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God Does Not ‘Get Angry’

We read often about God's anger, but it doesn't mean what we think.

Defenders of divine simplicity claim that God does not actually get angry. Although it might seem to us as if God gets angry at things, this is simply the human interpretation of God, and not actually what is happening.

There are a few objections. First, it might seem rational to say that God gets angry at things. We sometimes see this in Scripture, like when the Israelites are worshiping the golden calf. Furthermore, it seems as if God would get angry at sin. If I see a bunch of sinful things, I am likely to get upset or angry. So why not God, too?

When speaking of God’s anger, it’s important to note that it’s not wrong to say that God has anger. After all, God speaks of his anger throughout Scripture (Jer. 21:5; Ezek. 5:13; Hos. 11:8-9).

However, the language of God “getting angry” is not exactly correct. The verses above talk about only God’s anger, not God going from being not angry to angry. Instead of saying, “God got angry,” it would be more accurate to say, “We are now noticing God’s anger.”

For an analogy, imagine that I am standing on the driver’s side (left side for Americans) of my car. It would be accurate to say I am standing on the left side of the car. Say I then move over to the passenger side. Then it would be accurate to say I am standing on the right side of the car. As obvious as this may seem, it’s a great example of my relation to something changing while that thing remains the same. Did the car change in any way? No—rather, my relationship with the car changed. Likewise, if I get sunburnt while my friend doesn’t even get a tan, does the sun change? Of course not. What changed was not the sun, but my relationship with it. Similarly, when God “gets angry,” it is not God who is changing; it is our relation to God.

Biblical depictions of God’s emotions are ways that we relate to God, not how he relates to us. When we say, “God is angry,” we aren’t saying anything about God. Rather, we notice that we have moved ourselves away from God’s infinite goodness. We use terms like “God is angry” to better understand the relationship turmoil. After all, if you do something your friend doesn’t like, he will be angry with you.

Humans get angry because we cannot think about everything at once. As such, we get angry in different circumstances. We can have a reaction that is excessive, and we can be mistaken about what is truly unjust.

Alternatively, for God, anger does not begin or end, and it is never excessive or mistaken. It is part of his perfect knowledge and will. (He likewise has the perfection of mercy, which must be kept in mind.)

Although it might seem rational, if God were to “get angry” at someone sinning, he would be in time and would be influenced by humans. Both of these are not allowed under the traditional view of God. It may seem to us as if God is becoming angry, but his emotions (for lack of a better term) are constant.

In order to better understand this, here are some quotes from the great St. Augustine:

We must take care . . . to understand that the anger of God is free from any turbulent emotion; for his anger is an expression of his just method of taking vengeance, as the law might be said to be angry when its ministers are moved to punish by its sanction (On the Psalms, 83, 10).

And . . .

Now when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man, but we call his just displeasure against sin by the name ‘anger’, a word transferred by analogy from human emotions (Enchiridion, 36, 33).

Finally, here is a quote from Thomas Aquinas discussing anger as we attribute it to God:

Anger and the like are attributed to God on account of a similitude of effect. Thus, because to punish is properly the act of an angry man, God’s punishment is metaphorically spoken of as his anger.

As Aquinas notes, God’s “anger” is an expression of the human interpretation of God. We view God as “getting angry” when he punishes humans, because when humans punish other humans, the person doing the punishing is usually unhappy. However, it is not as if humans made God angry. Rather, we entered into a relationship with God that had us interpret his love as anger. Much like how Adam and Eve did not make God change to become merciful, humans do not make God change to become angry.

Overall, we can somewhat understand God through attributing human emotions to him, despite these emotions being much too simple for a timeless, immaterial, and immutable being. God does not have emotions and does not change, but humans throughout time and in Scripture have attributed these emotions to God to better understand him, despite being technically inaccurate.

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