So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. (Joel 2:13)
The words of the prophecy from Joel, read in preparation for the coming Great Lent, reflect very closely words found in the Psalm sung in many Orthodox Churches as an antiphon in the Divine Liturgy:
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever. (Psalm 103:8-9)
Both scriptural texts remind us of God’s kindness and desire to save us, not condemn us. St Isaac the Syrian says:
Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. (THE WISDOM OF ST ISAAC OF NINEVEH, p 38)
We hear about God’s anger and judgment and that we should therefore ‘fear the Lord.’ However, that is not the full picture found in Scripture and certainly not the only possible interpretation of these biblical verses as St Isaac reminds us. Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement tells us not to read into passages mentioning ‘divine anger’ ideas related to human emotions because God does not react to what we do (reaction implies change and God is unchangeable), rather God always acts towards us according to His nature – in love. We know what human anger is, but we must not read those ideas into words applied to God.
Divine anger is shown to be love, rejected love, love powerless before the errant freedom of man, love in waiting, until finally there is a woman who is able to and wills to welcome it in. ‘The incarnation is not only the work of the Father, His strength and His Spirit: it is also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin’ (St Nicholas Cabasilas). (TRANSFIGURING TIME, p 87)
Clement points out that while God is angry about human sin, God’s ‘response’ to our sin is to send His Son into the world to die on the cross for our sins. God’s anger does not translate into human ideas of revenge and retaliation. God’s ‘anger’ regarding sin leads God to search out the Virgin in order to have His Son become incarnate to save the human race.