One of the hallmarks of my evangelical re-conversion several years ago was embracing unfashionable doctrines of the faith because they reflect what scripture teaches, whether recent theologians have any use for them or not. One of these doctrines is God’s wrath.
In his new book, The Pursuing God, author Joshua Ryan Butler helps us make sense of some of these doctrines. In a recent interview on the Mere Fidelity podcast, he describes an analogy for God’s wrath that he heard from a friend:
Here’s how [my friend thinks] of wrath. Let’s say you have this fish on a dock. You’re made to live in the water, swim in the water. But one day you get tired of the water, so you jump out of the water onto the dock. And you’re not made to live on the dock and dry land so start to wiggle around uncomfortably. And the longer you’re there, the more uncomfortable you get.
The question was: Is flopping around on the dock, is that punishment—or is that a natural consequence of one’s behavior?
And the point he was making, he was going, “That’s a natural consequence.” A punishment would be someone walking down the dock with a stick and beating the fish, going, “Get back in the water!”
And so his take was, “That’s the way I see sin.” You know? We experience these natural consequences when we reject God and live that way, and that’s bad. But we need to kind of get rid of wrath and punishment and anger language because it makes God look mean.
And my take back is, “I get what you’re saying… But, in the Hebrew worldview, it’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and—that in the Hebrew worldview, I think the fish flopping on the dock is a punishment.”
Because God as creator has ordered Creation such that the fish thrives in the water and flops around on the dock—that the fish, in leaving its intended environment and rejecting the way it was created to live, it is rebelling against the ordering of Creation by God. And in so doing, it’s receiving the due punishment ordered within Creation by God.
And not only ordered from the beginning of time, but executed by God as the Creator who sustains Creation, who is actively involved in the affairs of this world.
I think you can see throughout scripture language and imagery and passages where Israel is very comfortable saying, on the one hand, “We messed up, and this consequence happened,” and then flipping it around and saying, “God was punishing us. God was executing his judgment and wrath.”
I think we can get rid of the dude with the stick and see God’s wrath at work.
Butler concedes that this analogy falls short in many ways. For one thing—I would add—natural consequences often fail to adequately punish the world’s evil. “You reap what you sow” is built into Creation to some extent, but not completely by any stretch. So whether there’s a “dude with a stick” or not, in the interest of justice, God most impose consequences that don’t naturally follow.
Nevertheless, Butler believes that one virtue of the analogy is that it moves us beyond a deistic God who sets the world in motion and moves out of the way—that God is active through everything that happens in the world.
So this sense, even natural consequences aren’t “natural.”
I like this. For the last five years, one of my objectives in preaching has been to communicate this truth. Even to say that God “suffers alongside us,” a cliché among us Methodist preachers, risks turning the God of the Bible—a robustly sovereign God—into the God of deism.