Friday, January 30, 2009

Angry God? - The Mind of the Church

My thanks to Fr. Stephen Freeman for his post, Loving an Angry God.

Here are some gems gleaned from that post and its subsequent discussion:

St. Anthony the Great:
God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

St. Basil the Great:
But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.” (Quoted by Fr. Stephen)

St. Luke the Evangelist:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Luke 6:35 (Quoted by Fr. Stephen)

St. Isaac of Syria:
[A compassionate heart] is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look upon any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation. This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those that harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy. He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure — after the likeness of God — in his heart. (Quoted by Bill Tickel)

St. Isaac of Syria:
That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that he makes use of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the (divine) Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will — let alone (believe it) of God, that He has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature He had brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing them and all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they (started) living amid many evil deeds did He withhold his care for them, even for a moment.

If someone says that He has put up with them here (on earth) in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, (all) the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to (God) enslavement to passion, (supposing) that He has not consented to their being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him.

A right way of thinking about God would be the following: the kind Lord, who in everything He does looks to the ways of assisting rational beings, directs thought concerning judgment to the advantage of those who accept this difficult matter. For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious (divine) Nature. Rather, he acts toward us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good, whether each receives judgment or something of glory from Him — not by way of retribution, far from it! — but with a view to the advantage that is going to come from these things. (Quoted by William)

St. Maximus the Confessor:
On God’s wrath:
The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The wrath of God is the suspension of gifts of grace — a most salutary experience for every self-inflated intellect that boasts of the blessings bestowed by God as if they were its own achievements.

On God's judgment:
By a single infinitely powerful act of will God in his goodness will gather all together, angels and men, the good and the evil. But, although God pervades all things absolutely, not all will participate in Him equally: they will participate in him according to what they are.

All, whether angels or men, who in everything have maintained a natural justice in their disposition, and have made themselves actively receptive to the inner principles of nature in a way that accords with the universal principle of well being, will participate totally in the divine life that irradiates them; for they have submitted their will to God’s will. Those who in all things have failed to maintain a natural justice in their disposition, and have been actively disruptive of the inner principles of nature in a way that conflicts with the universal principle of well-being, will lapse completely from divine life, in accordance to their dedication to what lacks being; for they have opposed their will to God’s will. It is this that separates them from God, for the principle of well-being, vivified by good actions and illumined by divine life, is not operative in their will.

On God’s justice:
God is the sun of justice, as it is written, who shines rays of goodness on simply everyone. The soul develops according to its free will into either wax because of its love for God or into mud because of its love of matter. Thus just as by nature the mud is dried out by the sun and the wax is automatically softened, so also every soul which loves matter and the world and has fixed its mind far from God is hardened as mud according to its free will and by itself advances to its perdition, as did Pharaoh. However, every soul which loves God is softened as wax, and receiving divine impressions and characters it becomes "the dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (Quoted by William)
- V.


Anonymous said...

Gregory Thaumaturgus said that “unlike us, God cannot be forced to suffer but God can voluntarily choose to become vulnerable and open to suffering.”

God never involuntarily suffers, nor does He involuntarily experience emotion as we do. Nevertheless, Scripture makes it clear that He does voluntarily participate with us in our sufferings. He chooses to weep and to mourn just as He chooses to take delight in His creatures.

Jonathan Edwards, in The End for Which God Created the World says, “Many have wrong notions of God’s happiness, as resulting from his absolute self-sufficience, independence, and immutability. Though it be true that God’s glory and happiness are unchangeable, for the whole and every part of which he is perfectly independent of the creature; yet it does not hence follow, nor is it true, that God has no real and proper delight, pleasure, or happiness in any of his acts or communications relative to the creature or effects he produces in them, or in any thing he sees in the creature’s qualifications, dispositions, actions and state."

St. Isaac says, "someone says that He has put up with them here (on earth) in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, (all) the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to (God) enslavement to passion, (supposing) that He has not consented to their being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him." I wonder why then Scripture speaks in such ways of God? St. Isaac writes as if humans have come up with this language and invented notions of God... but this language taken directly from God's word. It is convenient of St. Basil to speak of the 'deeper meaning' of Scripture. At least he's acknowledging that there is a surface meaning which is other than his 'deeper meaning'.

St. Maximus writes, "The wrath of God is the suspension of gifts of grace." To apply cold or to withdraw warmth - what is the difference?

Jesus said "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him."

V and E said...


I appreciate your desire to engage the Saints in a debate over how they reconciled their teachings with Scripture.

Unfortunately, the only answer they give lies in their writings and in their lives. (It is the unity of their writings with the mind of the Church and the sanctity of their lives that has led the Church to call them Saints.) I cannot but feel that if you truly wish to understand them, you must read their works, and learn their lives.

If, on the other hand, it is me you wish to engage in debate, pray excuse me. I welcome comments, but an Orthodox apologist I am not. Such is not my charism. I can only do as I have done: show forth the uglinesses and the beauties that surround me, that the former may be rebuked and the latter exalted. I may reply to your comments, as I am doing now, but I don't think that I can go far enough to fully satisfy you in justifying myself, my Faith, and the hope that I find in Her.

If others come along who wish to debate you or to satisfy your questions, that is fine too. St. Paul says that there are many gifts, many parts to the Body of Christ. I will do my part, and let them do theirs.

In the meantime, I'd like to recommend KALLISTOS (Timothy) Ware's book, The Orthodox Church. It may be pretty basic in structure and in content (it also contains private speculations on a universal salvation and on the success of ecumenism), but it does answer many of the questions non-Orthodox have about Orthodoxy. If I think of other books or relevant websites, I will let you know.

- V.

LifeSpark said...

I would like to mention what I think we can know of God in terms of identity from Holy Writ.

1- God is Love. This we have from St. John in his 1st Epistle Ch. 4 v.8
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

2- Saint Paul says that we see through a glass darkly and do not know fully what is to be revealed, giving the lie to the interesting heresy that Scripture is the full revelation. Scripture is certainly revelatory but it is not the fullness. The fullness is Christ, God become Man; the Fullness is God revealing himself as Love.
Love is not an attribute of a person but is definitive of what it means to truly be a person. This is what it means to worship a triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, eternally loving and one in essence. Of all the words used in Scripture to describe God, love is a verb and a noun at once. It is used to capture what we can know of His eternal life, even beyond the economy of our salvation. In fact the fount of His Divine plan is rooted in who He is eternally and unchangeably.

As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I think this is the context, starting point and foundation for any meaningful discussion about why God does what He does. Any efforts, however well intended, to ‘balance’ or ‘temper’ God’s nature as Love by talking about attributes or actions such as holiness, wrath against sin, etc., are distortions, mistaking our perception of what God does to bring us to repentance with who He is. If I use a car to drive you to work does that mean I am a car? Of course not, this is madness. But when God acts in a wrathful way to bring us to repentance we suddenly want to attribute wrath to God’s personality…..I just don’t get it. I expect this confusion of categories combines with our desire to anthropomorphize by making God like sinful humanity is responsible for most theological errors at root.