The wrath of God, St Paul begins, is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. To even begin to consider this, we must seek to ascend beyond our understanding of this “wrath of God.” We so easily imagine this expression based on our understanding of wrath, but to do so is a grievous error on our behalf. The wrath of God must never be thought to be the equivalent of a child throwing a temper tantrum; it isn’t a loss of temper or self-control. Rather, the wrath of God is His holy and righteous judgment, the divine revelation of His truth, His love, and His power confronting those who reject Him.
It’s important to understand this because it helps us to recognize not only the importance of our faithful obedience to Him, but also helps us to understand His response when we do happen to fall. A God who rashly strikes out and impulsively reacts vengefully to our mistakes would be a God of whom we would rightly be fearful with each sin we fall into. It would be a cold, unforgiving, reactive God, and thus straying from the path even momentarily could lead us to be stricken down, thereby leading to despondency and heart wrenching fear with each transgression. Whereas a God whose wrath is His judgment before those who reject Him would be, in our human minds, a God much more able to cleanse us and forgive us once we recognize our sinfulness and turn to Him in repentance. It is a God from whom we would allow the grace that He offers to help us overcome our weakness, rather than the surrendering of our aspirations to holiness the first moment we fall.
Paul goes on to state that from the beginning, all of humanity has been able to recognize the natural revelation of God, of His power, simply by observing the glories of creation. Thus, those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and reject God do so of their own free will. There remains no longer the excuse of lack of knowledge of Him, as St Paul tells the men of Athens, “these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). So often, people ask about those people to whom the gospel has not spread, and here we find in Scripture the answer to this question. The Lord declared to the Prophet Jeremiah, “I will surely put my laws into their mind and write them in their hearts…each man shall not teach his neighbor or his brother saying ‘know God’ for all men shall know Me” (Jeremiah 38:33-34 LXX). It’s this idea that we have to deny the wonders of creation, and even deny our own hearts and minds, to reject God. And so, because of this, those “times of ignorance” are no longer excused. Because of this fact itself, the wrath of God is kindled against those who suppress the truth. But, it’s important to recognize that this wrath is not God punishing us for a single transgression, but rather it is the divine revelation of His truth and His power in the face of those who reject Him.
So, Paul goes on to describe one such revelation of God’s truth, of His power. The people had begun to worship idols. Paul states that “they changed the glory of incorruptible God into an image of corruptible man – and birds and four footed animals and creeping things.” Refusing to worship the one true God, they had instead created their own gods. And, as so often is the case, when man creates their own gods, they create gods in their own images, as caricatures of their own vices. A man likes to fight, so he creates Ares, the god of war. A man likes to consume wine, so he creates Dionysius, the god of wine. When man creates god, they tend to create a god who suits their own desires, thus when they indulge those desires, it becomes an act of worship.
And so, God’s judgment here is strong. Remembering the two greatest commands, the first being that we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might; to fall into idolatry is to violate the greatest command of all. Thus, His judgment here is the strongest judgment that we could experience…He abandons them. He gives them over to their own decadence and the darkness of their hearts. He gives them over and they find anarchy and chaos, exchanging that which is natural for that which is desirable. Rather than remaining and leading them to seek repentance, He judges that they will not repent, and allows them instead to be ruled by their own passions. And it’s important to recognize that while Paul here is focusing on sexual sin, this could be applied to many other sinful activities as well. Also, notice that it was for their embrace of sexual sin that He gave them over to their passions, which led to many other sins, in sort of a downward spiral. St Paul warns us in his letter to the Ephesians “do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27) for the very reason that once you give quarter to the enemy, like leaven in dough, sin will continue to expand until it consumes you. In freely embracing sexual sin, they had allowed the enemy the room necessary to fully corrupt them.
We see this so strongly in our own generation. What begins once in our nation, or more personally, in our life, as one sin, often grows to begin to encompass our lives in the form of the allowance of various other sins. Those sins which could lead on a personal level to the ruination of our souls, or on a larger level, to the very destruction of our civilization. As we read all throughout the Old Testament, when a nation turns away from God by embracing, and sometimes even celebrating our sin, then it can rapidly expand to lead to the destruction of our entire nation.
We have to be very careful here, when it comes to this idolatry that St Paul is warning us against. St John of Krondstadt teaches us that “it is extremely difficult, and without God’s grace and our own fervent prayers, impossible, for you to change for the better.” It’s so easy to read about the Romans embracing these idols and condemning them for so doing, or reading about Israel worshiping the golden calf and separating ourselves from that narrative. And yet, idolatry is not just graven images, golden likenesses, and statues; it is anything that we trust in more than Jesus. If we find ourselves caught in recurring sin and each time resolve to overcome these sins but never seek the help of Christ, we make an idol of ourselves. Yes, we must make the willful decision to overcome these weaknesses, but in so doing we must repent and seek the Lord’s grace to overcome those sins. So long as we constantly turn to Him for grace and mercy, for forgiveness, then He will grant it. But if we reject Him, if we trust in our own ability to overcome, we may like the Romans find that His judgment is that we will be handed over to those passions.
Let each of us, my brothers and sisters, never reject Christ, but instead remembering this lesson that His judgment is the revelation of His truth to those who reject Him. So long as we walk in faith and seek after Him, He is faithful to forgive us when we turn in repentance. Let us seek His grace, calling humbly on Him for the strength to truly repent; embracing His truth and obediently seeking His will.
Christ is in our midst.