Wrath and Imprecation

By Chris Hansen

    9 min. Read Time

Published December 1st, 2020

In your anger, do not sin.
- Ephesians 4:26 NIV

            Of the seemingly impossible commands for the Christian, this one is perplexing. The disorienting nature of this command perhaps comes from this strange reality: Anger’s natural inclination—as with many expressions of suffering—is towards an expression of wrath, and a pouring out of wrath is something that is condemned in mankind yet praised in the life of God.[1] Why can God be wrathful, but we cannot? Christians must recognize that to be angry and not sin requires an intentional act of redirection. God is the only one who’s anger may be expressed through wrath. Ours must be redirected, released to God in an act of imprecation. 
            The issue of anger is pertinent in our day, for there is endless evil to be rightly angry about. If there was a localized way to gauge the quantity or intensity of anger in a given time, I envision Americans in 2020 peaking the charts. Tumultuous politics, a rampant and confusing pandemic, unprecedented cries for racial justice, excessive loneliness and isolation, and endless uncertainty all evoke intense emotional responses. One of which being often well-founded anger. At the end of an angry year, after much stewing and brooding, let us ask that the Spirit of God may give us the strength to direct our anger towards righteous ends.
            What we must do first is map out the events that lead up to the distribution of wrath, for wrath is no isolated event. Once we have identified this sequence of events, then we must determine at what point our redirection must take place, where our path must differ from Almighty God’s. 
            The beginning of wrath is the breaking of shalom. Shalom is the divinely orchestrated peace and harmony in which all creation was intended to enjoy together. This word has such a great range of meaning, in which “concordance, completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, and the absence of agitation or discord” all describe a dimension of this multi-relational status.[2] For our purposes, we will refer to shalom as a flourishing ecosystem of life. If all is well in the world, shalom exists amongst all creatures, life is beautiful, and God is glorified in all expressions of being, then wrath does not have to exist. 
            Humans are creatures of volition, and anyone with authentic willpower has the capacity to maintain or break shalom—to bring life or death to a community. When flourishing is impeded, every community member feels it. Flourishing is replaced with suffering, and suffering has a wide variety of mental, emotional, and bodily manifestations, including anger.[3] Each person is both a victim and a perpetrator. All have sinned, and all have been sinned against. This dual reality becomes the primary difference between how humans and God handle suffering. Since God is not a perpetrator of evil, he will have privileges that we, who are sinners do not. 
            While the manifestations of suffering are many, ultimately, they cry in one voice for justice. Wrongs are demanded to be made right. Restitution and penitence are required. And the pain will not cease until justice has been served. In a world of innumerable wrongs and unquantifiable evil, there is much suffering. It is never a matter of ‘if’ you will cry for justice in your suffering, only ‘how’ you will do so. 
            It’s here where things get exceedingly tricky. Justice does not happen on its own. It requires judgment. Someone with authority must be able to rightly articulate the wrongs that have been committed and determine which consequences are required. While we may be quick to envision a courtroom scene, we should try and slow that impulse. In most cases, the judge is not removed or impartial to the situation, it is often someone directly involved. And in the case of our God, he is surely affected by our sins against him. This, finally, is the place of wrath. Wrath is the active pouring out of consequences, the final act before justice may be achieved and shalom be restored. 

 

So, our sequence looks something like this:
Breaking Shalom / Suffering / Pronouncement of Judgment / Wrath

 

            This is the sequence that happens to one degree or another from both small, personal matters, to the grand cosmic arc of all creation. Before we engage the question of how humans individually should engage in this, we should first explore the difficult question: How can a good God righteously pour out wrath? Without attempting to give an all satisfying answer to this question, I would like to present three realities to not lose sight of when asking this question that leave open the possibility of a good God being righteously wrathful.
            The first reality is a classic Sunday School truth: God is perfect. Perhaps the reason this answer is often so dissatisfying is because the explanation of the statement typically lacks the depth it needs. God’s perfection—his innocence—is ground well beyond his ability to keep the law. Certainly, it is true that God has not offended his own laws, especially when he took on flesh and lived as a human being for 33 years as he “who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21 ESV). God’s perfection means that in every situation, God’s actions, derived from his love, only promote and bring out the greater flourishing of creation. God’s ultimate end goal is shalom. He is never the perpetrator of evil, for he “cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (Jas. 1:13). For this reason, he is qualified to be the good judge.
            Second, God is a victim of suffering.[4] Where humans are both victim and perpetrator, God is only a recipient of evil. We confess that all sin is ultimately against God. When I wrong my brother, I sin not only against him, but against God. To wrong God’s creation is to wrong God. To live rogue against the freedom of God’s design is to spit in his face. God’s transcendence over his creation does not make him untouched by the evil of it. Truly, God has suffered far more than any creature that has ever been or will be.
            And lastly, it seems that God is unwilling to pour out a wrath that he is not willing to endure himself. The climatic expression of judgment in the Old Testament comes as God sends his people into exile. What is so striking is that before the final destruction of Jerusalem, God seems to go into exile first. It is declared in Ezekiel 9, “The sin of the people of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice. They say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land; the Lord does not see.’”[5] And in chapter 10, the glory of the Lord departs from the temple. This is significant, because it is not just a description of God’s suffering, but it is the path through which God brings about salvation for the very people he is judging. “It is in [his] exile that Yahweh in his glory feeds Israel.”[6] In a similar way, but of greater significance for us, is the crucifixion of Christ Jesus, where we find the ultimate expression of God’s wrath. The scriptures tell us that “the wages of sin is death.”[7] The ultimate wrath that we, as perpetrators of evil and suffering, deserve is death. The crucifixion of Jesus is the final expression of God taking on the very wrath he will pour out. It is only through his sacrificial death that we find our life and salvation, only because God took on his own wrath. It is these three realities. A perfect, suffering, and sacrificial God allows a wrathful God to maintain his goodness.
            As humans, we are not innocent of sin but perpetuators of evil. This disqualifies us from the privilege of pronouncing judgment. Judgment belongs to the Lord. In our sequence of events, it is here where we are called to take a different path. When our suffering manifests (perhaps as anger) we must redirect the aims of our pain and surrender our judgment to God. We are incapable of judging in a way that will only promote the ultimate flourishing of creation. This is the moment where a wrathful God is both necessary and good news for the Christian. When we are called to be peacemakers and imitators of Christ, God’s wrathful vengeance makes possible our nonviolence.[8] The reality is that a wrathful God frees us to be instruments of his peace, to fulfill his call to turn the other cheek, to give our tunic as well.[9]
            It is important to note that our redirection of our wrath is not an abrupt stop in the sequence of events. While judgment is ultimately for God, we are creatures who are always making judgments. Our redirection comes as we do not pronounce judgment upon an offender, rather, we tell our judgment to God in prayer. This is the place for imprecation. 

 

Our renewed sequence of events looks like this:
Breaking Shalom / Suffering / Internal Judgment / Imprecation

 

Imprecatory prayers are a form of surrendering our judgment, and ultimately our wrath, to the only one who will righteously pour out wrath and bring about justice. This is the space in the Christian life to say “if only you, God, would slay the wicked” (Ps. 139:19). David models this combination of honesty and humility—suffering and surrender—when he concludes, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (v. 23-24). May you take your suffering to God in prayer, surrendering your judgment and wrath to him in imprecation, that you may not sin against your brother in your anger. 

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] For example, See: Rom. 1-3 compared to Jas. 1:19-20
            [2] Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), 10.
            [3] Gerald W. Peterman, Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016), 16.
            [4] For Example, See: Eph. 4:29-32
            [5] Ezek. 9:9 NIV
            [6] Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1977), 131.
            [7] Rom. 6:23 NIV
            [8] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996), 298.
            [9] Mt. 5:38-40

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