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When my son was a little boy, one day he was playing an imaginary us-against-them war game. I watched him for a few minutes, and then asked him who the good guys were. “My team,” he answered. “What makes your team the good guys?” I asked. He looked like he thought it was a silly question and said, “Because I’m on it.”
It was cute and funny—he’s always been a kind and caring guy—but it did spark a good conversation that was probably mostly lost on him at the time. I couldn’t help thinking that he was just like me, just like almost everyone: aren’t we all the heroes in our own stories? The situation reminded me of Joshua chapter 5 when Joshua met a person who may well have been a Christophany and asked Him whether He was for them or for their enemies.
I gently explained to my son that God is not in his fan club; he would do well to see that he is on God’s side, not the other way around. Everything and everyone that’s good are reflecting the character and nature of God. God doesn’t just decide what’s good—goodness is identical with Him.
God doesn’t move. People do. When we say that the sun goes behind a cloud, we understand that it was not the sun but the cloud that moved. When the Bible says the sun rises and sets, we understand that it’s speaking from a human perspective; it’s not, properly speaking, meaning to say that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun revolves around it. Our understanding of God should be similar.
A biblically literate Christian is aware that God is spirit; He is immaterial. Hence, when the Word says that God has an arm or a hand or an eye, it’s conveying something of what God is like; it doesn’t intend to communicate that He literally has body parts. God is simple, or without parts, so we understand the language these passages use to be anthropomorphic: they describe God as though He had human form or attributes in order to communicate something about Him in a way that we can grasp.
Similarly, the Bible’s depiction of God as having “emotions” is anthropopathic, meaning that His emotions are not entirely dissimilar to ours, but they do not have a one-to-one correlation with ours either. They communicate truth, even though they’re not, properly speaking, true.
Most Christians believe in accordance with the Bible that God is immutable or unchanging. When applying immutability to God’s emotional life, we say that He is impassible. We understand something about His anger by looking at ours, but the wise believer knows that we don’t define God in terms of ourselves; we define ourselves in terms of God.
When we become angry, we are moved—in that we went from a state of happiness or blessedness to a state of displeasure. God doesn’t “become” anything because He eternally is what He is; thus, His anger is best understood in terms of creaturely movement with respect to God.
Another way to think about this is that God loves what is lovely. If the creature fails to reflect God, he or she becomes objectively unlovely and the object of God’s anger, either in the form of wrath (for unbelievers) or of fatherly displeasure (for the Christian).
By the way, don’t think that the idea that God isn’t moved by your suffering means that He doesn’t care for you. Believer, on the contrary it means that He couldn’t care more. Nothing affects His love for you. Properly understood, this is a tremendously comforting truth. When the Father sees you, He sees His perfect Son to whom you are united and whose perfect goodness now belongs to you.
In Psalm 66, David recalls how the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt on dry land, and he praises Him for it. Without mentioning their subsequent rebellion, David then recounts the oppression the Lord brought to them:
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance (Psalm 66:10-12).
One author who has written a book about abuse said that God is always on the side of the oppressed. Yet in the case of the Israelites, the people God chose to be the objects of His immutable love, God didn’t just permit their oppression; He was the primary agent of it. Yes, He was for them, but their oppression was at His very hand, for their good, in order to effect their repentance.
Their oppressors had their own sinfully motivated agency, but they acted under the lordship of the Almighty nonetheless. They were only the secondary cause of Israel’s oppression. David then goes on to praise God for His deliverance:
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul. I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me! (Psalm 66:16-20).
Not all oppression is discipline from God because of sin. But David recognized that his was, and he refused to regard iniquity in his heart, which led to God hearing and answering his prayer. Like Christ, he refused to return evil for evil or reviling for reviling, and he entrusted himself to his faithful God.
The God who uses sin sinlessly does hate oppression, and the oppressors will either pay for their sin or Christ will. The Lord doesn’t say vengeance is wrong, but He reserves it for Himself. He calls His people to bless those who persecute them. Sometimes we bless them by rebuking them strongly . . . or by having them put in jail or put out of the church. Love doesn’t rejoice in evil but rejoices in the truth and longs for the restoration of every sinner. We refuse to encourage the unruly.
God doesn’t permit us to tolerate wickedness in our midst because He is loving and good, and the wicked person has moved with respect to Him. But sometimes the oppressed person is unruly, too. If this is you, may God bless and restore you. Please, please, dear one, do not give yourself permission to murder someone in your heart. Don’t accuse your loving Father of wronging you.
Even if your trial was not directly caused by your sin, you can still cherish iniquity in your heart by how you respond to it. I know you will want to remind me that there is such a thing as righteous anger, and you’re right. Is your anger righteous, meaning that it’s redemptive and restorative—merciful?
Mercy is an entirely different way of reacting to offenses, to things we think are wrong. Think about this: mercy is not a non-reactive indifference—because it cares. And it’s the furthest thing from approval—because what’s happening is wrong. Mercy includes a component of forceful anger, but anger’s typical hostility, vindictiveness, and destructiveness does not dominate. —David Powlison
Perhaps these words feel like condemnation to you; I’m asking you to choose to view them differently. You may not be there yet, and that’s okay. Can you concede that it’s where God wants you to go? We call that progressive sanctification. You have the Spirit of God and the Lord’s people to help you because you won’t be able to do it alone.
The difficulty I face in writing this is that many folks counsel in an unloving and an unhelpful way. Too often, people-helpers do help and encourage the unruly, even as they rebuke the weak and the fainthearted, causing damage all around. Most of them mean well; they love God, love others, and are sincerely trying to help, but good motives don’t diminish the carnage.
I know that by saying what I’m saying, I will provide fodder for some who participate in what is rightly called victim-blaming. Think Job’s friends. Please, out of fear of the Lord and love for His people, take care not to misuse my words. But in some cases, the biblical counseling world has overcorrected from being miserable comforters and has begun to help hurting people call good evil and evil good in their own lives, putting them in the unenviable position of being in opposition to God on top of everything else they’re going through.
Ironically, though they criticize the bull-in-a-china-shop tactics of their counterparts, they, too, are causing damage. The Lord resists the proud, even if the proud person is a victim of oppression. The Lord Himself rebuked Job when Job shook his fist at heaven, regardless of the horrors Job was suffering because God loved Job and sought to restore him to the enviable position of divine favor.
Because of this, Job’s story ends well. He doesn’t pine away alone in bitterness and misery. We should love hurting people enough to gently point them to Job’s good God so that they can live in the joy and freedom that’s theirs for the asking (James 4:3). If you move into the shadow, friend, you forsake the light of God’s countenance. He did not move, you did, and now you stand in opposition to Him and can expect His fatherly displeasure and discipline.
There will be no peace for your soul until you move again. This is true whether you oppress other people or have been oppressed or both. God is no respecter of persons. He is who He is. He is not for you or for your enemy. He’s for Himself. Choose this day whom you will serve.
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind. Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me (Job 23:13-16).