The Consuming Fire of Love
by Linda Rex
At our group discussion last Wednesday night we were talking about how misdirected anger can ruin relationships. On the one hand, we dump our anger in violent and hurtful ways, and on the other, we stuff and deny our anger in many ways which are ultimately self-destructive. Neither use of our anger is healthy, nor do they serve the real purpose for us experiencing anger in the first place.
We misdirect our anger. We may be angry at one person, and tell others all about it, but never deal directly with the person who is the cause of our anger. Some of us deny our anger and bury it, but the anger which demands expression manifests itself in psychosomatic illnesses, passive-aggressive behavior, and/or depression. Sometimes we are angry about something someone has done to us or said to us, and we begin to behave in ways which are painful and destructive toward people we love and value.
I’ve heard so many stories in recent times about people expressing a deep-seated anger through violence. For example, when some people are frustrated about their inter-racial issues, they express that anger by destroying and looting businesses. I’m always nervous about having ticked someone off in traffic, because I don’t know if they will pull out a gun and shoot me! These expressions of anger are nonproductive and destructive—they don’t solve anything. They only create more problems and more misery.
So much of our anger is retributive. In other words, our anger is a response to a violation of some kind in which we judge that person worthy of punishment or destruction. We seek vengeance—to give them what we believe they deserve. We condemn them and pour out our anger on them in destructive ways.
Some of us realize this is a wrong response, but we still feel in our heart of hearts we want them to “get what they deserve”—to reap what they have sown. We might even be angry with God when he doesn’t bring down the wrath of heaven on this person who so deserves to be punished with eternal fire.
Whether we realize it or not, it is this way of thinking and this belief system which influences how we read what is written in God’s word. We assume God is just like us—that he’s just hanging out in heaven looking for opportunities to crush anyone who misbehaves. When we read “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), we think we are being told this very thing—that God’s anger is going to consume anyone who violates God’s holy standards.
But the reality is, if God’s anger were going to consume any and every person who violates God’s holy standards, we would all have been wiped off the face of the earth millennia ago. This isn’t who God is. He’s not that type of Being. God’s anger doesn’t annihilate and destroy—it refines, renews, and restores. The truest expression of God’s wrath is not against human beings, but against the evil which infests their souls and twists their lives, and expresses itself in so many hurtful ways in our world.
The truest expression God’s wrath against sin and evil was in the Person and Presence of his Son Jesus Christ. First of all, the Son of God the Word took on our human flesh—he entered our darkness. Jesus encountered evil face-to-face within himself and forged for us a humanity unbound by sin and evil. He willingly limited himself to living as a human being, dependent fully upon his Father and the Spirit, and allowed himself to be rejected, tormented, and crucified.
Secondly, he permitted us as human beings to pour out on him all of our fear of a Punishing God, and all of our anger against this God, and all of our refusal to repent of our determination to be God in God’s place. Humanity’s response to whatever God they have worshipped so often has been a fearful “expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire.” We realize even turning our back on Jesus and what he has done for us means we deserve an even greater punishment and destruction. But no matter what we may believe about God and his feelings about our sin and sinful rejection of him, the truth is manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ: we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved. And we can’t seem to get our minds around that.
God’s wrath, his anger, is not so much aroused against each of us as it is against the evil and sin which consume us. His judgment of you and me and every other person who lives is that we are worthy of love, and we need to be rescued from sin, evil, and death. He has done a major part of the work by coming himself in Jesus, taking on our humanity, and allowing himself to be crucifed, and by wonderfully rising from the dead after sharing our death. He is busily working out the other part by his Holy Spirit as we embrace his presence in our world and in our hearts and lives.
Quite honestly, falling into the hands of the living God may be a terrifying thing to us, but it is the best possible thing which could happen. Being judged by the Lord means he goes to work to remove anything which is holding us captive, or causing us and others pain. It means we allow God to begin to transform our hearts and lives as we surrender to his will and his ways. We begin to acknowledge and live within the truth of the reality we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light.
But this is so hard for us. When God goes to work, we abdicate our insistence we are the lord of the universe. We surrender to his lordship and begin to do things his way rather than our way. He becomes the purpose for our lives rather than our selfish desires or opinions. And this is why we resist the Spirit and his work in our hearts and lives. Submitting to the living Lord who submitted himself to us and our rejection of him over two thousand years ago doesn’t come naturally.
Considering the reality of how God deals with our sin and our anger against him, it is worth reflecting on how we respond to evil and how we deal with the anger we feel when we are violated in some way. Jesus took all evil and anger upon himself centuries ago, and what is left is our need to forgive, accept and love. Jesus is the truest expression of grace and truth—and this is what we need in our relationships with one another: grace and truth.
If and when we feel angry, we look with the eyes of Jesus. We start with, in what way have I or others been violated? This is a place of truth and truth-telling. We need to face ourselves and others with integrity—who am I angry with? And why?
If we are angry with God, that’s okay. He can take it. We just need to be honest about it and engage him in face-to-face ongoing conversation about our anger against him. It is not a sin to be angry with God—sin arises when we try to deny or suppress or misdirect our anger.
Another question we need to ask ourselves is, what about this situation am I able to change? And how to I go about changing it? Once we have our answer, we need to go do it, or get help doing it. We need to go have that difficult conversation with that difficult person and quit putting it off or triangulating to others. We need to place and enforce those healthy boundaries which have been missing in our relationship with someone, or we need to end an unhealthy, destructive relationship which is causing us harm. We need to use our anger as a springboard to change, healing and wholeness.
And we also ask ourselves, what about this situation must be surrendered to the grace of God in Christ? And how to I go about forgiving and accepting this wrong which has been done? And we begin to do the hard work of forgiveness and acceptance. This doesn’t let the person who has hurt us off the hook so much as it releases them to God’s work of transformation in their lives, and relieves us of the twisting of our soul which comes through resentment and bitterness.
These are all positive, healing ways of dealing with our anger which reflect the inner life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit. Living in this way better reflects the truth of Who God is and who we are in him. It creates a healthier, more joyful society in which to live. This is what God is, in his wrath against sin and in his judgment, preparing us for. This is God’s heart for us as his beloved children, and it is what we were destined to enjoy forever in God’s presence through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit.
Abba, thank you for loving and forgiving us. Thank you for judging us worthy of love and grace rather than destruction and rejection. Finish what you have begun in us through Jesus by your Holy Spirit. You are an awesome, amazing God, and we love you. Amen.
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Heb 10:26–31 NASB
The Inward Movement Toward Rest
Yesterday I tried to reach someone at business by phone, but was put on hold. I waited and waited for someone to take me off of hold and to answer what I thought was an important question, but they took a very long time to respond. As I tried to wait patiently, I listened reluctantly to the voice on the line telling me all the positive attributes of the organization and why I should be doing business with them rather than with someone else.
There were a lot of good things said by the recording I was hearing, but after waiting on the line for quite literally an hour, all I really heard was their indifference to their customers. In fact, every couple minutes they would remind me someone would be with me “shortly”. I remarked to my daughter, who was tempering my impatience with reminders to be calm, that apparently their definition of “shortly” was a lot different than my definition of “shortly”.
After another phone call put in a little later during which I was hung up on and then called back and apologized to, I finally got the answer I needed. And I didn’t even think to mention my concern about their definition of “shortly”. I was just happy to have my concerns taken care of.
However, today when I got put on hold with another company, after about 10 minutes of waiting for tech support, I was beginning to wonder about what the word “momentarily” was supposed to mean. The recording told me someone would be with me “momentarily”. I thought “momentarily” meant in just a moment something would happen. I’m beginning to see that I might need to adjust my use of the English language to fit a culture where time has become very relative for some people.
But then again, maybe the problem isn’t with them, but rather with my inner need to have what I want done, done right now and at my convenience rather than theirs. Maybe what needs to change is my view of time and what is really most important in each moment. For me it is the task at hand. But for God, I’m beginning to believe it is instead the relationship I am encountering in that moment.
When I slow down enough to create space in a circumstance for Christ to enter in by the Spirit, I find the capacity to be patient when I have no reason to be patient, and to be gracious when I have every reason to be frustrated and angry. I’ve noticed lately I need to pay closer attention to my response to the situation in which I find myself, and to detach enough I am no longer reacting but am being proactive instead.
I first learned about dealing with inter-relational issues proactively when my children were little and they knew just how to push my buttons. I learned the time to deal with a problem behavior was not after it had occurred and my temper was hot, but before it ever occurred.
Being proactive meant I set a healthy, safe boundary and let them know ahead of time what it was, why it was in place and what the consequence would be for choosing to violate it. And when they pushed the boundary, the consequence was immediate though compassionate and gracious. In this way they could not blame anyone but themselves for having brought the unpleasant result upon themselves by their behavior.
Handling such issues in that order saved all of us from a lot of anger, yelling, and other unhealthy ways of dealing with the problem. And the result was healthier and more pleasant relationships, I believe, and a greater sense of security in my children. They didn’t have to guess at how I was going to respond, nor could they manipulate me into responding the way they wanted me to in order to get their way.
And a lot of times it only took one or two times standing my ground on important issues in this way, and it ceased to be an issue. They just needed to know what it meant to be a part of the family with regards to that particular issue, whatever it was—honoring bedtime rules and being honest and caring with others, for example.
Now at this late juncture in my life I am learning I need to treat myself in the same way—proactively rather than reactively. It works so much better when I plan ahead of time what my response is going to be in a difficult situation instead of allowing it to cause me to be upset, frustrated and angry.
When I make a phone call expecting to be answered immediately, I am put out when I have to sit on hold for an hour before getting the information I need. I could have hung up and called back, but I still would have been on hold. The issue isn’t with the phone call, but with my expectations and my response—I am reacting to the situation, not proactively following the way of love. I am allowing the circumstance, the person on the other line, the poor customer service, to define me and how I am going to respond.
But what really defines me is not that phone call. Nor is it the person who answers or doesn’t answer. What defines me is the Who in whose image I was made. It is the love of God in Christ which I am filled with, led by, and surrounded by. I, and every other person, am made in the image of God Who is love, and Who created us to love and be loved.
So proactively, I respond to this irritating life situation with the love of God in Christ—making space for Jesus to rest between me and the other person I am interacting with. If I just react instead, there is an immediate response directly to the person and to the situation, which leaves very little room for the Spirit to work. God is a whole lot more concerned about us loving him and loving others than he is about us getting our way in one particular instance in our lives. So we need to proactively create space for the Spirit, to allow the Spirit to go to work in every situation.
My daughter and I were talking about the phone call yesterday, and I was reminded again that stress is never the issue—stress does and will happen. It is our response to the stress which happens in our lives which can be the issue rather than the stress itself. Do we make space for God to work? Do we rest in him and seek to build the relationships of love in our lives, or are we merely focused on the task at hand?
How we respond to and deal with stress impacts our mental, emotional and physical health, as well as our spiritual health. I can see I have a new way to put what I have learned into practice in my relationships with God and others by proactively living in love with those who can be and are irritating, thoughtless or indifferent.
I will face challenges to my self-control and my patience and peace of mind, just as everyone else does. But Christ has already provided what is needed in these situations and he lives in you and me by his Spirit. As we invite him into these situations, and slow down in the moment and realize what is most important to him—living in love—we will find the capacity to create space for the Spirit and the ability to be patient, gracious and understanding instead of frustrated, irritated and angry. It is the work he is doing in us and in our lives, and by making room for him to work, we participate with him in the process.
Lord, thank you for your faithful love and grace, and for living in love in us, with us and for us. May we open space up in all our relationships and encounters in daily life for you to do your perfect work, so we may all grow up into the fullness of Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Ephesians 5:1–2
The Angry Response
by Linda Rex
One of the conversations I used to have with my children was about anger. It seems that we tend to look at anger in one of two extremes—either it’s a really bad thing and we should never get angry or it is a good thing and we should be free to express anger in whatever way we wish. So I would tell my children that anger is a healthy, human response to being violated in some way—it is an inbuilt self-protection system.
The problem comes in how we use our anger. What is our response to those violations of our personal space, personal value, property and belongings? We can respond in such a way that we cause harm, are hurtful to ourselves and others, or we can use our anger to make things better—to improve the situation and restore broken relationships and circumstances. Our motivation, when it is love, will move us to seek to improve or heal the situation rather than cause harm or exacerbate the situation. But ultimately it is up to us to make this choice to respond out of a heart of love.
The story Mark relates in his gospel (Mark 3:1-6) illustrates this. Jesus called a man with a withered hand up in the midst of the synagogue. Jesus did not sense any compassion for this man in the hearts of the Pharisees who were there—they were more concerned with watching Jesus and finding some reason to accuse him of wrongdoing than with helping this man get well.
But Jesus had already perceived what was going on in these men’s hearts. They were plotting to kill Jesus while at the same time they were defending the laws they had instituted with regards to the Sabbath. This “hardness of heart” grieved Jesus and angered him. So his response was to heal the man whose suffering was being ignored and superseded by a spirit of murder.
When Jesus healed the man and his hand was restored to normal, the men in the synagogue did not joyfully praise God and congratulate the healed man on his wonderful transformation. Instead, they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath. And then they went out and began to seriously plot Jesus’ death.
Here we see two responses to anger that arise out of two hearts—one of love and one of hate. Jesus’ heart was full of love for both the man with the withered hand and the men who refused to acknowledge him as Messiah. He did the most loving thing he could do in the situation and that was to heal the man who was suffering while at the same time showing the other men their hearts and inviting them to change their minds and hearts toward him.
The men whose hearts were filled with hate responded by plotting Jesus’ death. Their anger had its source in something other than love and when it was acted out, it did not bring healing, health and wholeness, but in the end led to the crucifixion of our Lord. Thankfully, anything we do is never beyond God’s ability to turn it to fulfill his purposes, and this was not the end of the story for Jesus.
From this story we can see that how we respond when anger comes depends largely on what is going on in our hearts. Are we filled with the Spirit of love or are we consumed with our own spirit with its hate, resentment, jealousy, and selfishness? When we turn away from those human emotions and attitudes that tend to fill our hearts and seek God’s heart of love, asking him to renew and refresh us daily in his Spirit, we will find that our responses to the things that anger us will begin to change.
As we put distance between those events that anger us and our response, inviting Jesus by the Spirit to fill that space, we will begin to respond in ways that are more loving, thoughtful and helpful. It is a process and something we grow in, but in time we will find that anger will become something that is a blessing, not something that masters us or that we need to be afraid of. It will begin to be what it was meant to be in our lives.
Lord, thank you for the gift of anger—that anger that was meant by you to be used in healthy ways to make our world healthier and happier. We give our anger and our hearts to you to transform. Make them how you mean them to be so that we will glorify you in all we think, say and do. For your name’s sake. Amen.
“And He said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?’ But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” Mark 3:3-4