|Ceiling of Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo
I have the tendency to think of God in terms of his great love.* However, it’s hard to spend any time reading the scriptures and ignore the fierceness of his anger and wrath. This is particularly true of the Old Testament, but also of the Book of Mormon. I encountered this recently in reviewing the message of Samuel in the Book of Helaman. After warning them that ‘heavydestruction’ awaited the unrepentant (apparently ordinary destruction was not enough), the Lord said:
Therefore, thus saith the Lord: Because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of the Nephites, except they repent I will take away my word from them, and I will withdrawmy Spirit from them, and I will suffer them no longer, and I will turn the hearts of their brethren against them.
And fourhundred years shall not pass away before I will cause that they shall be smitten; yea, I will visit them with the sword and with famine and with pestilence.
Yea, I will visit them in my fierce anger, and there shall be those of the fourthgeneration who shall live, of your enemies, to behold your utter destruction; and this shall surely come except ye repent, saith the Lord; and those of the fourth generation shall visit your destruction. (Alma 13:8-10)
It doesn’t end there. Samuel warns of physical destructions and curses that make your toes curl. It’s pretty scary to think about, especially in light of our need for such regular repentance. There can be no doubt that he “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” (Alma 45:6; D&C; 1:31) Though some sins are bigger than others, they’ve all got to go. This reality represents a big problem for all of us.
But in our fear and trembling, we must ever remember that fierce anger is not God’s only fierce attribute:
But if ye will repent and returnunto the Lord your God I will turn away mine anger, saith the Lord; yea, thus saith the Lord, blessed are they who will repent and turn unto me, but wo unto him that repenteth not. (Helaman 13:11)
Though his anger is indeed fierce, his love (and mercy) is fiercer. His willingness to literally forgive and forget is far greater than his capacity for wrath. Think about how much greater effort it requires for us to extend mercy and forgiveness than to be angry.
My initial tendency is to characterize this as selective amnesia. But in reality it has nothing to do with amnesia since it is contingent on repentance. The application of the atonement in the process of repentance literally takes the sin away. It leaves us not only ‘not guilty’ but also ‘innocent’. The true fierceness of the love of God is manifest in his willingness to sacrifice his only son as the lynch-pin of his grand plan of salvation. Yet in this wonderful news lies the somber warning: “wo unto him that repenteth not”. In other words, don’t get him angry.
In the end, hopefully it is okay to identify more with his love and mercy than with his wrath–so long as we take the opportunity to repent. After all, when it comes to ourselves,** we are counting on a God that is more loving and merciful than just.
* Based on my recent reading of the 109 th Psalm, David must have related well to God’s angry side (here).** For other people, I find that there’s a tendency for us to want a God that is more about justice than mercy (as demonstrated in Psalms 109)–it’s the ultimate double-standard.