Fathom Mag

The Goodness of the Wrath of God

It is good news, all of it.

Published on:
December 10, 2019
Read time:
9 min.
Share this article:

“Do you want to tell us again why we’re here?”

My friend Mandy smiled encouragingly from the couch opposite me, where she and our friend Lillian sat beside each other. Mandy’s immaculate living room was so different from the chaos of four small children that awaited me back home. Here, the white carpet stayed white, and the plate glass windows stayed unsmudged. It was so quiet. So calm. They sipped their iced tea and waited for me to respond. 

One of the hardest things to confront as the victim of any sort of tragedy is the idea of a sovereign God.

My friends had come here at my request. They already knew what I wanted. But I knew that Mandy was right: I needed to frame our time together by putting my purpose into words. I set my glass down on the coffee table between us and inhaled. 

“Well, you both know I’ve been having a hard time with what happened to me—” I began. For months, I’d been struggling with the effects of the sexual abuse I’d endured as a very young child. But one of the hardest parts was that I couldn’t remember exactly everything that had happened. I had impressions, flashes, vague notions, body memories, things my mother remembered me saying. But I didn’t have the sort of film quality, it-started-here-and-ended-here chronological recall I believed I needed. Especially if I was going to confront my abuser, which I felt a growing urgency to do. “—so I want to ask Jesus if he wants to show me anything else about what happened.” 

It was Lillian’s idea, really. She’d had a similar thing happen to her: abuse at a very young age, a series of shadowy images that resurfaced years later. So she’d prayed with some friends, and a memory popped up. A memory she was later able to verify with her mother—details about a specific place that she’d never remembered before. 

“I know it’s not magic,” I continued, “and maybe nothing will happen, and that’s okay.” Part of me would be relieved if nothing happened. I wasn’t sure if I wanted any more detail than I already had. “But I just feel like I have to ask.” 

“Come sit between us,” Lillian suggested, and I scooted around the coffee table and tucked myself onto the middle cushion of their couch. 

“Let’s pray,” Mandy said, and she and Lillian both bowed their heads and closed their eyes. 

One of the hardest things to confront as the victim of any sort of tragedy is the idea of a sovereign God. Sovereignty, as defined by one theological dictionary, is “the right of God to do as he wishes with his creation. This implies that there is no external influence upon him and that he also has the ability to exercise his power and control according to his will.”[1]

Practically speaking, if you have a high view of God’s sovereignty (as I always believed that I had), it means, (or I always took it to mean) that whatever happens is whatever God wanted to happen. If God has the power to do anything, and the ability to control everything, then surely anything and everything that happens has been willed and controlled by God? 

The Westminster Confession says that God has ordained from eternity “whatsoever comes to pass.”

My entire life, I had believed that to be a good Christian meant to submit to the will of God. Since God was sovereign, this meant submitting to everything.

My entire life, I had believed that to be a good Christian meant to submit to the will of God. Since God was sovereign, this meant submitting to everything. Whatever happened, God had willed it: My brother’s disability. Our frequent moves. My parents’ divorce. Our daughter’s early arrival and NICU stay. My months on bedrest in subsequent pregnancies. It was all tough, and it was all God’s will, so I toughed it out. 

Then I started dealing with my abuse. And the idea of God willing everything that had ever happened started to make a lot less sense.  

I didn’t close my eyes right away. A stand of tall pines swayed in the light of the setting sun just beyond Mandy’s back porch. I sat and watched as the sunbeams kissed each shock of needles. 

Then, as if bubbling up from somewhere deep beneath the surface of the Earth, down where even the magma rumbles with the rhythm of God, a thought came to me. “God is gentle,” I thought. “God would never force me to see or do anything I didn’t want to see or do.” 

I breathed deep. I looked at the light in the trees. And I knew: there was no pressure here. No anxiety. No rush to continue. If the only thing I received from this prayer time was awareness of the gentleness of God, it would be enough. 

Mandy’s voice spoke up on my left. “Lord, if there is anything that you want to show Sarah, we ask that you would show it to her now.” And then I closed my eyes. And then it came. 

As soon as my eyes closed, a scene formed whole behind my eyelids. Me lying in bed in the room of my young childhood. A man sitting on the edge of my bed. And then, as adult-me leaned forward into the room of my imagination to see what that man would do to preschool-me, a bolt of light came streaming in the doorway from the hall. 

Bolt like lightning, bolt like cloth, dazzling white and rippling wide, the light filled the vision-room with brightness. “Wait,” I thought, “I can’t see,” but it was too late. Even as I peered at the little girl and the man, trying to see what he was doing to me, both figures were erased in the yawning gulf of white. And then I knew: the light was the presence of God.  

As I screwed my eyes tight against the real world and tried to stay as long as I could in the imaginary one that was nothing now but a brilliant snow field, I heard God say, “I was there.”

The light shone, and the voice spoke—my own voice, in my own head, but not with words I ever would have thought to say: 

“I was there. Evil is nothing in the light of my presence. You do not need to see what happened. All you need to know is that I was there.”

I opened my eyes and told my friends what I had seen. “I think we should pray again,” Lillian said. So we did. Again, we bowed our heads. Again, I closed my eyes. 

And it all came back the same: Me. The man. The white light bursting through the doorway. 

But this time, there was a difference. This time, the light was angry. 

I could feel anger emanating from the light like heat off a stove. The light barreled toward the man like a mother bear or a speeding train. And this time, the light was yelling. Yelling at the top of its bright, white, thunderous voice, “Get your hands off of her. She’s mine.”

Angry gods have fallen out of fashion. Gone are the days when a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” like Jonathan Edwards’s famous one from 1741. Today’s theologians are much more likely to invoke the love of God; entire branches of theology have dispensed with the idea of God’s wrath altogether. I recently saw a book advertised online that promised to retell Bible stories “without an angry God.”[2] “The fact is that the subject of divine wrath has become taboo in modern society,” writes J. I. Packer. 

In the churches where I grew up, however, we still had a lively respect for the existence of God’s anger. And I knew exactly where God’s anger was pointed: at me. At my sin. Or it would have been, if Jesus hadn’t stepped in. As hard as I tried to submit to God’s will, I sometimes rebelled, and that was sin, and that’s why God poured out his anger at me onto Jesus on the cross. That was the gospel of my early years.

God’s anger lets me know that God hates the evil I have endured.

As Rachael Denhollander writes in What is a Girl Worth?, her memoir about seeking justice against her abuser, “I noticed that fellow Christians pretty much only talked about our need to understand the wrong things we’d done. No one talked about God’s supposed hatred for the wrongs done against us.”[3]

But everything changed, for me, the day I had a vision of a yelling bolt of light. Because that’s when I learned that God loved me enough to be angry on my behalf. 

I’m not someone who’s quick to turn an inner voice into the word of God. I understand that the scene that unfolded in my imagination that day was just that: imagined. I’m glad I didn’t see anything that would have sent me searching for probably impossible-to-find corroboration. What I got from that prayer time was a theology lesson. 

But it was a theology lesson that I could confirm by searching the scriptures. And it turns out, the God of the Bible is an angry God. A God who is angry about injustice. 

“Your incense is detestable to me,”[4] says God in the book of Isaiah, “. . . Take your evil deeds out of my sight.”[5] The evil deeds in question? “They do not defend the cause of the fatherless.”[6]

“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” Isaiah continues, “. . . to deprive the poor of their rights.”[7]

All through the Bible, when God looks at the world and sees children hurt, women ignored, slaves oppressed, the poor exploited, he gets mad.   

“If God looks down and is not furious,” says preacher Tim Keller, “he is not a Father.”[8]

The good news of God’s wrath is that mine is not the only sin that matters to God. Every hurt, every injustice that I and others suffer make God mad. They make him mad because God is a parent whose children are being hurt and this is not the way the world is supposed to be. 

The idea of God’s wrath complicates our overly simplistic notions of God’s strictly approving sovereignty. You cannot be angry about something you wanted to happen in the first place. If God’s sovereignty means that God has purposed, desired, willed, chosen, executed—whatsoever comes to pass—then God is unflappable. Nothing upsets such a God; nothing angers such a God. In this view of sovereignty, such a God desires, in fact, for everything to unfold exactly the way that it already has. 

But if God can be angry about something, then for God that thing is not okay. Not desired by, not planned by, not caused by, not endorsed by, not enjoyed by, not willed by the one who sees. God’s wrath is a clue to what God does and does not want. 

I still believe in a sovereign God. A God who is not all-powerful, all-knowing, all-capable, cannot be God. But, somehow—there are mysteries here that my words cannot contain—God has . . . what? Allowed? Made room for? Self-limited? God has created a universe in which there is enough space for things not of God to temporarily flourish. But that does not mean that evil is authored by God. 

God’s anger lets me know that God hates the evil I have endured. 

I kept my eyes shut for another minute after the angry light faded away. “But God,” I silently pled, “what do I do about my abuser? How do I confront him if I can’t say exactly when and where and what I am accusing him of?” 

The answer came back right away. “Ask him.” 

So, I did. I arranged a meeting with my abuser, the man I’d seen sitting on my bed. I explained what I knew and what I didn’t, and I asked, “What did you do to me?” 

He denied everything, which didn’t come as a surprise. He made some bizarre statements and gave some creepy excuses. But then at the end of our conversation, he said something unexpected. 

“I think,” he said, a wistful hint of sadness in his eyes, “that you should just get angry with me.” 

Here is the truth: when we know we are guilty, some part of us wants to be punished. 

C.S. Lewis writes, “Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it.”[9]

In some way, when he asked me to get angry with him, my abuser was asking me if I still loved him. 

The wrath of God was poured out on God-the-beloved. Jesus died to take my sins away, yes. And he died because that’s how seriously God takes the sins that were done to me.

Not long after I confronted him, I learned that the man who abused me had been sexually abused himself when he was a child. He deserved my pity as much as my wrath. And, of course, while I have never, ever, abused a child, I have hurt other children of God in other ways. Some in ways I do not even now know. For that I deserve wrath as much as pity. 

The good news of God’s wrath is this: that God loves us all with a furious love. “God’s love is furious love,” says Keller, “and his fury is loving fury.”[10] We have all been injured, and God will not rest until justice is done. We have all injured others, and God will not rest until justice is done. 

I do not know what hell means, or who might go there. But I do have hope for a day of judgement—a day when every evil that has ever been inflicted on the children of God will be exposed, and made right. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’”[11]

And there is also this, for those who would receive it: on a hill in Palestine, long ago and far away, our sovereign God allowed his limbs to be stretched and nailed to a tree. The wrath of God was poured out on God-the-beloved. Jesus died to take my sins away, yes. And he died because that’s how seriously God takes the sins that were done to me. 

It is good news, all of it. It means we are loved. It means that God roars over all of us, charging fierce in the face of evil, “Get your hands off of them. They’re mine.”

Sarah Sanderson
Sarah Sanderson writes and speaks about faith, trauma recovery, and the beloved life. She lives with her family near Portland, Oregon. Sarah Sanderson’s first book, The Place We Make, is due out from WaterBrook in August. Learn more at www.sarahlsanderson.com.

[1] https://carm.org/dictionary-sovereignty

[3] Rachael Denhollander, What is a Girl Worth?, Tyndale, 2019, page 99.

[4] Isaiah 1:13

[5] Isaiah 1:16

[6] Isaiah 1:23

[7] Isaiah 10:1-2

[8] Tim Keller, “How Sin Makes Us Convicts: What’s Really Wrong With the World,” sermon preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, March 7, 1999.

[9] CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 97.

[10] Keller’s 3/7/99 sermon.

[11] Romans 12:19

Next story