All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were children of wrath by instinct, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of a male does not produce God’s righteousness
There are a few passages over the Bible that over the years I have had to look how I and others have read the passages over the years and I have had to ask the question “What in the world were we thinking?” (As you see what I mean by this, you will realize that this is a little bit censored version of the question).
Take, for instance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How has this passage been taken in many Christian circles? As the story of what God does to gay people. Why is that what stands out to people reading that story? Why isn’t it that the people trying to force their way into Lot’s house to sexually overcome the visitors? Why has this narrative been interpreted to be about homosexuality and not what the story actually describes, the story of community-wide rape and abuse? While newer readers of the Bible who were taught to read it one way can certainly be excused, it makes you wonder why so many people who have studied the Bible have never realized the injustice of Sodom is rape. Is it because people are that callous to abuse and rape?
If that were the only passage I had observed that for, it would be one thing. But in these past few weeks, I have come upon another passage that makes me think “What were people thinking?” It is in Ephesians 2.3. There, Paul describes his fellows Jews (“all of us”; although Paul does say they were like everyone else in this) as “children of wrath by instinct” (τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς). How does this passage usually get interpreted? That before faith in Christ people were deserving of God’s wrath due to their sins. For instance, Andrew Lincoln observes: “The children of wrath, then, are those who are doomed to God’s wrath because through their condition of sinful rebellion, they deserve his righteous judgment.”1 Klyne Snodgrass thinks it refers to the future encounter with God’s wrath.2
Yet, let us follow through with what this image implies. This means that the phrase “of wrath” describes how others should treat the metaphorical children. That children… CHILDREN should be subject to wrath. If Paul had used the language of “sons” as in Ephesians 2.1 (υἱοῖς), that would be one thing. But Paul chooses the term that is used to designate little ones. Does anyone recognize the potentially abusive imagery of that interpretation? Does anyone think that Paul is talking about the idea of children being subject to consuming, punishing wrath from God? As I will demonstrate in a minute, this is actually a grievously wrong interpretation, but why is that it people could so readily interpret Paul’s language in this way?
Allow me to put forward one possible reason for this. The Bible talks about God’s wrath, certainly. Yet, the nature of God’s wrath has often been overstated in reading the Bible, largely due to the common evangelistic narrative that all people were doomed to hell for their sins until Jesus comes to the scene. The common, (stereotyped) portrayal of God within some conservative circles has been that of a god who is in all actuality quick to anger over sin. If you commit a sin, a single sin of any type of severity (and remember, all sin is equal), you are deserving of hell, so the line of thinking goes. “Fortunately,” however, this quick to wrath god is so “loving” that he doesn’t give you want you deserve, you little worm, for telling that white lie. You really deserved to be punished, but this god in his anger takes it out on his son. Is it any wonder that those who worship a quick-to-anger god who has to take his anger out on someone would read the phrase “children of wrath” in a way that becomes evocative of an image of punishment of children?
Allow me to put forward where this theological narrative so fundamentally falls apart, entirely throwing into question the whole basis for this theology. The Scriptures outright affirms again and again that God is slow to anger, most notably in Exodus 34.6-7. Or, even when God gets angry, consider Psalm 30.5 where it says “his anger last only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” Is it any wonder, then, that James calls people to be slow to anger and reminds them that male anger (this is what it reads in Greek) does not achieve God’s righteousness? Any portrayal of a quick-to-anger god and any person who acts with quick-trigger anger and justifies and minimizes it (thereby thinking they are right to be angry as they get) is someone who doesn’t understand God and His righteousness. Anger isn’t wrong in many circumstances, but being quick to act on anger is far from God’s character and can lead to great evil.
Allow me to give a few reasons why this quick-to-wrath god needs to be forgotten when reading Ephesians 2.3. Upon reading these points, I hope it will give you a reason to pause and think about how it is that you think about God, and by implication, how you relate to your own anger.
First, “children of wrath” is an example of a figurative way of describing the characteristics of a person. Take what Paul says just previously in Ephesians 2.2 about the “sons of disobedience.” How many people would read that and think “That refers to people who others will disobey?” Yet, that is exactly the type of reading that people have when they read “children of wrath” as referring to those who are to be recipients of God’s wrath. What is much more natural with the phrase “sons of disobedience” and makes more sense in context is that it refers to people who are characterized as disobedient. They disobey. The phrase “son of…” and “child of…” are metaphorical figures that characterize people by whatever trait is there, as if they were born to and raised by that trait as a parent. It is a more vivid way of describing people’s character than simply say “they were disobedient” or “we were angry,” which can be interpreted to refer to a state and not an enduring trait. While it is technically for “children of wrath” to describe what will come to define their lives after God’s judgment, discursive consistency would strongly suggest the phrase should be interpreted as people whose anger defines them.
Secondly, this reading is consistent with what Paul is concerned about for the audience. He prays that they may be “rooted and grounded in love” so as to understand the vastness of Christ’s love and be filled with the fullness of God. (Eph. 3.17-19) He later exhorts them in Ephesians 4.26-27, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” The concern with their anger behavior continues when he tells them “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that is may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4.29) Then, just two verses later, he says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to each another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4.31-32). Throughout the letter, Paul is deeply concerned that the Ephesians no longer live in anger and instead learn to love and love deeply. With that in mind, it makes much more sense to read the “children of wrath” as describing a characteristic that his fellow Jews and also Gentiles had a problem with: extreme anger.
On top of that, thirdly, what does Paul say about God in Ephesians 2.4-7? That God is merciful. That God makes alive in Christ, which is the opposite of what wrathful people seek to do. That God wants to shows his riches of grace for others’ benefit, which isn’t what angry people want to do. That God is kind in Jesus Christ. Paul’s explicit portrayal of God there is the exact antithesis of wrath.
Paul says not one word about God’s wrath in Ephesians. The closest Paul gets to divine judgment is denying that immoral characters have any inheritance in God’s kingdom (Eph. 5.5). Yet, he speaks plenty about God’s love and kindness. By contrast, he speaks much about human anger. This is not to be taken as the denial of any and all wrath in God. But God is not quick to anger. Even when He has more than temporary, momentary anger, He directs it towards those who show an utter disregard for other people’s life and well-being that instead tear down, destroy, and kill others (Psa. 5.5-6, Rom. 1.28-32, 2.8-9). God’s wrath against Sodom and Gomorrah was against a type of people who were so unjust that they would rape visitors, a type of judgment which Paul probably echoes elsewhere in one of his letters (1 Th. 4.6-7).
So, let us be people who move away from this conception of an angry god, to the God of love and mercy, and in so doing, start reading the Bible well for the first time and ourselves become deeply rooted in love. The era of anger-filled Christianity is coming to a conclusion. Its fruit has been people who speak of love, forgiveness, and grace but yet lurking underneath the peaceful rhetoric is quickly-triggered anger that can harm and maim. It has left the Christian landscape in ruins. It will be the followers of Christ who leave that false wrath behind and learn to love deeply who will be those who help to testify to the true God of love, who powerfully demonstrated His love to us in Jesus Christ and has poured out His love upon in through His Holy Spirit. It will be those who learn the depth of God’s love and live into it that will be blessed peacemakers and children of God who fulfill the words of Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61.1-4)
May God’s Word of love, which lasts longer than his vengeance, drown out all the words of anger and get them to shut their wrathful mouths up!