On the Irascibility of God

i·ras·ci·ble (adjective)
1. Prone to outbursts of temper; easily angered.
2. Characterized by or resulting from anger.

Lately, I've been thinking about folk conceptions of sin. I fully understand that folk conceptions pale in comparison to fully worked out, academic, systematic, and theologically rigorous notions of sin. But as a psychologist I live in the world of folk theology and I seek to understand its nature.

(Note, when we put the word "folk" in front of some area of academic study, as in "folk psychology" or "folk theology", we are speaking of notions "on the street." That is, we are speaking of commonly held conceptions. Thus, a folk theology is not found in the halls of the Academy but in the pews of church buildings and Sunday School classes. Sometimes folk and academic theologies clash, sometimes they agree. As a psychologist, I'm particularly interested in the disagreements.)

When we explore folk conceptions of sin, they tend to cluster around notions of God's irascibility. That is, certian actions (or thoughts) are deemed to be displeasing to God, evoking God's anger, wrath, and judgment. In this formulation, what is sinful is what angers God.

The implications of this formulation are obvious. If sin is associated with God's irascibility then the Christian walk is largely about managing the psychology of God. That is, God's temperment sets the agenda and holy living is about managing the nuances of God's moods. In the language of the pews, we seek to be "pleasing" to God.

If we poke at the folk conception we may ask "Why is God so irascible?" The folk answer (and I believe the acadmeic answer agrees on this point) is an appeal to God's holiness. That is, God isn't iracible, God is holy. And violations of God's holiness cause God to respond in wrath and judgment.

I have heard this appeal to holiness for years, but, to speak candidly, I don't know what people are talking about. What is holiness and how is it linked to notions of sin?

Generally, holiness is about God's Separateness, God's Otherness. As far as this goes, I'm fine. God is Ontologically Strange. But the idea gets extended. It is extended it two ways which sets up the irascible outcome:

1. God's Presence is a place that is "pure" and "undefiled."
2. God is protective of his "holiness."

With each of these in place the irascible outcome follows: In the presence of sin (a defilement) God's protectiveness lashes out. This seems to be the theological configuration that "explains" God's irascibility.

But I have a few issues with this formulation.

1. The Biblical Imagination
First off, it is within the biblical imagination that God's Presence can tolerate the presence of Satan. Witness the story of Job. Apparently, it is possible to imagine Satan entering God's Presence and God not defending his Holy Pretense. Thus, if Satan can talk to God in his throneroom, I expect that a mere mortal, however sinful, can be in God's Presence without God throwing a temper tantrum.

2. Jesus as Hermeneutic
If Jesus is our hermeneutical norm (i.e., to interpret the bible we must filter it through the life of Jesus) then it seems clear that God is not irascible. God isn't defensive about contact with sinners. His Holiness can't be contaminated. It's robust and intrinsic. God's holiness isn't situational. That is, it doesn't matter if God is close or far away from sin. Situationally, it doesn't matter. His holiness needs no defending or protecting. Again, witness Jesus' table fellowship with sinners.

3. Omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience
I don't subscribe to these Greek adjectives for God, but the folk theology does. So I'll use them to argue with the folk ideas on holiness. Specifically, if God is everywhere then I don't see how he would be irascible in the presence of "sin." Second, if God in omniscient it seems that the advent of sin would have been on his epistemic horizon. Thus, his righteous indignation at sin seems, well, overly dramatic and histrionic. Finally, if God is all-powerful we must ask if he has control over his own personality. Can he, in the presence of sin, even if he is holy, restrain himself and deal with the person in a loving and charitable manner? Or are the better angels of his nature overthrown by the holy impulse to destroy sinners who find themselves in his Presence?

4. Circular Reasoning
The folk formulations of sin and holiness are circular. It goes like this:

Q: Why does God destroy/punish sin?
A: Because he is holy.
Q: But what does that mean, "God is holy"?
A: It means that God will destroy/punish sin.

Basically, "holiness" isn't an explanation for God's irascibility. It's just another description of it. To invoke "holiness" doesn't add anything to the conversation.

I think the whole folk theology regarding sin and holiness has got to go. It's incoherent and spiritually dysfunctional. Phrased more sharply and provocatively, the whole idea of "pleasing" or "displeasing" God is the worm at the core of most Christian (mainly folk) belief systems.

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13 thoughts on “On the Irascibility of God”

  1. Amen!!!

    I remember when I was first converted I took a foundational Christianity class in which I was taught just the things you were saying, how God cannot be in the presence of sin, which at the time, didn't make any sense to me, even though I did not grow up in a church or have any kind of theological degree, it just didn't make any sense. For one, I knew God was present in my life way before I became a Christian because isn't every good gift from Him? And he did answer my prayers. Yes non christians do pray every now and then. So I brought this up to the teacher and he scolded me, he told me that God does not listen or answer prayers of non-Christians. His holiness cannot tolerate sinfulness. God cannot be in the presence of sin. But I couldnt deny how God answered my prayers and in fact was always pursuing me and trying to get my attention so that I could one day acknowledge him as Lord and Savior. How could any be saved by Him if He can't be in their presence. Isn't that what the whole story of the gospel is about. No wonder it is so scandalous! God lowering himself AS a man and living and being in the presence of sinners so that he might save them. He didn't stay at his throne yelling at us, Hey I'm up here and you better shape up and get it right, he came "down" and rescued us!

    I agree with you. The theology of sin and holiness that we hold today has definately got to go. The way we teach it is not the gospel. And if it's not the gospel then it's not going to save. God's wrath is His holy love coming down on us so that we can acknowledge who is and who we are and how we need His love in our life. God sees sin as something that we need to be saved from. When he looked at the four thousand he looked at them with compassion, he knew they were lost sheep without a shepherd, it didnt' anger him that these people stole, lied, cheated, it didn't anger him that some of these people were immature, lost, and ignorant, it didn't anger him that some of these people were in conflict with eachother, or doubted his divinity. He had compassion on them. And what about the woman in John 8 what did he say to those religious leaders? Hmmm wasn't it something like, He who is without sin throw the first stone? OUCH!

  2. Perhaps much of our theology regarding God's intolerance for unholiness comes from the OT. God demanded holiness from the Israelites, or they were punished or abandoned. I have recently started interpreting the OT much differently- more of a history written by religious reformers. Most scholars believe the majority of the OT was written in the time Josiah (drawing from earlier sources). If you are advocating religious reform, one way to do it would be to remind your constituency of how good things will get if you reform, or how bad things will get if you don't. David was a Godly, holy king- he was blessed. Ahab on the hand...

  3. Richard,

    You make a compelling case here! But, of course if we don't have a folk theology of sin then parents can't threaten their children with the possibility that their bad behavior is displeasing God's holiness and thus earning black marks in God's record book -- or of course on the other hand earning brownie points in heaven!

  4. "I think the whole folk theology regarding sin and holiness has got to go."

    Any idea on how that might be accomplished?

  5. Maybe by rehabilitating sinfulness instead of punishing it to get rid of it.

  6. Hi all,
    I'm out of pocket til through the weekend so I can't respond as of yet. However, you've brought up so many good points I think I want to just add another post to get at some of these issues. Until then, as the dying Buddha said to his followers, "Be a light unto yourselves!"

  7. Hi Richard,

    Pastor Bob brought up the value of fear as a motivator--though it's unclear whether he was doing so with a "wink."

    I'll put in a nod toward taking that motivation seriously, just in case the pastor was kidding.

    You brougt up the two senses of holiness. 1. A feeling of awe--the "noumenous" sense of God (a person with no religious sensibility might get this sensibility if caught on a mountain in a lightning storm), and 2. moral purity--a feeling that a person with no religious imagination might get when standing before a judge waiting for the verdict to be spoken.

    What about the possibility that God instantiates the height of moral striving in a way analogous to how Mt. Everest instantiates the height of physical striving. Perhaps there is a grandeur and respect that can be attributed to both. And in that sense, perhaps fear is not entirely misplaced.

    Recall: "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." ...but not the end.

    I agree with the gist (I think) of your comments. But I'm not ready to throw out the baby with the bath water.



  8. Hmmmm…this is all so great and my brain is hurting.

    I am intrigued by this ‘folk theology’, and certainly remember growing up with its elements. Perhaps it is what gets in the way of Believers developing fully into truly compassionate spiritual leaders, with the context that through the instructions of the Christ we are to carry His gospel message to the ‘lost’.

    Isn’t there a direct correlation between holiness and sin? When I sin, I will suffer the consequences of that sin. I know this, and I also know that God hates sin, meaning he hates my sin. But I also know he loves me, and upon sending Jesus into my life, he extends to me a chance for redemption. The human cycle I ride on as a Believer is never-ending, because I have not yet achieved perfected status:
    1. I believe in Christ my Saviour;
    2. I do something stupid each day that leads me to sin;
    3. I inevitably suffer, enduring the consequences of said sin for however long it takes me to realise I need to confront the sin and confess it;
    4. With a spirit of contrition, I seek out God’s Presence – his holiness wraps itself around me and my burden;
    5. The holy or sacred space sought, created, and supplied by his Spirit is not only something I as a sinner seeking forgiveness anticipates, but I know without fail that he will supply this holy space as he makes me whole, healing the rift in my soul;
    6. I revel in God’s gift of holy space – however large/small, loud/quiet, long/short – until my human weakness has me falling in sin again, and so the cycle repeats…

    I get mad at this cycle. I wish there were days where I did nothing but contemplate, successfully without sin getting in the way. But life crashes into the holy space, sometimes beyond my control. Of course, as God in incapable of sin, he has ultimate control of his sacred and holy space. He does not need constant healing like I in my humanness do.
    Holiness and wholeness: the sacred and the unimpaired coupled together bring healing.

    'Finally, if God is all-powerful we must ask if he has control over his own personality. Can he, in the Presence of sin, even if he is holy, restrain himself and deal with the person in a loving and charitable manner? Or are the better angels of his nature overthrown by the holy ‘impulse to destroy sinners who find themselves in his Presence?'

    If God were indeed irascible, I do not understand how he would allow any of us to enter into a sacred space with him as we petition him for forgiveness of our daily sin(s). He would not be the Divine Healer, the Giver of Life, the Father of the Prodigal that Jesus illustrates throughout his gospel message. Nor would he want to share any of his holy space with us if we wish to just come and contemplate his greatness through adoration and worship.

    God is perfect, but aren’t there just some days when he might get really frustrated with us and our tiny minds and our human penchant for making some of the same stupid mistakes over again? If he wasn’t an emotional God, there would be no feelings for compassion any more than there would be for anger. He’s not exactly Doris Day…

    (I bet your brain is hurting right now, too.)

  9. Hey Richard,

    First, let me just say that we ought not glean too many spiritual truths about God from Job. Most agree that it's a fictional fable used to salute strong faith for the Hebrews, kind of like we do with Washington and the cherry tree.

    Second, I see your points, and I like most of them, but I don't emerge where you do. I think God very much wants to live and love his people, wants relationship with them--thus, I have no problem conceptualizing God as an entity "I wish to please and not displease because He's the summation of holiness."

    That may sound folky, but a) I'm a folk musician, and b) thinking of God as Holy and wishing a pleasing relationship with me doesn't disturb my view of things.

  10. for me it all comes down to ...do we "start with" God is love or God is holy...If God is love it is a love story its about a rescue and healing process, then the problem is with man ( man needs rescued). If we start with God is holy and we feel we must please Him then the problem is with God (so by " stressing"
    to please God were saying something in God needs changing or appeased, (the defect is with God). Then the Godhead is inadequate, relationally in need of man perfection ? God needs something ? I don't think so (God is complete/perfect and holy in himself "in the trinity", and in need of nothing)

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