In Romans 1:18, Paul says that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against the idolatry and injustice of humanity. For several verses, Paul rails against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings who skew and obstruct knowledge of God even though Paul says that they themselves should have been able to come to this knowledge by observing what has been made. In all likelihood, Paul's words here are probably representative of Jewish caricatures of Gentiles in the first century. At the root of all of this caricature is the failure of Gentiles to worship the one true God of Israel. Everything else Paul describes here is mere symptom. Idolatry is the disease.
Given that Paul sees us Gentiles as so terribly godless and idolatrous, when Paul starts to talk about wrath being revealed from heaven one might expect the lightning bolts to start flying any minute. Quite to the contrary, we hear Paul say three times in the next several verses "God gave them over...". In v. 24, God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts...". In v. 26, "God gave them over to dishonorable passions...". In v. 28, "God gave them over to a debased mind...". The wrath of God being revealed from heaven is simply a matter of the Creator letting the created pursue their own idolatrous tendencies without interference. It seems the worst wrath that Paul can imagine from God is not lightning bolts and plague but apathy. The worst possible scenario for us is a God who washes his hands of us.
This is perhaps not that surprising when we consider that the wrath of God is depicted in much the same way in the fundamental story of idolatry in the Old Testament. In Exodus 33, after Aaron and the people of Israel construct a golden calf to worship, God says to Moses:
Despite the people's sin, Yahweh still intends to keep his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by giving the promised land to their descendants. But God will send an angel to do this work rather than God's own presence dwelling with the people of Israel. On the surface, this might seem like a pretty good deal - Israel still get God's blessing if not God's presence - but Moses will have none of it. He says:"Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the
, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” landof Egypt
Moses knows that the worst conceivable fate for the people of Israel is that the presence of the God who delivered them from slavery would be withdrawn from among them. In similar fashion, Paul characterizes the wrath of God being revealed against Gentile idolatry as God handing them over to their own devices. This action on God's part is in stark contrast to the actions of God that Paul has just described in the previous verses using some of the very same vocabulary. Whereas in v 18-32 Paul says that God's wrath is revealed against unrighteousness that is manifested in shameful acts, in v. 16-17 Paul has just said that he is not ashamed of the gospel in part because the righteousness of God is revealed in it."If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
It is especially important here to keep in mind what Paul means by some of those words. The gospel is the story of Jesus Christ who "was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead." That is, this good news is centered around the Son of God who stepped into human flesh and died our human death. This is the story of a God who got involved, who intervened. This is a God who, far from washing his hands of us, got his hands dirty in the most profound of all possible ways, plunging those hands into the mess of our own flesh, taking on the very kinds of hands that had themselves committed unrighteousness and idolatry so many times over and having nails put through them. Furthermore, the righteousness of God that is being revealed in this gospel is not only what God has already done in Jesus Christ but also the transforming work that God continues to do to bring about righteousness in our own lives, even the lives of unrighteous and idolatrous Gentiles like us.
I imagine that this is contrary to the way we usually think about things. It is easy to think that God's mercy surrounds us so long as things are going well. We tend to ask questions about God's wrath when tragedy strikes. But Paul makes me wonder if the worst possible thing that God could do for us would be to simply let everything go according to our plans and our desires all the time. Perhaps the wrath of God in American culture isn't manifested in disasters and economic downturns but just the opposite; in God's allowing us to run unfettered into our never ending pursuit of happiness, security, and prosperity; when God hands us over from being his beloved possession to being possessed by the very things we so desperately seek to obtain.
Its not that happiness or even our own passions and desires are inherently evil. Its that they are malleable and if left unattended they effortlessly take on the shape and pattern of the broken world that surrounds them. Fortunately, a critical piece of the gospel that Paul proclaims is that leaving our desires and passions unattended is the very last thing that God wants to do. God so badly wants to shape us into the marvelous creatures we were created to be that God plunged the two hands of Son and Spirit into our humanity for that very purpose. The mercy of God isn't when God washes his hands of us and lets us be. The mercy and righteousness of God are revealed in the divine hands that are covered in dirt and clay from the work of shaping the dust of the earth into creatures that begin to resemble the very divinity that has shaped and formed them.