This week, I saw evil, clear and real and personal—the kind of evil that enrages, that enflames the kind of deep and violent anger that I rarely experience for any reason. I learned of circumstances that touched a friend's life, and wrath burned in me.
I have never experienced anything quite like it.
Of course, I have been angry many times in my life—but nearly all of those were times I was angry on my behalf, or even selfishly angry on the behalf of those I was close to. Rarely, I have been angry because of injustices or people's apathy toward the things of God—but even those, I am afraid, were tainted by self-righteousness: that sort of smug pride in how I cared more or was doing more than they were. This was different. There was nothing about me in it—simply fury that someone could do such a thing, especially to someone so deeply vulnerable and helpless to resist.
For the first time, I think I glimpsed a little bit of the fiery, righteous anger of God at sin and injustice and evil. He hates it. Time and again the Scriptures affirm that God abominates injustice, abuse of the poor and weak, and those who take advantage of those with no defense. He is incensed by murder and rape and torture and every unnecessary violence of this world.
Driving home, yesterday, I was praying for God to show His grace in this circumstance. All week, I have thought about what that prayer means. The God we serve, after all, is,
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.
That's a wonderful and terrible passage, the foundation of all God's subsequent revelation of himself. It calls us to stand in awe: he is slow to anger; he overflows with steadfast love and faithfulness; he is merciful and gracious; he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin but he does not clear the guilty; the sins of the fathers have deep consequences in their families.1
God's great mercy on display here is sobering. You see, the way my wrath remained unrighteous and unlike God's, at least initially: it was not tempered by loving kindness and mercy. I simply wanted God to strike dead the man who did this evil. Now, in part, that is a righteous desire: it reflects just how deep God's anger burns against those who sin—all those who sin, more on that in a moment—and how fierce his judgment against evil is and will be. Nevertheless, there is more to God than his righteous anger.
The same who God who pulled me out of my sins and opened my eyes to the light of his glory and goodness when I was six or seven can save this man from his sins and open his eyes to the light of the glory of God. Had I committed smaller evils? Yes, of course: I was a child. But I was a sinner, through and through. I was selfish, self-righteous, angry, and prideful, to name but a few of my many faults. God is still saving me from those sins and more besides; they may no longer have dominion over me, but I certainly run back to them frequently enough that you'd think they and not God were my true heart's desire.
All of that to say: God's mercy to me is no more deserved than it would be toward this man who has done this great, wrath-enflaming evil. God's anger does burn hot against this man, far hotter than my anger burned even at its hottest. His anger is a searing, destroying flame that punishes evil violently and completely. Lest anyone complain: that is a good thing. Think how outraged we would be if a human judge sentenced a convicted serial rapist to a stern talking-to and a few weeks of community service! The abortion of justice is a terrible thing—not something we really want in God. Our tendency in the other direction is ultimately because we don't want to acknowledge that his justice necessarily includes all of our sins—not just Hitler's or Dahmer's.2 No, God's anger is a good thing, as is his judgment against sin, precisely because it is fierce and terrifying.
But God's mercy is a good thing, too—and here, too, we run off into the weeds, because we think his mercy should only be offered to those above a certain moral level. In other words, we think we deserved God's mercy by being better people than the Stalins or Ted Bundys of the world. We are wrong, and praise be to the God who makes no such distinctions in his offer of grace. All of us are undeserving wretches, saved only by grace of God in the death of Christ, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Not one of us has a better claim on the forbearance and loving kindness of God than this evil man does, because every one of us is evil. We have no grounds for self-righteousness; our rightly angry prayers in circumstances like this must always be tempered by the unmerited favor God poured out on us in all our wretchedness.
So yes, we can and should pray for God to do justice against evil, but we must also pray that in his mercy God would redeem those who do evil. Over the course of the week, my prayers about this unquestionably evil man became, "Oh God, restrain him from evil. Save him, send to him to jail, or strike him dead: let him do no more evil. In your mercy, please draw him to you and redeem him, restoring the many relationships he has destroyed. But protect those he has hurt, and never let him harm them again." It is not a perfect prayer, but it is the best I can do at summing up the tensions that run so deep here. It is a prayer for mercy and salvation, but also a prayer for justice, and above all a prayer that evil would be ended—in whatever way God chooses.
How would you pray here?
1For some helpful discussion of the hard parts of this passage, see John Piper's sermon, The Lord, a God Merciful and Gracious [transcript available]. He concludes: "[God] simply lets the effects of the fathers' sins take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children. For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all the Bible."
2Note that I have in view here not those who object at a deeply thought through philosophical level their opposition to hell, etc.—though they are still wrong—but the general population's outlook on hell, which essentially reduces down to, "But that would make God mean!"