The Divine Anger and Human Free-Will
4th Sunday of Lent

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The readings are very interesting. The first reading in particular reveals that God is the Lord of history. He is in control of the hearts of all, including kings, and so He has complete control over what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen. Let us never forget that God is in control.

But God is not the cause of evil; man is the first cause of evil. But God responds to evil, and this is precisely what is meant by the divine anger, revealed so clearly in first reading.

The divine anger is something we rarely hear about these days, probably because people are in a kind of denial, including many clergy. But God’s anger is real; it is really the flip side of His absolute love. For anyone who truly loves others will experience real anger at the sight of injustice. Only those indifferent to others feel no anger at the sight or news of injustice. In fact, they delight in bad news—that’s what sells newspapers. But God is infinite in mercy, and He is also the perfection of Justice. That’s what is so marvelous about God: His mercy is never unjust, and His justice never lacks mercy, unlike man, whose mercy is often unjust because it is lenient, and whose justice is often cruel and excessive.

God’s response to the infidelity and wickedness of His people is to allow them to be taken captive by the Babylonians. If we choose to walk out of the light and into the darkness, we lose our right to divine protection and we give to the Evil One certain rights over us. There’s the Lord’s justice. He loves us so much that He will allow us to reject Him if we so choose, for it is contrary to love—and thus to justice—to force another to love us, and that is why God, who is Love, will not force anyone to love Him.

But God will show mercy. In 70 years He will move the heart of the King of Persia to release His people. I’ve been reading a very good biography on the life of St. Patrick, and his life is in many ways a microcosm of the history of Israel. As a teenager, he had no use for the Christian faith. Then one night while asleep, he is thrown to the ground, shackled by Irish raiders and led out of Britain to be sold as a slave to an Irish farmer. Patrick was forced to look after sheep. He began to pray, and during his six years of captivity, through fasting and a very devoted prayer life, his faith grew steadily. Then one night he heard a voice in a dream that said: “You have fasted well; soon you will be going home”. The following night he heard the voice again, this time saying: “Behold, your ship is ready”. He then made his escape, and it took him about a month to walk 185 miles to the south of Ireland to board a ship back to Britain. And then, of course, he becomes a priest and bishop and is called by God to return to Ireland to bring the gospel to the very people who kidnapped him. Patrick refers to the divine anger when he writes of this period of slavery.

The divine anger purges, purifies, and disposes us to recognize the divine love. The problem with human beings is that we are at our worst in times of prosperity, but at our best in times of suffering. When life goes well, we tend to drift away from God and forget our own poverty of spirit, our radical need for God, and we begin to believe that the blessings that have come to us from above are the result of something we’ve done. And then the three basic passions begin to govern us: self-esteem, desire, and resentment. We become proud, and we acquire an inordinate appetite for physical gratification, and we become irascible or irritable when life doesn’t go our way. Slowly our life becomes centered around the self.

God responds to the injustice of this sinful condition by allowing suffering to enter our life, as the natural result of the choices that we’ve made. In this light, the divine anger is really the divine mercy, for although we see it as anger, it is really mercy, for if the Lord were to leave us to our own will, we’d be lost souls.

The unity of the Lord’s justice and mercy has been completely revealed in the Person of His Son:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.

I remember the scene in the movie The Song of Bernadette, when the doctor interviewed Bernadette to determine whether or not she was crazy, and he said to her: “Can you tell me what a sinner is?” Her answer pleased him: “Oh, yes Monsieur, a sinner is one who loves evil”. She did not say “does”, but “loves”. We all do evil, because we are frail and sinful. But not everyone loves evil. There are people in this world, however, who love evil, who prefer the darkness to the light.

For a while now I’ve maintained that generally speaking, we in the western world, especially Canadians, are very naïve about evil. We don’t believe that people are capable of doing evil with full knowledge and deliberation. We like to believe that what we call evil is really the result of a bad upbringing, or a result of ignorance, or mental illness. And it is certainly true that often bad behavior is a result of certain environmental conditions, and very often it is a mixture of ignorance and disordered passion, and sometimes mental illness. But often it is not. There are people who freely choose darkness. What they choose is to make themselves the absolute center of their lives and to treat everyone else as a means to their own ends. They are absolute egoists and consummate users. But they are well disguised, because they know that if they were ever exposed, they’d be rejected, and so they usually come across as paragons of virtue. They can talk to you and make you feel as if you are the most important person in the world; they flatter you, and you go away thinking that this man or woman is the greatest. And they feed off of the adulation and praise of others, which is why they know how to flatter very effectively. But they are wolves underneath the façade, and they have no conscience. And if you ever come to see through their façade, which is a very difficult thing to do, you will be the target of their terrible vindictiveness. But their persecution of you will be so subtle, so carefully carried out that no one will notice. Try telling anyone, and they’ll think you’re losing your mind.

The problem with the erroneous view that evil is merely the result of a poor upbringing or other environmental factors is that it has made countless hard working parents who have tried to raise their children properly, feel tremendous guilt, when in fact they have nothing to feel guilty about. Human beings have the power of free-will, and no matter how well you raise a child, there is no guarantee that the child will turn out well. It all depends on the choices of that child. And there are countless people who have been raised in poverty, abuse, in short, very adverse conditions who, as a result of their own free choices, grew up to be genuine heroes.

And so although the hearts of all people are in the hands of God, nevertheless, every human heart is free to choose to love God, to love the truth and live in it, or walk out of the light and into the darkness. But no matter how many people choose evil, God is in control, and He will not allow evil to have the final word. God uses those who freely choose evil; He used the king of the Chaldeans, and He uses us, both those who love the truth, and those who hate the truth and plot to destroy the innocent. That’s the one thing that God and the criminal have in common—they are both users. But the criminal violates justice, for all men are equal, and to use another is to violate that equality. But God is not our equal. It is no more unjust for God to use us as it is for us to use a spoon when making a cake.

Recently I was reading a sermon by my favorite preacher, Archbishop Oscar Romero of the Diocese of San Salvador, who had to contend with violence, kidnapping, and the torture of his own people on almost a daily basis. He said: “It is not my poor word that sows hope and faith; I am no more than God’s humble echo in this people, speaking to those chosen as God’s scourges, who practice violence in so many ways. But let them beware. When God no longer needs them, he will cast them into the fire. Let them instead be converted in time. And to those who suffer the scourges and do not understand the why of the injustices and abuses: Have faith. Give yourselves, will and mind and heart, entire. God has his time. Our missing ones are not missing to God’s eyes, and those who have taken them away are present also to God’s justice. For all of them, and for a world that suffers uncertainty, let us pray for the assurance of faith.” (October 2, 1977)

God’s absolute love has been revealed in the Person of Christ, in his death on the cross. If a person can look at that death and turn his back on it for the sake of a life of selfishness, he’s not going to be very comfortable in heaven among the communion of saints, and so indeed he has been condemned already. God is so merciful that He will allow him to have what he has chosen for all eternity, namely himself. He will drink from the cup of his own self forever. That’s hell. But for those who love God, there is nothing to fear: “For all things work for good for those who love God.”