Action Alert!

Human and Divine Wrath

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 04, 2024

Anger is like high-voltage electricity. Uncontrolled, it is deadly. Correctly wired, the electricity lights up a house. Our efforts to understand God’s wrath help us appreciate and tame the volatile emotion.

God confers His love and justice in all that He does. He creates man in His image and likeness. His commands are gifts of love and the recipe for happiness. The Bible reveals that the disobedience of sin ignites the wrath of God. We find the grand finale of God’s wrath in the Book of Revelation. At the end of time, Christ the King is the angry Judge restoring justice to all humanity. The wrath of Jesus in the account of His cleansing of the Temple is a righteous response to the abuse of worship. Commerce has its place, but when commerce despoils the sanctuary of prayer, the sin of irreverence provokes God’s anger.

Anger is an element of our emotional makeup. Like eyes, ears, brain, and the rest of us, our capacity for anger is God’s gift. But as with every other human faculty, we can use it as intended by God or abuse it. St. Paul teaches, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph. 4:26) Righteous anger is similar to that of Jesus in response to violations of the Ten Commandments—the precepts of justice, human and Divine.

Like the anger of Jesus in the face of injustice, anger impels action. Anger is an understandable response when cut off in traffic. Controlled anger heightens our awareness. The anger of parents in response to naughty and disrespectful children is normal. Proportionate parental anger reminds children to honor the Fourth Commandment. Anger helps defeat evil politicians at the ballot box. Just anger calls us to action, helps rescue us and others from abuse, restores justice, and wins wars.

By analogy, we have institutional anger in the service of justice. Modern Church authorities—like most of us—are wary of capital punishment because there have been too many mistakes and abuses. But Revelation allows capital punishment as an expression of just anger harnessed by reason.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent explains that capital punishment belongs to the civil authorities as they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The punishment of the guilty is not murder. It is an act of obedience to the Fifth Commandment because it preserves and protects human life. The Catechism connects just anger to capital punishment: “Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime…give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.”

But the right for civil authorities to take life is not absolute. We can degrade our desire for justice with an angry pursuit of unrestrained vengeance. Twentieth-century atrocities impelled the modern Church to articulate an ancient rule of just war: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” (GS 80) The “fog of war” produces many ambiguities, but indiscriminately attacking civilians isn’t one of them. We don’t evaluate war-making by the relative merits of combatants. We measure actions against the Fifth Commandment.

The Commandments direct us to render unto God and neighbor their due. God created us to worship Him in freedom. The Temple of worship belongs to God. The Temple is an extension of the sanctuary in our hearts. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) Dishonoring our inner sanctuary—like the moneychangers in the Temple—also provokes God’s anger because we disfigure His loving handiwork with sin.

Not all anger is in response to injustice. At times, anger reveals our own repressed sins. After King David’s crimes and coverup, he relaxes in luxury until Nathan indicts him with his famous accusation, “Thou art the man!” A lesser man would erupt in self-righteous anger and put the prophet to death. But David repents and composes the perennial hymn of sorrow, the Miserere, Psalm 51.

The Roman Catechism provides practical instructions to appease God’s wrath. The love and obedience of Jesus is the remedy. God does not delight in the suffering of Jesus; He delights in His obedience. Jesus appeased God’s wrath by His obedience unto death, overcoming the hatred of the Devil, and reconciling us to God, restoring the sanctuary of our souls. Our participation in the sacraments is a participation in the Cross and Resurrection that appeases God’s righteous anger.

We honor God with our heartfelt sorrow and the confession of our sins. We often overlook the atoning importance of the Penitential Rite at Mass. We please Him with the devout reception of Holy Communion. Our acts of generosity in the form of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving make us pleasing in His sight. Generosity cleanses the Temple of our souls and restores us to His grace.

We’ve heard it said, “Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” But Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:44) A wise priest once said, “If forgiving our enemies was easy, we wouldn’t need Jesus to command us to forgive them.” Forgiveness is impossible without God’s grace and our diligence.

The cleansing of the Temple reveals that just anger is not sinful. But the spirit of forgiveness that tames angry extremes and hatred is elusive. Although the passage of time heals wounds, we need more than making our enemies irrelevant to our lives. Acts of repentance, prayer, sacrifice, and generosity help us overcome our grievances and forgive our enemies.

Some suggest God’s anger is an anthropomorphism, but don’t count on it.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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