Wrath is a reflex action of old Adam. Don’t get mad, get even. Get your “pound of flesh.” “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life.” You can even quote the Bible on that and justify yourself with it. If your enemy strikes you on the cheek, punch him in the nose. It’s the law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest. The world of tooth and claw and blood.
Wrath is a burning, simmering rage. Hatred and anger. It can be destructive; it is always self-destructive. It may be justifiable, in human terms, but it never justifies and it never works the justice of God. Wrath is impatient. It refuses to wait on the Lord, to suffer all things, endure all things, hope all things. In that way wrath is idolatry, playing God, overruling God’s way and God’s time with my way and my time.
Wrath can persist long after the person who sinned against you is dead or gone. Feuds can last for centuries. Sometimes long after the offense is forgotten. Wrath is unforgiveness, refusal to forgive others as you yourself have been forgiven by God. Wrath is the only one of the seven deadly sins that is not associated with selfishness or self-interest. Its dressed up form is “righteous indignation,” the “righteous cause,” “justified anger.” But the anger of man never works the righteousness of God.
Dante described wrath as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite.” It is a good perverted and inverted, as is all evil. Wrath reduces us to the level of the animals, even lower, because animals operate on instinct while we operate on reason. It dehumanizes us even as we dehumanize one another.
Wrath is a refusal to let God be God and our trying to set the score straight on our own. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” God is just and He will see that justice is done. But you try to do that for Him. You won’t get it right.
Wrath hurts the person more than the object of his wrath. The long simmering, cultivated anger focused on revenge distorts our person and personality and dominates our existence. We live to be angry. Anger defines us instead of God and our Baptism. It callouses over the heart to the neighbor and to God.
You’ve likely noticed the surplus of anger and wrath in the current political arena. The current campaigns and debates are bubbling cauldrons of anger. People are mad and blaming others for their plight, whatever it may be. They deplore evil and evildoers and aim to do something about it. They seek a strong leader who will vindicate our anger and deliver “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life.” Some candidates give voice and vocabulary to our rage and in doing so draw our support and applause.
We think we can weed the weedy wheat field and outsmart the enemy. We think we know this business of “good and evil” well enough to tell the weeds from the wheat. We think we can rid the world of evil and evildoers. We forget that we are part of the problem, that the line between good and evil runs through each of us. We think we can deal with pollution by filtration, that we can filter out the evil in this world and leave only good, but we are sadly mistaken. Evil is not dealt with by removing it but overcoming it with good. That way, nothing is lost. You deal with pollution by filtration but by dilution. “Overcome evil with good.”
Jesus came to bring mercy, not wrath. He came to take the wrath of God upon Himself, that wrath that was justly ours as “children of wrath,” that is, children of Adam. He is the Sinless One who became our Sin. He is the merciful One who overcame wrath with mercy. He turned His cheek to those who struck Him. He gave His cloak to those who gambled for it. He went the extra mile of the way of sorrows to the cross with those who forced Him. He blessed and forgave His enemies. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” He loved His enemies, you and me, while were enemies, He loved us. He prayed for His persecutors and slanderers. He is the Son of the Father whose sun rises on the good and the evil alike and whose rain falls on the good and the wicked alike.
He was perfect as His Father in heaven is perfect.
Baptized into Him, believing in Him, that perfection is yours. That life is yours. That patient endurance that shows itself as love to the enemy is yours. Old Adam won’t do this. Christ must do this. Adam must die to his anger, his revenge, his desire to get even. Christ gives drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry, even when it is the enemy, and especially when it is the enemy. And in so doing, evil is overcome by good, and God works all things, not matter how evil they may appear, for our good and blessing.
The opposite virtue of wrath is patience, long-suffering, endurance. It is the hallmark of faith and freedom in Christ. As forgiven, justified sinners, we are free to let go and leave be, to not be ruled by our wrath but by the mercy of God, to reflect this amazing love to the loveless shown to us in Jesus, that the unlovely might be loved as well.
“Vengeance is mine,” declares the Lord. Leave it to the Lord. He knows best. You don’t. I talked to a woman on the phone a while ago. She was a church secretary, and I had called to speak with her pastor. We started a conversation and she told me about how she was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. A drunk driver had collided with her car several years before, and the accident left her paralyzed. “I can never forgive that man for what he took from me. Not even the conviction and the lawsuit can get rid of the anger and hatred I have for him.”
I said, “That’s understandable, and I’d probably feel the same way. But has your anger lifted you up from your wheelchair?” “No,” she said. “The problem is that your anger has put you in a spiritual wheelchair too. Your life is centered in wrath and its consuming you. Look at it from God’s perspective. He has reconciled all things in the death of Jesus. That means you, the drunk driver, and your paralysis. It was evil but God has made good out of it in Jesus. Your anger blinds you to the good.”
“Damn you,” she said after a long silence. “You just took away my last reason to be angry. Now what do I do?”
“How about forgive and be free,” I suggested.
Wrath is a straightjacket that binds the angry person and cuts of his freedom. Joseph could have been angry with his brothers for selling him to slave traders. He could have taken revenge on them after his father Jacob had died. They full expected it. But what did Joseph say to his cowering brothers? “Am I God,” he said. “You meant it for evil, but God has used it for good to save the lives of many.” Joseph’s unfair treatment at the hands of his brothers became the salvation from starvation for the sons of Israel.
Jesus’ unjust treatment at the hands of men that put Him on a cross became the salvation from Sin and Death for the sons and daughters of Adam.
Let God deal with the injustices done against you. Let go of that anger and wrath. It does you no good. It robs you of joy and wastes your freedom as a child of God.
In the name of Jesus,