A few months ago, a friend wrote a blog asking whether the teachings of Henri Nouwen are “incompatible” with Methodist theology. The way that Nouwen presents the gospel is to say that it’s about hearing God’s voice of love, learning to love ourselves, and leaving behind the sins that are ultimately an expression of self-hatred. When I encountered this teaching in the first Methodist church I went to, it was so refreshingly different from the ruthless perfectionist I thought God was that I became a Methodist. I’ve found that all the Methodist churches I’ve encountered share this Nouwenian ethos. But this seems different than the 18th century Methodism in which the requirement for admission to a Methodist society was “an earnest desire to flee the wrath to come.” So what happened? Have we gone astray? Is Nouwen a false prophet?
Many Methodist leaders today are very anxious about our church’s attendance decline in comparison to the explosive growth of conservative evangelical megachurches. Part of the handwringing that goes on is to say that we’re languishing because we’ve abandoned our roots. We’ve gone liberal and adopted a “feel good” theology with a Santa Claus God who isn’t mad about our sin. So people don’t take it seriously and that’s why most of our church members only come on Christmas and Easter. Maybe if we talked about God’s wrath more, then people would take it seriously.
It was John the Baptist who used the phrase that became part of 18th century Methodism’s entrance requirements. When some of the Pharisee religious elites come to be baptized by him, he says, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” I think it is relevant who John the Baptist was addressing because it anticipates Jesus’ harshness with the same religious elites. Jesus consistently has two different approaches to the people he encounters: wrath for the self-satisfied Pharisees and religious leaders who come to argue with him and love for the people who are struggling and come to be healed. One thing we believe as Christians is that Jesus shows us everything we need to know about God. It’s not a bad cop / good cop relationship between Father and Son.
The Pharisees believed in a God who had rigorous expectations of “cleanliness” for His people. Their morality had to do almost exclusively with honoring God (as opposed to loving their neighbor). To honor God, they avoided many foods, didn’t associate with the wrong people, and most of all avoided giving their attention to anything other than God on the Sabbath. If you look at the instances when the Pharisees provoked Jesus’ wrath, it almost invariably involves His solidarity with people who were being stepped on because of their love-less morality. This happens every time Jesus heals somebody in the synagogue. It happens most blatantly when Jesus sticks up for a prostitute who has erotically massaged his feet at a banquet by insulting the host of the banquet, Simon the Pharisee. If you look at the list of woes Jesus proclaims against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, most of them involve their mistreatment of other people.
Becoming Pharisaic is a huge temptation for people who are successful in our culture. If you work hard to succeed, it’s hard to sympathize with people who don’t seem to be working hard. The God of the Pharisees, who values stringent standards of moral cleanliness and discipline, is going to be more attractive to a hard-working, successful person than the Jesus who eats and drinks with lazy, undisciplined sinners and forgives their sins when all they do is show up asking to be healed. But I tend to think that a life without grace, relentlessly pursuing success and worshiping a merciless God is what it means to live under wrath. I’ve seen what happens when children who grow up under sky-high expectations buckle under their weight.
I myself am a very achievement oriented person. My parents weren’t slave-drivers by any means, but I somehow developed the expectation that I needed to be excellent at everything I do. When I went through a season of failures in my early twenties, the wrath of those failures overwhelmed me and I fell into some self-destructive behaviors. That was when I discovered a different gospel, not of the perfectionist God whose repugnance at our imperfection created the need for Jesus to die on the cross for us, but of a God who constantly pursues us with His love with Jesus’ cross being the greatest proof of this.
So I think the two ways of telling the story can be synthesized. Life without grace is a life under wrath. We don’t have to call it a wrath “to come,” because it’s already here. It’s not God’s fault, but His love can only be wrath to people who despise mercy because they want to be worthy on their own terms. When we accept God’s mercy, then we can be awakened to the voice of love that teaches us to love ourselves independent of our achievements. So then the way to flee the wrath that’s already here is to follow the voice of God’s love and join the body of people who have found safety under that love.