I live outside Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville prides itself for many things. We have great food, great coffee, better beer than… anyone ever. We have mountains that are beautiful and frame gorgeous sunsets. We are a small city that’s home to the offbeat and the strange. We’re known as a city that’s comfortable for activists and progressives. For many people trying to describe Asheville, San Francisco is a referent. We’re a tiny, Southern, mountain version of that sensibility, if you know what I mean.
Over the past couple weeks, a story has emerged about a local coffeeshop and their owners. If you don’t want to read the story that has gone out around the world, basically, the two owners had an anonymous Twitter account, blog, and podcast (though only one of the owners was behind the tweets and blog) that detailed their participation in The Game. What is The Game? It is the pursuit of women purely for their sexual value. Their language is self-congratulatory and incredibly demeaning towards the women they slept with and women in general. Even as I read that sentence back, I recognize that it doesn’t begin to describe how terrible their words are/were.
The bottomline is that their anonymity is gone and their business may very well be ruined. In a town like Asheville, that prides itself as a liberal town with an activist bent, their reputation is almost certainly ruined. The reputation for the coffee and espresso was top notch. That won’t save them now.
I read the details of their sins (May I go ahead and call it that? Is someone going to suggest a lighter word?), I felt sick. I had never seen someone talk about women like this. I couldn’t believe how base and selfish the language was. But then I thought of my daughters and I became very sad and very angry. My daughters have to live in a world with men who think and talk like this. Sure, it may not be everyone. But there are enough of them out there, predating on my daughters. My daughter is not a “Plate” to keep spinning in the air along with several others. My daughter is a valuable and singular individual who deserves, at some point, someone’s full romantic attention, devotion, and faithfulness. It destroys me to think that their story may intersect with someone else’s like this.
The influence of pornography was written all through their words. All I could think about was how much these boys, at least the one who wrote the blog and tweets, had to have been influenced by hours and hours of content tailored to making them believe that women should be available to them whenever and however they want. Of course, if you read enough of their content (and I wouldn’t recommend it), you see that one of them was caught for looking at porn at their Christian school when they were in high school. The shame of that marked him, it seems. I’d say they were probably unaware of how deeply the horror of pornography had altered the way they think about women.
The reaction to their misdeeds has been interesting, though. People have been filled with rage and disgust. I very much understand those sentiments. These two guys have apologized (weakly, I should point out) and then re-apologized. They’ve offered to give away profits and meet with people. But the resounding response has been, “This is too much. You should pay.”
First, I have to admit that it’s hard to trust their sincerity. They were so skilled at manipulation that it’s hard to trust that they’re not trying to manipulate their way out of consequences. So I understand why people are reticent to accept and forgive them. Especially if you are a woman who was publicly leered at and analyzed.
But aside from that, I have been struck by how much people have given themselves over to righteous rage. People have openly hurled terrible profanity at these two boys. There’s so much betrayal and disgust that it seeps into everything that many people say to and about them. And I don’t hear many people saying, “I’m willing to hear how sorry you are.” I wonder, now, if there’s ever a point where these two guys are not offered the opportunity for redemption. Can we forgive? Should we? What does that even look like for something so vile?
I think the problem here is the absence of a God of wrath.
People hate the God of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, for being a wrathful God. Culturally, we crave a God who is always kind and loving. He is a giant teddy bear who just wants to hug everyone. Any representation of a God of violence and anger seems untrue and manipulative to us. “That’s just a justification for violence and a tool for manipulation,” comes the sniffs of the enlightened postmodern.
But actually, a God of wrath is what enables love in the face of desperate wickedness.
A God of wrath has himself as the standard of justice in the world. At least, that’s how Christians think of it. So when God is offended (and he does get offended), it is because we have fallen so desperately short of his good holiness, his moral perfection that is so separate from our earthy, sinful nature. And we actually believe that God must act on this violation. Not out of some obligation to an external rule that has been placed on him (because who is the boss of God?), but because it is his nature to hate the thing that desecrates what he made to be purely good. But we know the world is full of terrible, terrible evil. So what are we left with? A perpetually angry God?
Yes and no.
God is perpetually offended by sin. Sin is not a category mistake. It’s not a “whoopsie.” Sin is thinking women are basically talking vaginas made for your pleasure and manipulation. That is devious wickedness. And God hates that. That kind of evil is real evil. It’s not something we decided together to hate. It is actual, real evil in the world. It is substantial and weighty. It’s a monster that is running around society and God hates that monster.
What does this have to do with forgiveness, though?
Well, for one, we don’t have to pretend like evil is just a “whoopsie.” We can own our anger as justified. And we can also sit with the fact that it is perfectly legitimate to feel SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. But the existence of a God of wrath shifts the burden of punishment off ourselves and onto a God who will be a far better Punisher than we ever will be. Because no matter how offended we are, we have to assume that God, infinitely good and morally perfect, is far more offended. So we can relieve ourselves of the burden of punishing someone else and trust that the God of wrath will deal with that evil.
Christian forgiveness is not a quaint pat on the hand for bad ole boys and a finger wag with a semi-stern, “Do better, buddy.” Christian forgiveness is far messier and more complex than that. It is not a proclamation of absolution from the sinned against, from us. We are not saying to anyone, “You didn’t really do this.” Actually, a God of wrath can’t allow us to say that. What we’re actually saying is, “I acknowledge how deeply you’ve offended me and sinned against me. But I will not punish you. I will treat you otherwise.”
The only way you can forgive anyone is if you can trust Someone else to deal in justice on your behalf.
Sitting back and wish the worst on these two guys is not what I’m advocating. I’m saying that, ideally, people could acknowledge their pain and anger and release the burden of retribution. They cannot punish this kind of evil themselves. They must allow the Divine Punisher to advocate for them. Forgiveness is a deferment of justice to the Just Judge.
Unexpectedly, then, the God of Wrath is what frees people to be free from shame and sin. Because the God of Wrath proposes Himself as the ultimate resolution to the quandary of justice.
See, without the God of Wrath actively demonstrating His justice, people are trapped under the weight of their rage. Forget the sins that we commit and deserve justice for. I’m talking about the sins done to us and around us. Those alone would crush us for the weight of the terribleness. But God frees us from feeling like we must dole out punishment by saying, “I will give out punishment. And I myself will receive it so you and anyone else might be free.” It is the angry God that is the most loving God. Only an angry God sees evil for what it really is. And only an angry God can set his people free from the weight of sin and shame, to be freed and healed.
A God who sees terrible, horrible evil and does not do something about it is no good God. He is not a loving God. The Teddy Bear God is a horrible sadist.
Jesus, though, climbs on the Cross as a demonstration that God is furious with the way things are. God is furious with his creation being degraded and destroyed for the profit of another. God hates, violently, the world-ruining monster of sin that destroys his children.The Cross is a demonstration that God will not let evil slide. He is the one who is most angry with it.
But the God of Wrath invites all of us to be Children of Mercy. Instead of all of us waiting for justice to rain on our heads for the evil we give ourselves over to, private or public, he opens the doorway for us to trust that his justice has been meted out in some sense already and will be meted out finally one day to come. He creates the possibility for real freedom and love by bearing the burden of both Punisher and Punished. The retribution that we deserve, that we demand of evil, is not something that God bypasses. He focuses it and locates it on himself.
When evil wreaks havoc on the world, God’s anger is not absent. And you and I cannot defeat evil by hurling our angry words at it as it ambles down our streets. We can be as angry all we want, but we’re not doing anything to punish evil for what its done. God is actually strong enough and good enough to do what we wish we could. We are free from the burden of bringing ultimate justice. We are free to forgive and to love. We are free to be loved, absent any fear that justice will one day find us too.
Coffee shop misogyny deserves retribution. But we cannot adequately give it the retribution it deserves. Only God himself can do that. And on the Cross, we can see that he actually intends to do just that. It doesn’t take away the horror of that filth. It doesn’t excuse it into darkness. The Cross makes a promise of its destruction. The Cross makes a promise that Jesus is good enough to trust, even with this kind of pain. The Cross tells us that evil can die and God’s love can make us free, can make us alive.
The God of Wrath is the God of Love. He’s the only God worth following.