In the buildup to the first US invasion of Iraq, there was a haunting video that got circulated around of Saddam Hussein standing in a room of people who were giving him a standing ovation while, one by one, he selected certain individuals to be taken out and executed. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to clap for a dictator in those circumstances. Certainly many of the people in the room were clapping in order to appease Saddam’s wrath and convince him that they deserved to stay alive. But I imagine there were some who really did worship the absolute power that Saddam’s wrath represented. There’s an awesomeness to that kind of power that’s intoxicating as long as you’re standing on the trigger side and not the barrel side.
As this video has haunted my memory from time to time, I’ve wondered whether this is what worship is like for Christians who love nothing more than God’s wrath. There’s something erotic about God’s wrath. It’s perhaps no accident that the Greek phrase for it is orge theou. For some Christians, the prospect of an eternity that looks like a never-ending game of Doom for most of humanity can be summed up in one word: awesome!
The gathering of people whose object of worship is the wrath of God could be called the church of outrage. It’s understandably very invigorating to worship a God whose most defining feature is His wrath. Why? Because the closer you get to Him, the more angry and powerful you become. Since your anger is righteous as long as it’s divine wrath, the way to sanctify your own anger is to worship God as vigorously as possible. At least this is what appears to be going on when people grow more and more comfortable in their outspoken condemnation of others the further they progress in the church of outrage. In the church of outrage, a good sermon uses words like “sin” and “hell” and “Satan” frequently without flinching so that the listeners will be terrified enough of God’s wrath to convert from the barrel side to the trigger side.
Though I know that the phrase orge theou appears several places in the Bible and I’m always wrestling to find where it fits in my theological vision, I find a different center of gravity for the Christian gospel. What I see on the cross is not God spewing His wrath on His only-begotten son but a naked, bleeding God receiving the penetration of the world’s nails. If the cross is the most extreme act of rape that has ever been committed, God is not the rapist, but the rape victim. And if you’re offended by this way of talking, then maybe you’ve understood the cross as part of an abstract theory rather than a real event of physical brutality committed against the Creator of the universe.
One of the greatest heresies of popular evangelical theology today is to talk about the cross as though Jesus were not fully God when He was crucified, i.e. talking as if somebody called God crucified somebody else named Jesus as a form of divine anger management (which is a pretty standard Powerpoint slide on the “Four Spiritual Laws”). This way of thinking, which was officially named the heresy of subordinationism in ancient Christianity, eliminates the essential feature that distinguishes the Christian God from Allah and the deities of every other world religion. What makes the cross “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Cor 1:22) is the preposterous claim that the Creator of the universe did not “consider equality with God something to be exploited but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… [and] becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). However we describe the relationship of the cross to the wrath of God, the most essential message of the cross to me is that, through Christ, God made Himself vulnerable for my sake.
A very different church emerges among people who see God’s vulnerability as His most defining feature rather than His wrath. I don’t think this means denying the presence or importance of God’s wrath. I just see wrath as a tool God uses to create a safe space of perfect intimacy that He can enjoy together with those who love Him. To me, wrath describes what God does when He violently destroys the walls that we build up between us and even digs into our flesh to get the sin that is buried underneath the surface like a stubborn splinter. There are people who don’t want to be vulnerable with God, preferring instead for their facade of perfection to remain impenetrable. These people experience God’s wrath as damnation rather than the scalpel that creates freedom. And what concerns me the most about the church of outrage is that creates angry, self-righteous people who choose damnation over vulnerability.
Vulnerability is the goal expressed in Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” We are not simply to stand with Jesus side by side; we live in Christ and He lives in us. It is a vulnerability that goes deeper than the boundaries of our self-hood if we are inside of Christ and He is inside of us. Our subjectivity is interpenetrated completely by God. This is the absolute vulnerability of which the deepest act of human intimacy is only a clumsy caricature (which in my view is what it means for matrimony to be a sacrament of Christ’s relationship to the church).
In the church of vulnerability, the goal is to tear down every wall that keeps us from loving God and each other completely. Sin is understood to be any action or attitude that undermines our vulnerability, or communion, with God and each other. Sin has power over us as long as we live in the delusion that we can or should hide it from God and each other. One of the tactics for hiding our sinfulness is to clap our hearts out in the church of outrage for One whom we perceive to be a cruel and powerful Dictator whose cruelty and power are at our service as long as we can “prove” that we’re on His side. The imprisoning walls of self-justification will remain as long as the purpose of our worship is to prove to God and other people that we have “accepted Christ” and “received the Holy Spirit” or whatever other theologically correct phraseology we use to describe the “personal decision” that is supposed to make us acceptable to God. I really believe this need to prove our worth is our eternal conscious torment, because as long we are slaves to this need, we will be slaves to the sin that we are compelled to hide. Sin loses its power over us only when we trust that Jesus has absorbed on the cross all the shameful things that keep us from opening up completely to God. We lose our shame and become vulnerable by facing and accepting the vulnerability of our God.
I ate breakfast yesterday with a friend named Chad Holtz who’s a pastor blogger some of you may have heard of. Chad got fired from his church for being vulnerable. He shared a sin that he was a struggling with from the pulpit and invited others who were struggling to confess their sins and receive God’s deliverance and freedom. The lay leaders in the congregation were scandalized by what Chad shared so they hauled him before their staff parish committee. When Chad later wrote a note on his facebook page describing how he thought that Christianity’s traditional views on hell were inadequate for describing the God who is more vulnerable than wrathful, that was the final straw. Chad has had a rough journey. I imagine there are pastors out there who think Chad should have used “better discretion,” but I wonder if pastoral “discretion” is the main reason behind the rapid decline of the church of superficial niceness. I know that I have been blessed and challenged by Chad’s courage and willingness to “sing the blues.” I hope that God will continue to use Chad’s prophetic witness to rescue other Christians from the burning building that is the church of outrage.
I’m thankful that my church hasn’t run me off for being vulnerable the way Chad was. A week ago, I had one of the most amazing worship experiences I’ve had. I preached on Matthew 11:28-30 where Jesus invites us to bring our burdens to Him and take up His gentle yoke. All week leading up, I was agonizing over my inadequacy as a preacher. My heart was anything but still in the presence of God as our service began. After I preached, I asked everyone to write down on note-cards whatever burdens they needed to bring to the altar and lay them down in a tray on the communion table. I wrote down my burdens on a card and I stood before the table and confessed to God in the presence of my church how I had fallen a victim to pride and the need to feel successful. I asked God’s forgiveness for not trusting Him and failing to glorify Him in how I was living as a pastor. After I said this prayer, I felt the physical impact of having my burdens lifted away from me. For the rest of that evening, I had trouble reading or writing or even sleeping because the goodness of God was so palpable in my heart. Even now, the words fail to capture the joy I felt that was beyond real.
I don’t understand why I go back to sinful thoughts and habits after experiencing the presence of God like that, but I do time and again. I need a church of vulnerability where I can confess my sins, rejoice in my salvation, and experience the beautiful intimacy of a vulnerable God. I don’t think that staying safe and clean were ever supposed to be something we tried to do on our own without a supportive community. Jesus gave up His body so that He could take us all into His body where we could be safe and free and loved. My prayer is that God will continue to build the church of vulnerability by using His wrath to break the spirits of the outraged so that the chains of their self-justification will be smashed, and their “faith” will no longer rest in how many Bible verses they’ve memorized, but they really will become grateful sinners standing in the grace of God.