When it comes to language about wrath I have been accustomed for a long time to quote what Julian of Norwich says – that there is no wrath in God. When pushed, I have tended to nuance that comment by saying that wrath is a real thing that we need to take account of, but I have been comfortable not to identify an experience of wrath with the experience of God’s purpose for my life.
I have come to believe that I have been missing something essential to the life of faith, which traditional language of wrath preserves, and I’d like to briefly sketch my thinking. I would say at the outset that I’m going to argue for a rehabilitation of the language of wrath in principle – I’m not here going to say how that language needs to be used in practice, with respect to COVID. Hopefully we can engage with that work in our discussion.
My title draws from a passage that I have been mulling on, which is something that Wittgenstein once wrote (Culture and Value 85e). He says this:
“Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense”
My thinking is simply this: our language of wrath is a way of saying something about our lived experience before God, and if we outlaw this language then we are not making anything clearer. So what might our gesticulating with this word ‘wrath’ be about?
Now, two more elements of throat clearing, before I suggest a tentative answer. The first is to make a reference to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which so famously begins “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” I don’t believe that it is possible to do theodicy as a Christian. That is, as soon as we start to make some sort of moral evaluation or justification of the ways of God to humanity then we have embarked upon the path of idol worship. We are not the measure of God; God is the measure of humankind.
Yet we do want to insist that God is good; that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Even with a properly reticent and analogical understanding of that language I do not believe that we can escape saying that God is good and that this is foundational for our faith and spirituality. So my second element of throat clearing is this: when Job loses his health his wife invites him to “curse God and die”, which invites the rebuke “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”
So to weave these three things together – Wittgenstein, Bonhoeffer and Job – and finally make my point, I want to say that when we use the language of wrath, when we gesticulate with it, we are not engaged in some sort of theodicy, as if we were making some sense of judgement over God; rather we are asserting, with Job, that the good that we receive in this life cannot be separated from the evil.
As a matter of theological grammar, I would now say, we cannot give thanks to God for the good things that we receive in this life from Him if we cannot at the same time cry in lament for the bad things that we receive in this life from Him. If we say that the bad things that we receive in this life are not from God, if we abandon this sense of God’s wrath, then the blood drains out of our thanksgivings to God too.
What, to refer back to Wittgenstein’s language again, is the difference that this language makes in our lives? Or, given how widespread the abandonment of this language has become, what difference did this language make in the devotional lives of those who have gone before us? What spiritual lessons might there be for us if we pay attention to their prayers?
I would say – if we look at the Book of Common Prayer for example, that +Christopher discussed, and the language wherein pestilence and horror is taken as a form of chastisement, and an invitation to repentance – that this is above all an insistence that the experience being undergone is meaningful. That we, who are in a state of dependence upon God, experience God more intimately when we are in extremis, when we are put to the test – and that God opens up a path of redemption for us that proceeds directly from the place of our suffering.
In other words, the spiritually essential heart of this language of divine wrath is not that we gain a heavenly imprimatur for our own prejudices, nor that we come to some rationally satisfactory accounting or justification of divine activity but that: without wrath we have no redemption. To use the language of wrath, to insist upon God’s agency and responsibility in our suffering is to make the claim that all of life is meaningful, and that there is a way forward from where we are. It is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to cling to the cry that God loves us even when he chastises us.
If we are to find the path that God is giving us to walk in out of this present pestilence, I do not believe that we will succeed unless we reclaim a healthy sense of God’s wrath. We must repent of our ways and return to the living God, for he has torn us, and he will heal us.
The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
(A talk given to the Severn Forum last night)