ANGER OR COMPASSION?
“In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer (Isaiah 54:8).
Anger or compassion? What’s the right reaction to people with big problems? When neighborhoods are infested with drugs and crime and teen pregnancy and welfare dependency and street people, should the reaction be anger at the wrongs being done, or compassion for people whose lives are so messed up?
Anger or compassion? Politicians often tap into one mood or the other. They try to measure voters’ attitude, and if most seem to be angry, politicians may use lots of angry, “get tough” rhetoric. But if people seem to feel sorry for the down and out, politician may prefer to speak of compassion and caring and new programs and helping people out.
Often the people’s mood depends on where they come from. If they’re in a rich suburb, they tend to get angry (and tightfisted) about the problems of the underclass. They figure these people have brought their troubles on themselves. People who live in a poor district, on the other hand, often feel more compassion for their own. If they feel any anger, most of it is aimed at politicians whom they feel don’t do enough for them.
Anger or compassion? This is a big question in politics, but I’m not going to get political here. I mention politics just as one example of how a problem situation can arouse anger in some people and compassion in others.
Which reaction is more fitting? Well, sometimes it depends on the situation. If there’s a definite crime and a definite victim, we may get angry at the criminal and feel compassion for the victim. But often it’s not so simple. Often the criminals have been victimized themselves at some point. Many people who sin greatly have often been sinned against greatly. Abusers are often people who have been abused themselves. Criminals often came from horrible family situations, alcoholics often have had drunks for parents, and so forth. Should they be objects of anger or compassion?
Angry, Compassionate Father
Whatever the reaction might be from politicians or other people, let’s take the question to a much higher level. How does God react to what’s wrong and messed up in our lives? Anger or compassion? According to what God says in his Word, the Bible, the answer isn’t either/or. It’s both.
God is angry at our sinful condition. In fact, he’s more than angry. He’s furious. His wrath blazes hot against all evil. His entire, infinite Being is utterly opposed to all wrong.
But at the same time God also looks on sin with sadness, and he looks on sinners with aching compassion and pity. God is angry at the wickedness of people who live far from him, but he also has deep compassion for the misery that afflicts those who are separated from the health and wholeness and happiness of knowing him and walking in his ways.
Let’s say you put money and career before everything else. You sacrifice friendships and neglect your family to get ahead. You end up rich, divorced, and friendless. Does God react with anger or compassion? Both. He is angry at how you’ve disobeyed him and hurt others, and at the same time he feels compassion for what you’ve done to yourself.
You’re sexually promiscuous. Your doctor tells you you’re HIV positive, you’re going to die of AIDS, and you’ve probably already infected other people with the virus. Does God react with anger or compassion? Both. He’s angry that you’ve sinned against him and against others, yet he feels compassion over what your sin has done to you.
God gives you your life and everything good that you have, in much the same way as a parent gives life to children and provides for them. So when you disobey God, his reacts as a Father: he is enraged that you rebel against him; he is saddened that your rebellion is wrecking your life; and he calls you to return to him. His tears of rage are mingled with tears of pity.
In Isaiah 1:2-4 God says, “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me… Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.”
God is furious and disgusted. But he is also saddened and full of pity. “Why should you be beaten anymore?” he asks. “Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed” (Isaiah 1:5-6). What a graphic picture of sin and of the misery that goes with it! Wounds and welts and open sores from head to toe—all the result of sin and God’s wrath against it.
But we can’t look at that picture of sin and misery without also looking at another picture: that of Someone else whose head was injured, whose heart was afflicted, who had wounds and welts and open sores from the sole of his foot to the top of his head—a man with nails through his feet and hands, a crown of thorns gouging the top of his head, a spear wound in his side, and bleeding welts all over his body from being whipped.
Isaiah says of this Person, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). The anger of God and the compassion of God come together in the one man who is God—the Lord Jesus Christ—and in his suffering for our sake.
To know the heart of God, we must see the Lord Jesus on the cross, we must see our own sins the way God sees them, and we must turn to Jesus for forgiveness and new life. The cross of Jesus is the supreme revelation of God’s wrath against sin and yet also of his compassion and determination to rescue his people from their sin. We sometimes find it hard to believe that the same Person can be both angry and compassionate at the same people at the same time. We tend to make it an either/or. But God can be both angry and compassionate at the same time and in the very same event. Nothing makes this plainer than the cross of Jesus, where anger and compassion were poured out in a way that defies explanation.
What God Sees
Think of what God sees as he looks upon our world. He doesn’t just see what an astronaut might see from outer space—the view of a planet that looks distant and peaceful. Of course God sees the orderly way the earth rotates on its axis and how it orbits the sun according to his design; but he also sees the dirty details of all the things happening on planet earth that go against his goodness. He sees what we do, and he sees right into our hearts. Scripture says, “From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth–he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do” (Psalm 33:13-15).
God sees it all.
God sees young people experimenting with drinking and drugs in spite of all the warnings they’ve heard. God sees the downward spiral of addiction, lies, stealing, depression, and despair. How can God not be angry at their rebellion, and how can he not feel compassion at their predicament?
God sees pimps and prostitutes and pornographers selling sex, and he sees men buying it. God sees teenage girls and boys treating sex like just another sport. God sees them breaking his law, misusing their bodies, and spreading diseases. God sees babies being aborted, and many others being born in settings where they’ll never get the parenting they need. God sees married people breaking their vows and smashing their families to pieces. How can God not be angry at such rebellion, and how can he not feel compassion for a people and society that are self-destructing?
God sees gay people—many with remarkable talents and sensitivities—he sees them doing things that are an abomination to him. God see the perverted acts, and he sees the sadness and depression of so many gay people. God sees promiscuity among gays and straights alike, and he sees more and more people pretending that almost any kind of sex is healthy and normal—even as millions around the world are dying of AIDS. How can God not be angry at such rebellion, and how can he not feel compassion at such misery?
God sees people obsessed with money and security. God sees people who would rather risk losing their marriage than risk losing their job or career. God sees people who will lie and cheat and do anything to get ahead. God sees executives who slash thousands of jobs to increase profits and grab multi-million dollar bonuses for themselves. How can God not be angry at all this, and how can he not feel compassion at people who don’t know what it is truly to love and be loved?
God sees people with decent incomes and fine houses who constantly complain that their standard of living isn’t going up fast enough. God sees people who already have plenty envying those who have even more. How can God not be angry at such ingratitude, and how can he not feel compassion at such restlessness and lack of contentment?
God sees men who abuse and beat their spouses. God sees parents who abuse children. He sees people suffer abuse as children and then go on to harm their own children. How can God not be angered by this, and how can he not feel compassion for people who are slaves to this horrible cycle of sin?
God sees churches wandering from his truth revealed in the Bible. God sees preachers who no longer proclaim salvation in Christ, who make excuses for immorality, and who may even persecute those who cling to the historic, biblical faith. God sees other churches and pastors who insist on correct doctrine and high moral standards, but who have more bickering and bitterness than love. He sees church people who get more worked up over music choices or carpet color in church than about the glory of God or the needs of people in pain. How can God not get angry at such behavior in his church, and how can he not feel compassion that so many, even in the church, are missing out on the love and joy and peace and confidence they could have if they stayed focused on the Savior and living by his Spirit?
Anger and compassion—that’s God’s reaction when he sees the wickedness of sin and the misery that goes with it.
God’s wrath against sin isn’t a gleeful “Gotcha!” He isn’t some vicious tyrant just looking for an excuse to blow us away. No, God’s wrath is his rightful rage against everything and everybody who rebels against him and his good ways. He’s not a bully looking for a reason to pounce. He’s a Father who won’t put up with rebellion. He’s a Ruler and Judge who won’t smile tolerantly at bad behavior. When we go wrong, God gets angry.
When God is angry, and if nothing changes, his punishment is sure to come. Even then, however—even when God’s holy and just anger moves him to bring punishment—he doesn’t enjoy it. God says in the Bible, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? … For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:23,32)
Now, some folks would like to say that God never gets angry at all and never does any punishing. But that’s not what God says. He says he doesn’t enjoy it or take pleasure in it—he’d rather have people turn and be saved—but he will punish sin and rebellion, all right. If somebody sins, somebody pays. The Bible makes that very clear. God’s anger may be regretful, and his punishment may be reluctant, but that only makes it pure; it doesn’t make it unreal.
God’s prophets and apostles often mirrored God’s anger in their own opposition to evil, and they warned of his punishment. At the same time, they were moved by the Lord’s compassion and grief over those who continued in rebellion all the way to their destruction. They often spoke of judgment, but they did so with tears in their eyes.
The prophet Jeremiah could get so angry about evil that he would cry out, “Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter!” (Jeremiah 12:3). But Jeremiah would also weep and say, “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me” (Jeremiah 8:21)
The apostle Paul felt a burning zeal for God, and for the Lord Jesus, so much so that he wrote in one of his letters, “If anyone does not love the Lord—a curse be on him” (1 Corinthians 16:22). But Paul could also say of those who didn’t accept Jesus, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (Romans 9:2).
Of all the prophets and apostles, none expressed greater compassion and sorrow for sinful people, and none expressed greater anger at their sinfulness, than Jesus himself. On the Sunday before his arrest and execution, Jesus was coming down the road from the Mount of Olives toward the city of Jerusalem. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city,” says the Bible, “he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41). The next moment, though, Jesus’ tears of sorrow became tears of rage as he grabbed a whip and drove the merchants and money changers out of God’s temple. Before long his rage again became sorrow as he offered himself up to die and prayed for those who crucified him.
Anger and compassion, compassion and anger—we’ll never fully understand how these interact in the mind of Christ and in the heart of God. But we dare not deny the reality either of the Lord’s anger or of his compassion.
Nobody received harsher words or more heated anger from Jesus than the Pharisees. Oh, could the Lord get angry with them! But whom did Jesus choose to receive a special revelation direct from heaven and to become his greatest missionary to the world? A Pharisee! And not just any Pharisee, but the worst of them all, their number one tough guy, their top enforcer, the chief persecutor of Christians, Saul of Tarsus. Jesus took Saul and changed him into the apostle Paul. Just think of it! Jesus raged at the Pharisees and then choose a Pharisee to become Item A in his exhibit of divine compassion (1 Timothy 1:12-16).
At The Cross
We’ll never fully understand God’s anger or his compassion, but we see both displayed at the cross of Jesus. There at the cross, Jesus took our sin upon himself, and he endured the hell of God’s fierce wrath against sin. If God were not angry at sin, and if sin did not require punishment, there would have been no need for Jesus to suffer and die on our behalf. But there at the cross God showed once and for all what he thinks of human sin. God gave sin the punishment it deserves—or rather, he took the punishment on himself in the person of his Son.
The cross showed the intensity of God’s wrath against sin, and at the same time it showed the wonder of God’s compassion for sinners. The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Jesus suffered with us and for us, and in doing so, he brought God’s love and compassion to bear on his broken, sinful people. At the cross God hid his face and crucified our sins, but on Easter he made his face to shine again. Jesus rose from the dead and opened up new life for all who trust him.
The Lord did all of this in keeping with the promises he made even before Jesus came. Again and again, God’s people would bring punishment and themselves, and God would speak of his anger, but then his compassion would again break through. In the book of Isaiah, right after speaking of the suffering of Christ, God says, “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:8).
In the prophet Hosea God speaks of punishment, and even seems to mull over casting his people away completely. But then he says, “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger… For I am God, and not man–the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:8-9).
In the often-harsh prophecy of Jeremiah the Lord says, “‘Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).
That is the good news of the gospel. The cross shows God’s wrath against our sin, it shows his tears of compassion over our misery, and it provides his glorious solution to both our sin and our misery—a sacrifice that washes away our sins and a Savior who wipes away our tears.
Is the cross good news to you? I’m sure you don’t want to suffer God’s anger and punishment, but maybe you don’t even want to admit that you deserve his wrath. As a result, you may not want to accept God’s compassion, forgiveness, and new life. You’re too proud to admit you’re miserable, too stubborn to say you’re sorry and to ask for forgiveness, too set in your ways to seek God’s help in changing.
You’d rather pretend everything is fine. You don’t want God’s compassion—you want your rights! You want God to say that you’re fine just the way you are. You want God to just do his job and give you what you want, whatever that happens to be. If you have that attitude, the cross is an offense and a stumbling block to you. It is your judgment, not your salvation.
However, if the message of the cross convicts you of your sin and rebellion against God, if it makes you tremble at his wrath, and if that message of the cross moves you into the embrace of God’s compassion and love, then you will know the thrill and the joy of leaving your past at the cross, of drowning your sin and guilt in the depth of God’s forgiveness, and of living in the newness of life that only the Spirit of Christ can give you.
Let’s close with a prayer that combines a prayer of Moses with a prayer of the prophet Micah. It’s a prayer to the God of wrath and compassion, the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
“Lord, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence… Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you… Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:7-14).
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin…? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19). Thank you, dear Father, for salvation in Jesus. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.