How Did St. John Chrysostom Understand the “Wrath of God” and “Divine Punishment”?

By John Sanidopoulos

St. John Chrysostom probably more than any other Father of the Church speaks about the “wrath of God” and “divine punishment”. Most who read these passages often do so through the lenses of western medieval or reformation theology, even many Orthodox Christians, who are unable to read the depths of the spirit behind the letter. The reason for this is because, as St. Symeon the New Theologian explains, when speaking about matters of divine judgement,

“the interpretation is difficult because it is not about things which are present and visible, but about future and invisible matters. There is therefore great need of prayer, of much ascetic effort, of much purity of the nous, both in us who speak and in those who listen, in order for the first to be able to know and speak well and for the others to listen with understanding to what is said.”

Therefore, those of a carnal, simplistic and overly literal understanding of these passages fail to understand the depth of divine judgement, inflicting upon the nature of God human-like passions, which is exactly what the ancient pagans did with their gods in order to make the impassioned state not only a natural state, but to deify it as well.

Fortunate for us, outside of the fiery sermons and exegetical works of the divine Chrysostom, we also have pastoral moments in which he personally guides his spiritual children and friends to the deeper understanding of spiritual matters. One such case is in his First Exhortation to Theodore After His Fall. This is a beautiful letter by Chrysostom to Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was fascinated by a woman and sought marriage despite his monastic vow of celibacy, and with Chrysostom’s help overcame the despair of such a conflict. In order to lead Theodore out of despair, he explains that there is no sin greater than despair, yet if it were true that God in His nature were wrathful and punishing, then despair should naturally overtake us. Yet this is not the case, as he explains:

“For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair as being unable to quench the flame which he [a wicked man] had kindled by so many evil doings; but since the Divine nature is passionless, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, He does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving-kindness; wherefore it behooves us to be of much good courage, and to trust in the power of repentance.

For even those who have sinned against Him He is not wont to visit with punishment for His own sake; for no harm can traverse that Divine nature; but He acts with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him. For even as one who places himself outside the light inflicts no loss on the light, but the greatest upon himself being shut up in darkness; even so he who has become accustomed to despise that almighty power, does no injury to the power, but inflicts the greatest possible injury upon himself.

And for this reason God threatens us with punishments, and often inflicts them, not as avenging Himself, but by way of attracting us to Himself. For a physician also is not distressed or vexed at the insults of those who are out of their minds, but yet does and contrives everything for the purpose of stopping those who do such unseemly acts, not looking to his own interests but to their profit; and if they manifest some small degree of self-control and sobriety he rejoices and is glad, and applies his remedies much more earnestly, not as revenging himself upon them for their former conduct, but as wishing to increase their advantage, and to bring them back to a purely sound state of health.

Even so God when we fall into the very extremity of madness, says and does everything, not by way of avenging Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder; and by means of right reason it is quite possible to be convinced of this.”

So when Holy Scripture speaks of divine wrath, punishment and vengeance, this is language that does not necessarily describe the unknowable, incomprehensible and unspeakable nature of God, but rather its aim is to prevent man from remaining in his wickedness and to repent. The wrath of God is described by Chrysostom as the loving-kindness of God towards man, yet the wicked experience this love unto salvation as wrath and punishment. He uses the analogy of a physician, and how the treatment of a certain illness by a physician is not done to punish the one who causes the illness or even suffers from it, but by any means necessary to bring health and well-being to the one in need of treatment no matter how much pain it may inflict. Thus, through the use of these “riddles” God uses language like this in Scripture for us to comprehend how serious it is to repent now, since, according to the Holy Fathers, after death there is no repentance.

“For consider I pray the condition of the other life, so far as it is possible to consider it; for no words will suffice for an adequate description: but from the things which are told us, as if by means of certain riddles, let us try and get some indistinct vision of it.”

Having said these things, Chrysostom goes on to describe the future judgment for Theodore to truly visualize it, even though the language used is a “riddle”,

“for no words will suffice for an adequate description”.

 

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How Did St. John Chrysostom Understand the “Wrath of God” and “Divine Punishment”?

Praying with Incense and the Wrath of God

by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

incenseHaving determined that repentant prayer alone turns away the divine wrath, we should also consider two ritual gestures in which such prayer may be expressed: the offering of incense and the devout raising of the hands. Since Holy Scripture regards both these elevations as symbols of the soul’s ascent to God. It is no wonder we sometime find them joined in a unified ritual.

Perhaps Psalm 141 (Greek 140) best illustrates this perception. This psalm, still chanted at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church, has been the evening prayer of God’s People since the time it accompanied the Evening Sacrifice in the Temple.

I cite the psalm’s relevant verse in the economy of the Hebrew text:

“Let my prayer be constant, incense before Your face; the raising of my hands, the evening sacrifice.”

The only finite verb here (tikkon, “to be steady,” or “constant,” or “established”) is unexpected, perhaps. At first glance, few things seem less constant, less “steady” than an incense cloud; it can be kept constant only by an ongoing renewal. Otherwise it dissipates.

The prayer must be continuous, then, in order to remain ever in God’s sight. What the psalmist apparently has in mind is the ongoing and permanent ascent of his prayer before the face of God. The incense fragrance, symbolic of prayer, rises up to Him along with the elevation of prayerful hands. Both the incense and the raised hands give expression to his devotion.

Although the two ritual elements are joined in this psalm, it is worth looking at each of them individually:

First, the raising of one’s hands is surely among the most primitive and basic expressions of prayer. Spontaneously the person who prays lifts up both arms to God, much as a small child seeking to be held. Carved art in biblical lands testifies to this gesture from regions as distant as Sumeria and Crete. In both biblical testaments, moreover, raising the hands is a common prayer-posture; one observes it, also, in the Church Fathers and, ubiquitously, in the art of the Christian catacombs. St Paul may be taken, in this respect, to speak for the universal tradition of the biblical faith:

“I desire that in every place men should pray, lifting up holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8).

Second, the offering of incense with prayer appears, not only in the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, but also in the heavenly sanctuary itself. When the door to heaven stood open so that John could gaze within, he beheld the four-and-twenty elders

“with golden bowls full of incense” (Revelation 5:8).

Later in the same book, John describes a more elaborate ritual:

“Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, in order make an offering, with the prayers of all the saints, upon the golden altar that was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, along with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (8:3-4).

Since the offering of incense is symbolic of—and frequently accompanies—prayer, it is hardly surprising to find it connected to the turning away of God’s wrath.

Numbers 16 tells a pertinent story: During one of Israel’s desert rebellions, at a time when the Lord in His wrath sent a plague on the people, Moses instructed Aaron,

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation and atone for them (Hebrew: kapher ‘alihem; Greek: exsilasthai peri avton); for wrath has gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46; Hebrew/Greek 17:11).

St. Jerome, in his Latin translation of this verse, perfectly catches the sense of Aaron’s atoning act:

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation in order to pray for them—ut roges pro eis.”

The essential offering here is not the bare ritual of burning incense but the repentant intercession it symbolizes and embodies. Aaron averts the wrath of God through the prayer expressed in this rite. According to Jerome,

“He took incense and, standing between the living and the dead, he prayed for the people—pro populo deprecatus est” (16:47-48).

King Hezekiah made the same association:

“Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord God of Israel, that His fierce wrath may be averted from us. My sons, do not be negligent now, for the Lord has chosen you [priests] to stand before Him, to do Him service, and that you should minister to Him and burn incense” (2 Chronicles 29:10-11).

 

 

Sinners in the Hand of a ‘Less Angry’ God

by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

less angryThe Church has always thought of God’s wrath as a metaphor descriptive of His “negative response” to sin. The expression signifies the metaphysical incompatibility of moral evil with the Font of goodness. When the Bible, then, speaks of God’s anger, it indicates His extreme, punitive displeasure toward what is radically opposed to His being.

If God’s wrath is understood in that way, it is clear that no one can placate or appease it. That is to say, it is metaphysically impossible for God to become—somehow—less angry in regard to sin. The Lord’s “negative reaction” cannot be other than it is, because it is an expression of His intrinsic truth. As long as God is God, sin must be the object of His wrath. Nothing done on this earth—nothing accomplished by Christ himself—alters the divine nature. Consequently, it is impossible for the biblical God to be other than

the ‘El qanna‘—the “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5).

Holy Scripture also indicates, however, that God does, on occasion, “turn away” from His anger.

“Many a time,” it is said, “He averted His wrath” (Psalms 78 [Greek 77]:38).

What averts God’s wrath—what prompts Him to forgive sins—is invariably man’s repentance.

Chosen as one example among hundreds, 2 Chronicles 29 illustrates the point. When Judah had roused the divine wrath by a succession of infidelities, King Hezekiah called the nation to repentance and proposed a renewal of the Covenant, so that, the king said,

“His fierce wrath may turn away from us.”

A century later, Jeremiah gave Hezekiah’s experience the force of a principle, declaring that if a

“nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil (mera’ato), I will relent of the evil (‘al-hara’ah) I proposed to bring upon it” (Jeremiah 18:8).

Even the pagan Ninevites—to whom Jonah spoke not one word of hope on the matter—suspected this to be the case:

“But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God. Indeed, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may yield and relent and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”

In all the Bible, I can think of no exceptions to this pattern: Man repents, God forgives.

Most often, moreover, this repentance is expressed in prayer, as in the case of the Ninevites. For example, Psalm 107 (Greek 106) tells of four punishments from which God’s People were delivered when they prayed.

Perhaps the best-remembered case of repentant prayer is the one ascribed to the deeply-humbled David, who was convinced that the Lord would not despise a broken and contrite heart. When David turned to the offended Lord, he prayed, not that God would calm down, but that He would avert His face:

“Avert Your face from my sins—Haster paneka meachta’ai” (Psalms 51 [Greek 50]:11).

The sacrifice God required of him, David knew, was a broken and contrite heart, and such was the sacrifice David offered. Here, as all through the Bible, divine forgiveness was the response to human prayer.

Repentant prayer is how man averts the wrath of God. There is no other way.

Indeed, it is useful to consider this Davidic psalm in more detail, inasmuch as the Church has always appealed to it in connection with the forgiveness of sins. David prays to be washed thoroughly from his iniquity and cleansed from his sin. He begs to be purged with hyssop and made whiter than snow. According to this prayer, the required sacrifice is the turning of the mind and soul to God. The true burnt offering is a broken heart.

The one who prays this psalm, then, is certainly aware of the divine wrath; He is familiar with God’s radical displeasure. He knows his guilt, and he confesses his offense. He is praying, moreover, to be forgiven and restored.

What the repentant soul seeks here, then, is more than the wrathful Lord’s turning way His face from the offense of sin. Salvation in this psalm consists in more than the removal of “blood guilt” (damim). The man who makes this prayer his own is asking for communion with God:

“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation.”

This is a plea for the renewal of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist is explicit on the point: the goal of repentance is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit through purity of heart. The one, indeed, is not separable from the other:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew inside me the righteous Spirit (Ruach nakon). Cast me not away from Your face, and take not You Holy Spirit (Ruach qadsheka) from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and sustain me with the kindly Spirit (Ruach nedibah).”

What the repentant sinner seeks here is true Atonement, a genuine being-at-one with God through the Holy Spirit.

He is not asking for God’s declaration of righteous but for inner transformation.

What he seeks is restoration to God’s friendship.