die for the father, nor the father for the child, because ‘the one who sins is the one who will die’ (Ezekiel 18:4)

We see that worked out in the New Testament. Ananias and Sapphira sell a field and give some of the money to the church. Where they go wrong is that they tell the church that the money is the full amount that they received for the field: in other words they are giving everything to the church. But it wasn’t true. Peter confronts Ananias and accuses him of lying to God. Ananias falls down dead. Later Peter confronts Sapphira, Ananias wife. He does not assume that she shares Ananias’ guilt simply because she is married toAnanias. He asks her, ‘Is this the full amount you received for the field’. She says ‘Yes’, and Peter simply says, ‘How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord’. She too falls down and dies. Luke writes, ‘Great fear seized the church and all who heard about these events’

The important thing to stress is that now, in the church, we are each individually responsible for sin. I am not particularly sure that that puts us in any better situation.

God is angry, very angry, rightly angry, when we sin. He is particularly angry when we sin as members of his church, his people. We need to learn again the fear of God.


2. in his threat to abandon the people of Israel

I would argue that this is an even more scary aspect of God’s anger.

God says to Joshua, ‘The reason that you were defeated at Ai was not because you were complacent; not because there was lack of prayer. It was because I did not go with you. And then he says, ‘I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.’ (Joshua 7:12)

God can either direct his anger at us, or  – in his anger - he can wipe his hands of us.

If God directs his anger at us, it means that we personally matter to him. The writer to the Hebrews states: “My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6)

But if God, in his anger, wipes his hands of us, then it means .. we are nothing, we are not even really alive, we have not been alive, we are existing as a shadow in a world of shadows (we might pretend it is real), but we are heading for eternal destruction.

That is not what he wants. Ultimately, far far deeper than his anger, is his love. He loves us. That is why he sent his Son to die for us. And he longs for us to know him, to be in a relationship of the deepest possible intimacy with him.

That is why, in his anger, he may convict us deeply and very painfully (sometimes, when I have been convicted of sins, the words of the confession at communion in the BCP really do apply, the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable’); he may use our Christian brothers and sisters to discipline us, and sometimes he may use circumstances to bring us to our senses.

I’m hesitant about saying that, because you may hear me say that personal specific suffering is due to particular sin. So and so is ill because .. Apart from the obvious, that is not the case. Suffering is an aspect of God’s anger against the world, it is meant to lead us to repentance, but it is general not specific. When you are on your back, you can either close your eyes, or you can look up. And actually, more often than not, God uses kindness to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4)

God’s hates sin but loves us. He cannot separate us from our sin, because sin is our choice, but he is longing that we would repent, and turn to him, and seek his mercy which he so freely offers. That is why he is so patient.

Maybe the whole procedure of finding out by lot who had taken the stuff from Jericho was actually God’s way of giving Achan a chance to step forward and to confess of his own free will. Maybe, if he had done that, he might have saved himself and his family. But he didn’t.

God forbid it, but there is a danger that if we persist in sin and refuse to repent, then God’s patience will wear thin, and he will walk away from us.


[One final thing: A heap of stones is raised up over Achan as a permanent memorial, and the place is called ‘The valley of Achor’ (Achor means trouble). This is where trouble came to Israel.

However, many years later, through the prophet Hosea, God promises to his people – on another occasion when they have sinned against him and suffered his anger -  ‘I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the valley of Achor a door of hope’. (Hosea 2:15 cf  Isaiah 65:10)

And he goes on to say, despite Israel’s sin, "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? … My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man - the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.”

So finally, how do we reconcile the love of God and the anger of God?

We look to the cross. It shows us a human being bearing the full weight of the eternal anger of God against sin; who also happens to be the eternal sinless Son of God giving himself for us in love.]

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