How people imagine God and how He reveals Himself are often not the same. Is God always angry and vindictive, or is He merciful and comforting?
Jonathan Edwards was one of the most influential American ministers in the 18th century. He was raised in a puritan home and preached the puritan doctrine. The goal of the Puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries was to purify the Church of England from the practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the process of their attempting to cleanse the church, they took a very harsh view of God, believing Him to be an angry and vindictive God.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
One of the most famous sermons Jonathan Edwards gave was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). As with most sermons of that day, there was a written text published along with the sermon itself. In the text of his sermon Edwards wrote (and spoke) the following:
“So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged [sic] forbearance of an incensed God.”
Notice that Edwards used such terms as fierceness of His wrath in hell, an incensed God, dreadfully provoked, anger, and arbitrary will to describe God. While the Puritans mostly disappeared by the 19th century, this view of God as an angry being, always looking for a reason to punish mankind, is still around.
Today these characteristics are associated with a God that some believe is described in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.
An angry God or a loving God?
We are witnessing unprecedent evil in our modern world—war and violence wherever you turn. Because of these images, some have concluded that God is angry with all of us and is always looking for a way to punish us. Is that really the God we worship—angry, vindictive, always looking for a way to hurt us?
Aren’t we told in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world”? How do you reconcile the idea of His love for mankind with the violence and evil you see in our world today?
“The Father of mercies and God of all comfort”
The apostle Paul paints a picture of God that is very different from what Jonathan Edwards preached. Notice what Paul writes in the introduction to 2 Corinthians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
How do you see God? Is He more like the picture painted by Jonathan Edwards or the one described by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians?
Paul used two expressions to describe God the Father—the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.
Father of mercies
Mercy is a broad term that is used in the Bible in a variety of ways. Instead of just one word for mercy, there are seven words in Hebrew that are translated mercy. Each has a slightly different meaning. One word refers to God’s enduring love for Israel, similar to the love of a husband for his wife. Another word comes from the Hebrew for womb, which implies a maternal connection between God and man.
The “mercy seat” is mentioned in Exodus 25:22. The Hebrew is kapporeth, which can mean ransom. The mercy seat was located in the Holy of Holies, a restricted room in the tabernacle and later the temple. It covered the Ark of the Covenant and was protected by two cherubim, one on either side.
In the book of Hebrews it is called the throne of grace, where we go for mercy (Hebrews 4:16).
Consider that King David was probably the best example of someone receiving mercy. Psalm 51 is David’s psalm of repentance. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).
The Father of mercies and the God of all comfort gave up His Son that we might have salvation, and His Son gave up His life to make possible the forgiveness of sin when we repent.David committed a whole series of sinful acts that deserved the harshest of penalties—he lusted after Bathsheba; he committed adultery with her; and he had her husband killed so he could marry her and try to cover up the fact that she was pregnant by him.
Even though the baby died, God did extend mercy to David, sparing his life and forgiving him.
Sin is destructive and is completely opposite of God’s way of love, so He does hate it. His perfect justice requires the death penalty, but He loves us so much that Jesus was willing to die to pay our penalty. He is willing to forgive us when we repent. Does this sound like a God who is always looking for a way to hurt human beings?
God of all comfort
Now consider the second description: God of all comfort. The word comfort implies that someone is in pain. That pain may be physical or emotional or both.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 the word comfort or a form of it occurs 10 times in five verses, four in verse 4 alone. Clearly this was a concept that Paul wanted to get across to the Corinthians.
During the last night prior to His death, Christ predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter” (John 14:26, King James Version) or “Helper” (New King James Version).
We live in a time when the value of human life has been diminished. Innocent children are being sacrificed in wars, in human trafficking, and in abuse within families. Others are suffering from the violence that afflicts the major cities of the world. Then, of course, there is the emotional pain that affects so many people, leading to a dramatic increase in suicides.
The meaning of the word comforter is one who comes and helps in time of need, one who strengthens, one who relieves the loneliness in your life. A comforter is one who comes to assuage the grief and calm the fears, to help in time of terrifying trouble.
Notice that one of the reasons God extends comfort to us is so “we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). After receiving comfort, you and I are instructed to offer that same comfort to help others.
There are times when we are hurting and we need to go to God for comfort, especially when a loved one dies. But God uses others to offer that comfort as well.
I think back to the time when my father died and how others gave me comfort. My father had open-heart surgery in November of 1997. He never left the hospital and died that next February. The day he died my sister called and said I needed to get there right away, that my father was not expected to live through the day. I remember dragging my feet. I was frozen. I did not want to be there to watch my father die. I wanted to remember him as a strong father for my sister and me. It was a heartbreaking moment in my life.
While I was struggling with what to do, a good friend called me to find out what was happening. I explained the situation, and within a few minutes he called back to let me know he had bought two tickets for us to fly to Memphis and would be picking me up in 30 minutes. I arrived in Memphis just as my father died. I needed someone to step in and help me.
“Heal the brokenhearted”
In Luke 4 Christ addressed the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from the book of Isaiah. Two phrases stand out in the section from which He read: “Heal the brokenhearted” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (verse 18).
When people are brokenhearted or oppressed, they need someone to tell them things will be all right. It seems that Christ was encouraging us to do our part in offering comfort to those who are suffering. Comfort isn’t a one-way street. Just as we have received comfort from God, so we should pass comfort on to others who need it, which in reality is all of us!
Passover and God’s mercy
Each year in the spring, thousands of Christians celebrate a festival called Passover. It is first mentioned in Exodus 12, but after the death of Christ, it became an important evening of solemn observance for the Church of God, an annual commemoration of Christ’s death. The Father of mercies and the God of all comfort gave up His Son that we might have salvation, and His Son gave up His life to make possible the forgiveness of sin when we repent.
We all need mercy daily, and we all need comfort daily, as we suffer in our world today.
The God we worship
Jonathan Edwards had a huge following in 18th-century America, but his description of God was quite different from the description given by Paul. God isn’t this cruel, vindictive being, looking for a way to destroy mankind at the slightest provocation. The God we worship is patient in His desire for all to come to repentance. He is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who wants us in His Kingdom, in His family.
He is there for us—to grant us forgiveness and mercy when we commit sin and repent and to offer us comfort when we are suffering.
The God we worship is not the God described by the famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards—He is the God of mercies and the God of all comfort.
Study more about God in our Journey 1: Knowing God.