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Asking the Clergy: Reconciling the angry God of Hebrew Scriptures with a loving God

From left, the Rev. JoAnn Barrett of Gathering

From left, the Rev. JoAnn Barrett of Gathering of Light, Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of Midway Jewish Center and the Rev. William McBride of Brookville Multifaith Campus. Credit: JoAnn Barrett; Alex M. Wolff; Interfaith Community Religious Education Program

Are we sinners in the hands of an angry God as the famous sermon by Early American Protestant preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards would have it? Or are we children of a loving God? This week’s clergy discuss how they view that eternal question.  

The Rev. William McBride

Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus

A traditional way to reconcile the angry God of the Hebrew Scriptures with that of a loving God has been to tell stories showing how these two seemingly contradictory aspects of God relate in the real world. The stories involve characters wrestling with the proper relationship between justifiable anger and merciful love, expressing an anger often rooted in a disappointed hope.

In Christian tradition, stories of Jesus’ actions and teachings are told to help believers reconcile moments of anger with lessons of love in a spirit of hope that people will choose a better way of life. For example, Jesus expressed his anger at the money-changers in the temple because he was disgusted that they had transformed God's house of prayer. He also cursed a fig tree that didn't bear fruit as a symbol of a loving God's frustration with people whose faith isn't fruitful. Jesus told stories like that of the prodigal son to demonstrate the drama of familial anger and love.

St. Augustine remarked: Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are. As a parent with two children in the real world, I feel the challenge to balance both emotions moved by a God whose anger and love continue to inspire hope.

The Rev. JoAnn Barrett

Senior officiant, Gathering of Light, Melville

I realize that there are stories of God apparently being angry in some of the Hebrew Scriptures, but to say he is never loving in those texts is incorrect. How does one restore friendly relations between these two parts of God? The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is more father-like than the ancient Gods before him. He embodied the power of the old ways but brought a single focus to his children: These are the rules, follow them and live. I am bigger and stronger and you need to listen. This guidance (and, yes, held fast by anger at times), helped a struggling people to survive.

Today, the stories of an angry God can remind us of how we get so lost in our emotions that we feel powerless. However, through following certain spiritual guidelines, we can transcend the fear (anger) and find love. A relatable God is helpful for us, and isn't that a loving example for us?

Rabbi Joel M. Levenson

Midway Jewish Center, Syosset

When I use God language, that language is metaphorical. I cannot say for certain that God is anything — that evasive, indefinite aspect to God is what makes God, God.

God left nature to operate in its own independent way and left human beings to function with free will. How we interact with nature and other people is entirely up to us — and that is the source of our greatest achievements and/or our greatest failures.

I’m angry too — there is crime and sickness and suffering, corruption, lying, war. Severe decrees can be made less so by our deeds of kindness. Where there has been a loss of life we can comfort; when there is a bad diagnosis we can be there with a kind word or no words, just a hug.

The best we can do is use our human resources to eradicate disease and respond with love to anyone suffering, and love others as God loves us.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com. Find more LI Life stories at newsday.com/LILife.

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