Which is He: A God of Wrath or of Mercy?
Dr. Robert Stackpole Answers Your Questions on Divine Mercy
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 18, 2011)
People reading the Diary of St. Faustina for the first time are sometimes surprised to find passages in which Jesus tells her about God's "wrath" and "anger," and not just about His mercy.
For example, speaking of the rays pouring forth from His Heart in the Image of The Divine Mercy, Jesus said to her (entry 299): "These rays shield the soul from the wrath of My Father. Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him."
The voice of the Heavenly Father also spoke to St. Faustina about the power of the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy to appease God's wrath (entry 811): "God's anger is placated, unfathomable mercy envelops the soul, and the very depths of My tender mercy are moved for the sake of the sorrowful Passion of My Son" (see also entry 476).
If God is so merciful and loving, why does He speak to St. Faustina about His wrath and anger? One of our readers, named "J.P.," sent me a question about this that sums up the problem very well: "Can you elaborate more on the concept of 'God's anger'? I want to understand what it means for God to be angry at us sinners. ... I don't blame Him, and I believe He has every right to be angry at us ... but how do we reconcile the idea of an angry God with one who has infinite mercy for His children? Especially since, if I am not mistaken, it is Jesus who is mentioning this term to St. Faustina."
Thanks J.P., for putting the question so well. Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we know we all deserve a fair dose of Divine Anger. But isn't the gospel message, and the Divine Mercy message given to St. Faustina, precisely the "good news" that He is NOT that kind of God?
First, let's try to clear away any clouds of confusion. Let's start by defining what God's anger is not, and could never be. Holy Scripture and the Catholic Tradition do not mean by God's "wrath" and "anger" that He has a bad temper that needs to be appeased before He can be merciful to us, or that He "feels" angry with us at times, and needs to be "calmed down" by our repentance!
God does not have changing feelings or attitudes. If there are passages in Scripture that seem to imply that He does, these need to be understood as metaphorical ways of speaking about God's total opposition to evil and total support of all good. The First Vatican Council stated clearly that God is "almighty, eternal ... infinite in intelligence, in will, and in all perfection ... absolutely simple and immutable ... of supreme beatitude in and from Himself."
"Immutable" means unchangeable, in that He radiates every "perfection" at every moment, and dwells in infinite "beatitude" or, in other words, infinite joy. This also means that God does not have a strict and vengeful side to His personality that needs to be "bought off" before He can be merciful to us. God has no "sides" to His character at all. Hard as this may be for us (as finite creatures) to understand, God is always infinitely perfect in every way, perfectly merciful AND perfectly just in everything that He does. In fact, all his perfections are manifest in His every action.
Now that we know what God's anger is not, let's try to define what it is: the divine perfection of "justice," a justice by which He permits the self-destructive effects of sin and evil to run their course, thereby rendering to the sinner his due. In other words, God's "wrath" means that if we are stubbornly evil and impenitent, He will permit our sins to have their inevitable destructive (and especially self-destructive) effects upon our bodies and souls.
It's all there in the first chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. If we insist on going our own way, following the "I did it my way" philosophy (made famous in Frank Sinatra's hit song!), then God's anger means that He will respect the freedom He gave to us, and say to us, in effect: "OK, do it your way, if you insist. I will not compel you to turn away from your sins and be sanctified. But if you do decide to 'do it your way,' you will have to experience the rotten fruits — the self-destructive effects — of the path you have chosen, both in this life and the life to come."
For those cruel and cold-hearted souls who remain stubbornly impenitent and who resist God's grace to the end of their lives, God's anger takes the form of the "eternal punishment" of sinners, which simply means that He allows them to turn their backs on Him and live forever in their self-chosen exile from the light of His countenance.
That is why the catechism defines "hell" as essentially "a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed" (1033). As Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, explained in the book Pillars of Fire in My Soul: The Spirituality of St. Faustina (Marian Press, 2003): God is totally opposed to all evil, and sends His lightning bolts to oppose it (so to speak), yet we cling by our sins to the lightning rod of evil, and then complain that He is a God of wrath!
Clearly, God does not want us to suffer His wrath and indignation. As Jesus once said to St. Faustina (Diary entry 1588): "I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice." Another time He said to her (entry 1728) that when sinful souls "bring all My graces to naught, I begin to be angry with them, leaving them alone and giving them what they want."
Thanks be to God, J.P., that His mercy is so much greater than our sins! We do not need to be afraid at all, for as He said to St. Faustina (entry 1485): "Do not be afraid of your Savior, O sinful soul. I make the first move to come to you, for I know that by yourself you are unable to come to Me. Child, do not run away from your Father; be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish His graces on you. ... My Mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world."
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.