John 7.24: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
“Circumstances don’t make a person, they reveal them.” Sayings like these seem to be profound and wise on the surface. However, as a person who has studied a lot in psychology, I have always been bothered with this and other similar sayings. If you know anything about the fundamental attribution error, you know that people are often inclined to overstate how much people’s behavior is due to their character traits, thereby diminishing how much the circumstances plays. Furthermore, if you know anything about trauma, you know that such circumstances can dramatically alter who you are. Difficult situations do not show our true character or nature. The truth is, if you want to reliably know who a person is, you want to see how they react to a wide variety of situations and circumstances. Extreme circumstances have a power over the person that doesn’t necessarily define who they were before the events, and they can dramatically alter who a person is. You can not look at what a person said or done in one extreme situation and think you have deep insight into who they are.
Nevertheless, there is perhaps a kernel of truth to this phrase. When we are emotionally overwhelmed and overloaded, our thinking tends to get very simplified and stuck on one-track until the emotions abate. Usually, in the more mundane, day-to-day nature of life, our mind fluidly and artfully moves from one thing to the next. No one thing gets our sustained attention and reflection. But when being lead by powerful emotions, good or bad, our minds begin to develop a fixed, persistent attention or concern about something specific. Find someone who is mad, head over heels in love and you will find someone who is thinking incessantly about the beloved while being largely absent-minded to many of the other things going on in life. If someone has just been terrified by something they witnessed, their thoughts will continue to focus on the event and the potential aftermath from it. So, when people are put in difficult circumstances, their words and actions don’t necessarily reveal who they are, but we can catch a glimpse of what the person is motivated by what they focus upon.
So, for instance, pretend someone just lost their job and they become emotionally overwhelmed soon thereafter. What you see in their words and behaviors in that moment is not something you would usually witness from them in the normal course of their life. Yet, in the midst of that distress, if you pay attention, you can notice what has their attention. What is it that they think about in the moments thereafter? Is it about how they are going to pay their bills? Is it what’s going to happen in their future? Is it what they will tell their family? If you can pick out what the central thing is that they are focused on, you will find one of the deep values of their life that presently intersect with their circumstance. Extreme circumstances can provide others a look into our values.
At that point, the values that are demonstrated in a difficult situation will be a reflection of what was significant to you in your life up to that point, including both in our big life events and the smaller events that occurred day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year. Our values come from our own personal history. Some parts of our personal histories were under our influence and choice, and some of them weren’t, but our values become a reflection of what we found to be significant throughout our personal history. It is these sorts of things that our harder, more difficult circumstances do reveal: what has been significant in your life? How you handled the situation isn’t as telling as what it is that your thinking and actions were motivated by in that situation.
When I faced my personal crisis a few months back, I came face-to-face with my own basic nature. Two thoughts went through my mind. Firstly, have I let God down? Has God rejected me? Is there anything I can do to be restored to God? This first value was a love for God, although with a (mistaken) notion that God did not somehow love me and care for me. Secondly, I thought about whatever problems and harm I might have caused to others, which again was a mistaken notion that reflected my care and concern for others. As the circumstances that lead to my crisis abated, the role the circumstances had on me changed, and likewise, my fears of being abandoned by God or having harmed others were abated. Yet, what I found to be my values in that situation was a love for God and a love for others. Love was my deep value, at the root of my heart. I always felt incompetent when it came to love because I never seem to have the social successes that other people had, but in the end, that was because I was consistently excluded by my peers so that I had fewer opportunities to learn how to show love outside my immediate family. Yet, what I longed for and sought for in my life was to figure out how to love. My crisis revealed what I deeply valued.
We can apply this way of understanding values amidst circumstances to God. Take the story of Cain murdering Abel. God acts in great anger and curses Cain’s life for the innocent blood that he spilled. Yet, even as God raged against Cain and made it so that Cain’s life would become desolate, he didn’t want Cain to be harmed. He put a mark on Cain that offered him protection. In this event, what is truly at God’s heart is revealed as that of life. One might look at the rage and think that is what is reflective of God’s character. This is precisely what a lot of people think when they hear stories of God’s judgment throughout the Bible, overlooking the nature of the circumstances that motivate His wrath. Yet, it isn’t the rage that reveals God’s character, but it was His concern for life, both in the anger over the murder of Abel and in the mark of protection upon Cain. God values life. Even at the heart of God’s wrath and anger is the value of life, which means that God’s anger is momentary towards us (Psalm 30.5), with the notable exception of the hatred for those people who devalue life by loving violence and committing fraud (Psalm 5.6, 11.5). The value of life becomes apparent even in the story of the Golden Calf when taking in context; God’s wrath becomes directed towards Israel because their idol-making is a reflection of the very Egyptian society where they were oppressed as slaves and their babies were murdered.
Unfortunately, the common portrayal of God’s wrath, when it gets presented, is something much different from this. Rather, than understanding wrath as being motivated by life, it is often connected to the values of obedience, as if God gets angry simply because we disobey Him. Hence a single act of sin makes people worthy of hell, so the line of thinking goes, that is until Jesus comes along. Much of the picture of God’s wrath seems to be built upon the often implicit idea that circumstances reveal who a person really is. People generalize a trait of divine wrath and punishment of disobedience from the narratives of God’s wrath towards specific acts of disobedience. It gets to the point that even Jesus’ death is understood to be an expression of God’s wrath, that sin must be punished by God somehow. In the end, this portrayal has even God’s love in the cross of Jesus motivated by the value of punishment for the disobedient.
Yet, it is only with a deeper look that we can pay attention to what God values, moving past the superficial and unreliable thinking that pays attention only to the immediately apparent surface, that we can then observe that God’s wrath is tightly intertwined with His deepest value and longing to give life. This requires us to give up the seemingly profound yet ultimately misguided idea that you can directly know someone by how they respond to difficult situations. Instead, we have to probe deeper to understand why God responds the way He does in extreme circumstances so as to see what is truly persisting in God’s character while also recognizing the more ephemeral and circumstantial nature of God’s wrath. When we arrive at that point, we can see that life, not wrath, is the deepest value of God throughout the Scriptures.