An image of a double rainbow in a dark sky.

Many people harbor the fear that the God depicted in the Bible suffers from a personality disorder. He seems kind and loving one moment and mean and wrathful the next. It’s true that the Bible speaks of a God of love and mercy, but it also speaks of his jealousy and judgment. Aware of our own imperfections, many of us fear God’s punishment more than we trust his love.

In a misguided attempt to heal this apparent split in God’s personality, some Christians have cast the God of the Old Testament as the polar opposite of Jesus in the New. Embarrassed or repulsed by depictions that seem to show God in a negative light, they rarely read the Old Testament or ignore it completely.

One way to tackle the apparent contradictions in God’s nature is to look at the relationship between mercy and justice. “Mercy” is a word we can easily embrace. It captures God’s response toward human misery and the suffering of all creatures. The word “justice,” on the other hand, can sound foreboding, referring as it does God’s attitude toward human guilt. But both mercy and justice share the same aim, which is to deal with the soul-destroying power of sin. And both spring from God’s goodness and love.

A God who is only merciful would be like an oncologist who refuses to prescribe chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery for fear of inflicting short-term pain on a patient who would otherwise die of cancer.

Without justice, God would not be good, loving, or powerful because he could not address the wrongs we do to ourselves and others.

If you wonder why the Bible sometimes depicts God as angry at faithless Israel, consider the words of Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who points out that “the wrath of God is a lamentation.”1 It is God expressing his anguish at the way sin has distorted the world he made.

“Is it a sign of cruelty,” Heschel goes on to ask, “that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?”2

Ultimately, the best way to try to understand God, is to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. Our doubts about God’s mercy can be resolved in Jesus, who, as the Book of Hebrews affirms, is the exact representation of God’s being (1:3).

As finite creatures, we cannot help but misunderstand God. As Paul says, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until then, let’s celebrate the truth that Scripture teaches—that God is as he says he is: a God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.

 

1. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Perennial, 1962), 365.

2. Ibid.





Originally published November 27, 2018.