Old, New Testament, same God

Have you ever wondered about the "Wrath of God"?

Seriously, doesn't it get a little confusing sometimes? God is supposed to be the ultimate incarnation (literally) of love. We grew up making rainbows and collages about how "God is love." His love for each of us is supposed to be tender, eternal and all-encompassing, right?

And then we read the Old Testament and run across passages like this: "See, the day of the Lord is coming - a cruel day with wrath and fierce anger - to make the land desolate: and destroy the sinners within it" (Is 5:9).

So God is love, huh?

The dichotomy seems so great that some people actually refer to two different Gods, the "God of the Old Testament" and the "God of the New Testament." They decide that they prefer the latter, until they get to the end of the New Testament and discover little gems like this: "And Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth" (Rv 11:18).

Sounds a lot like the "Old Testament" God, doesn't it?

So clearly there aren't two different Gods. And God didn't somehow change or "evolve" between the beginning of the Bible and the end. So how do we reconcile this? How can Scripture talk about a loving God, and then describe Him in such violent terms?

Will the real "God" please stand up?

I will admit that, for most of my life, I haven't had a particularly good answer to this. I chalked it up to the gradualness of His revelation of Himself, or to the two "sides" of His justice and mercy. And then, like most everybody else, I focused on the loving side - because it made for much more pleasant reading.

And then, in a homily at daily Mass, I heard an explanation that actually makes sense.

The priest used the analogy of a rose in the sun. We are the rose, and God's love is the sun. When a rose has adequate water, it experiences the sun's rays as warm and nourishing and life-giving. But when the rose is dehydrated, it experiences those same rays as scorching, withering and destructive. The sun hasn't changed. Its rays are exactly the same, whether shining on the healthy rose or the wilted one. Only the flower is different.

What is the water in this analogy? God's grace. It's only when we have His life within us that we can withstand the power of His love.

This really isn't so difficult to understand. There are parallels in earthly love. Imagine, for instance, a drug addict who is stealing from his unwitting parents to support his habit. If he had any conscience at all, the love his parents showed to him would make him very uncomfortable, because it would feel like an indictment of the terrible thing he was doing. And then, if they discovered his deception and started practicing "tough love," it wouldn't feel like love to him at all. It would seem cruel.

And so it is with God's love. He loves us infinitely and wants what's best for us at every moment. But, depending on our spiritual condition, His love might not feel like love. It might hurt.

So it's grace that allows us to experience God's love as life-giving instead of "wrathful." Which means we need lots and lots of it. Where do we get it? From prayer, from worthily receiving the sacraments, from serving Him through serving others. And how do we lose it? Through sin. How do we get it back? Through the sacrament of reconciliation, and then more prayer, more service, more sacraments.

Have you ever heard someone say, "I don't believe a loving God would ever send anybody to hell." Honestly, neither do I. But when I heard this analogy about the sun and the rose, I realized that God doesn't "send" anybody anywhere. It's not like we die and then He looks at a list and decides where He wants to send us. It's more like we die, and we see God face-to-face. And, without sufficient grace, that encounter is unpleasant. Terrifying, even. For those who aren't in a state of grace, being confronted with the all-encompassing goodness of God is apparently unbearable. It presents to them in stark reality the chasm between God's goodness and their choices. And so they "send" themselves. It's not a choice. It's an inevitability, based on the intensity of God's love.

The flip side is what God's grace does for us. Like water in a rose, it soaks into every part, every cell of our being. It allows us to know, to feel and to bask in the rays of His incredible love for us. It nourishes us, it changes us, it transforms us into our best selves.

And it ensures that we never experience the "wrath" of God.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011