The following post was written by Jimmy Hettinger. Jimmy is a member of Seven Mile Road Church and works as a clinical nurse with the progressive care unit at a children’s hospital.
Wrath in the Psalms
I have been doing my devotions in the Psalms for almost a year and a half now. In that time I’ve encountered verses that grate against some of the cultural norms of American Christianity. Verses like:
- Psa 76:10 “Surely the wrath of man shall praise you…”
- Psa 58:10 “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked”
- Psa 59: 13 “Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be; and let them know that God rules in Jacob to the ends of the earth. Selah.”
Obviously these praises of God are biblical and good based on the fact that they’re in the Bible, but there is still a cultural tendency to downplay God’s wrath nowadays because it makes people uncomfortable to talk about it. However, these affirmations and praises of God’s wrath continue on into the new testament (see Romans 1 and Revelation 19 for examples of this), so we can’t just brush these Psalms off.
The Day it Became Real
It is certainly biblically right to rejoice in God’s wrath and judgement, I have intellectually accepted that a long time ago, but there was always a part of my heart resistant to it. However, an experience at work changed that for me:
An unfortunate reality of my work in a pediatric intensive care unit is that I have to care for victims of abuse. It is always awful, always ugly and always hard, but there is a case that stands out as a particularly dark time. The day started off pretty normally, I was still on orientation at the time and was caring for a teenager with sickle cell anemia, when my preceptor approached me and said “We got a call from the charge nurse, there was an arrival in the ED, the child is being rushed to emergency surgery, you will be the one to admit him after it is completed.” I rushed to prepare while we gathered more information about the patient. It was a 3-year-old boy, who’s injuries strongly suggested abuse. Apparently, he had been beaten so severely that his stomach had separated from his small intestine, causing massive internal bleeding. His mother and her boyfriend “found him unconscious” and rather than calling an ambulance, threw him in the back of their car and drove to the ED themselves. When they arrived in the ED his heart wasn’t beating, meaning that the length of time he was without a heartbeat was unknown (never a good thing in the world of trauma). The trauma team was able to restore a heart rate and rushed into surgery to repair the tears in his intestines and stop the bleeding.
When the patient arrived on my unit, I very quickly realized that his hope for recovery was slim. His bruising was extensive, his body swollen from excess fluid. He was attached to a ventilator with medications regulating his blood pressure, fluid status and just about every other vital function you could think of. He did not react to sound, nor to touch, nor to pain. There existed just the smallest amount of measurable brain activity. Nevertheless, we would do the best we could.
Shortly after settling him in, the members of his family began trickling into the room. As I cared for the patient, I made a strong effort to not get emotional and to not pass judgement. While abuse was likely, it had not been proven and even if it were true, I did not know who had performed the act. Also, my focus had to be on caring for the boy who needed extensive care and all of my mental capacity. However, it became hard to maintain that as I met the family. As I talked to the mother and her boyfriend (who was not the father) about her son they made sure to repeat the obvious lie about him falling out of bed multiple times to me. They were tearful at first, but settled into a more casual mood much too quickly. While their son was lying on the bed fighting for his life, they lounged on the couch together laughing about something that had happened earlier in the week. I completed my shift and drove home. The boy died two days later.
On my drive home I felt a wrath and indignation stirring up inside me unlike any I’d experienced before. I found myself fantasizing about the appropriate punishment for the perpetrators of this crime. I raged not just against the act, but the society that facilitated it, the broken homes that promoted it, the system that failed to support new parents and the ever-present sexual sin in society that caused so many unprepared parents. Nevertheless, as I meditated on this, no punishment that I could come up with seemed severe enough. I came to a sudden realization: My problem was not that I was too angry, in addition to my anger being sinful because it was mingled with a desire for personal vengeance and retribution, my problem was actually that I wasn’t angry enough. I was/am simply incapable of mustering up the level wrath to deal with sin adequately. When God said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Dt 32:35/Rom 12:19) he didn’t just say it because our wrath is fallen, but also because it is insufficient.
Wrath, Justice and Redemption
We are made in God’s image, part of that image is wrath. Like all other aspects of our nature, our wrath is fallen too, but it is important to note that our wrath itself is not a product of the fall, just the brokenness of it. However, God’s wrath is perfect, an extension of his holiness. A. W. Pink calls it “the holiness of God stirred into action against sin.” Because how could a good God look at sin and not be moved? How can a loving God see a child murdered by those who were supposed to protect and not be filled with hate? God must take action against the evil of the world.
God’s wrath brings justice, it is displayed evenly and with appropriate severity. While I am prone to get angry at some sins and sweep others (typically my own) aside. God shows no partiality. I fail to remember that my sin is deserving of the same hell as child murderers, rapists, racists, gossips, and liars. Paradoxically, this is great cause for rejoicing, because God has provided an escape from “the wrath to come” in his son. Jesus dealt with the wrath I so greatly deserve, meaning that I can extend mercy to others who deserve my wrath. God’s perfect wrath means that I can rest in His judgements. I can “love what is good and abhor what is evil” (Rom 12:9) without feeling the need to pour out judgment on that evil. God will deal with evil, either through the cross or in the final judgment and both are causes for rejoicing. So then, I rejoice in the redemption of my soul through God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus. I rejoice in the redemption of all creation that is to come through God’s judgment being poured out on the world. I rejoice in God’s justice. Therefore, I must rejoice in God’s wrath.