Part 1 of this two-part series looked at human anger. The prophets refer to it first of all as a ‘sin of thought,’ and we looked at some of the Brethren’s talks about the dangers of anger and the need to eliminate it from our lives. In the second of the two-part series on anger we will examine what is referred to as God’s anger. As with the first article, most of this article’s text is a conglomeration of multiple texts from apostles and prophets.
God’s Anger in the Scriptures
There is no shortage of references to God’s anger in the scriptures. The Old Testament is especially rich in references to the anger the Lord feels for the betrayal of his people. They made covenants with him then chose to turn from their protector and benefactor and make their own gods of wood and stone. They purposefully chose evil over good. As a result, the punishments for the covenants broken were to be severe. Here are some sample verses of God declaring his anger against Israel for their wanton treachery.
Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcases were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger, and in fury, and in great wrath.
And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the children of Ammon.
The Problem with Words
In Part 1 of this series we read the words of the prophets and other leaders who all say that anger is evil and that even God tells us to do away with it. Yet here we have reference after reference of God, himself, practicing anger that lasts for literally millennia. The Lord told Israel that if he had to scatter them to the four corners of the earth that his anger would follow them right up until the last days, when he would once again reach out to them in mercy and love. What is that all about?
Burton C. Kelly defined the sin of anger this way: “Anger itself is a sin when sin is defined as anything that retards the growth or progress of an individual.” Since anger, as discussed here, seeks to overthrow another’s agency, and is founded upon the assumption of the right to judge another for their attitude or behavior, anger is a sin just itching to spawn other sins. But this definition of anger does not apply to God or Christ. Their anger is fueled by the requirement we place on them to punish us for our disobedience. They love us. They want only that which is good for us. They will never tamper with our agency. So when they have to punish us, we assume they are angry with us.
God’s True Nature
Let’s look at some excerpts from a couple of talks by Elders Dallin H. Oaks, and Jeffrey R. Holland. Elder Oaks is explaining that what we consider to be anger on the part of the Lord is really an expression of his love for us. We don’t have a way to describe the kind of disappointment God experiences when we throw away our chances for exaltation, so when, as a good parent, He must mete out punishment for our bad behavior, we accuse him of being angry and vengeful.
We read again and again in the Bible and in modern scriptures of God’s anger with the wicked and of His acting in His wrath against those who violate His laws. How are anger and wrath evidence of His love? Joseph Smith taught that God “institute[d] laws whereby [the spirits that He would send into the world] could have a privilege to advance like himself.” God’s love is so perfect that He lovingly requires us to obey His commandments because He knows that only through obedience to His laws can we become perfect, as He is. For this reason, God’s anger and His wrath are not a contradiction of His love but an evidence of His love. Every parent knows that you can love a child totally and completely while still being creatively angry and disappointed at that child’s self-defeating behavior.
If only we will listen, we can know of God’s love and feel it, even when we are disobedient. A woman recently returned to Church activity gave this description in a sacrament meeting talk: “He has always been there for me, even when I rejected Him. He has always guided me and comforted me with His tender mercies all around me, but I [was] too angry to see and accept incidents and feelings as such.”
The Lord’s anger is never based on passion or a desire to force us to do his will. Look at the body of verses in the scriptures that talk about God’s anger, and you will see that it is always there only to describe the meting out of the punishments we have brought upon ourselves by our disobedience. I don’t think the Lord is ever actually angry with us the way we think of being angry with each other. After all, God has a perfect knowledge of all things. He knew what decisions we were going to make before the earth was even formed.
Elder Holland discussed the Lord’s capacity for love and emotion in an October, 2003 Conference talk.
I make my own heartfelt declaration of God our Eternal Father this morning because some in the contemporary world suffer from a distressing misconception of Him. Among these there is a tendency to feel distant from the Father, even estranged from Him, if they believe in Him at all. And if they do believe, many moderns say they might feel comfortable in the arms of Jesus, but they are uneasy contemplating the stern encounter of God. Through a misreading (and surely, in some cases, a mistranslation) of the Bible, these see God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son as operating very differently, this in spite of the fact that in both the Old Testament and the New, the Son of God is one and the same, acting as He always does under the direction of the Father, who is Himself the same “yesterday, today, and forever.”
There, in the midst of a grand vision of humankind which heaven opened to his view, Enoch, observing both the blessings and challenges of mortality, turns his gaze toward the Father and is stunned to see Him weeping. He says in wonder and amazement to this most powerful Being in the universe: “How is it that thou canst weep? … Thou art just [and] merciful and kind forever; … Peace … is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?”
Looking out on the events of almost any day, God replies: “Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands. … I gave unto them … [a] commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. … Wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”
That single, riveting scene does more to teach the true nature of God than any theological treatise could ever convey. It also helps us understand much more emphatically that vivid moment in the Book of Mormon allegory of the olive tree, when after digging and dunging, watering and weeding, trimming, pruning, transplanting, and grafting, the great Lord of the vineyard throws down his spade and his pruning shears and weeps, crying out to any who would listen, “What could I have done more for my vineyard?”
I will close with this quote from Burton C. Kelly, who defined anger this way: “Anger itself is a sin when sin is defined as anything that retards the growth or progress of an individual.”
I submit that God does not get angry when anger is thus defined—or as we commonly use the word. In Mark 3:5, after the Savior healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, we find the people seeking to accuse him. “And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardness of their hearts, he said unto the man, stretch forth thine hand.” There are some critical phrases in that statement. First of all, the Savior was “grieved” because of the hardness of their hearts. He was concerned about them, caring, compassionate. His “anger” did not arise, as does ours, out of a judgmental condemning of others, out of selfishness to get his own ends met, nor out of the desire to control people and deny them their freedom.
Anger is a feeling of hostility, resentment, wrath, or ire. None of these feelings was present nor, I believe, ever is present with God. I believe God’s actions are interpreted at times as arising out of anger because he applies consequences, including punishment, for violation of his laws. But when we look at God’s punishment, we find that it is just—there is no element of hostility or revenge. This is certainly true in the case of Christ driving the money changers from the temple. He did so with sternness, but his motivation was from a desire to serve God and bless his children, not a desire to harm others.
One other thing might help us understand the use of the word anger as it is applied to the Lord. Doctrine and Covenants 1:24 tells us, “These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” [D&C 1:24] In other words, I believe that the word anger is applied the way it is in the scriptures because we understand that language and because it has the clearest, most positive effect on us (see D&C 19:6–7).
And finally, one last reference from a Christian publication – Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Red Letter Edition) 2010 pp. 24-25. “Since God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and since anger is an emotion representing a change in one’s reaction, God does not really become angry. He only appears to do so in the eyes of men.”
References Used in Parts 1 and 2
DALLIN H. OAKS of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
JEFFREY R. HOLLAND of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Agency and Anger, LYNN G. ROBBINS of the Second Quorum of the Seventy
Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Red Letter Edition) 2010 pp. 24-25
Hebrew #639 ‘aph, af: the nose or nostril; hence, the face; wrath, anger;4b…quick to anger might literally mean “short of face/nostrils” constitute an idiom meaning longsuffering or slow to anger. This meaning is applied to God as a figure of speech (anthropopathism)whereby He is attributed human emotions. Since God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and since anger is an emotion representing a change in one’s reaction, God does not really become angry. He only appears to do so in the eyes of men.
Be Slow to Anger, ELRAY L. CHRISTIANSEN
The Case Against Anger, BURTON C. KELLY, of the Counseling Center faculty and professor of educational psychology at Brigham Young University
Kelly P. Merrill
Kelly Merrill is semi retired and writes for https://gospelstudy.us. He lives with his wife in Idaho. His strength is being able to take difficult to understand subjects and break them down into understandable parts. He delights in writing about the gospel of Christ. Writing about the gospel is his personal missionary work to the members of the Church and to those of other faiths who are wanting to know more about Christ's gospel and His Church.