“If I try and bend that far . . .” Tevye is a Hebrew milkman in czarist Russia with a snappy wife, five daughters, and very little money. We meet him in the delightful musical Fiddler on the Roof, where he explains that being a Jew in Russia is as precarious as trying to fiddle atop a roof. But he and his wife manage to raise daughters whom they are proud of, and who catch the eye of the young men.
But each young man takes Tevye farther from the comforts of tradition. His eldest asks for Tevye’s permission to marry a poor Jewish tailor whom she loves, but who was not selected by the village matchmaker. His second-born asks his blessing—not his permission—to marry a Jewish political activist who would take her to a city far away. In both cases, after weighing the options (“on the one hand . . . on the other hand”) he grudgingly consents. Times are changing.
But when his third daughter elopes with a Gentile? Weariness darkens each line on his face as he questions heaven:
“Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn by back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand . . .” He pauses, and his face goes hard. “No. There is no other hand.”
I love that movie but oh how I hate that scene. Why ask a human to make such a spirit-crushing choice?
How refreshing it is to know one’s job description. So when it comes to moral choices, it’s merciful that God gives us our to-do list. Do what is right. Hate what is evil. When we are hurt, do we hurt back? Nope. Not in our job description. Do the people who wrong us get our wrath? Again, no. Our job is to do what is right, and hate what is evil. Rage and wrath? Not our job.
The Bible describes four righteous responses to evil. But not all four are part of our job description.
Here’s the first one: hatred of evil. This is a built-in aversion to evil. It’s always present. Why? Well, because we love God and people. Since our love is genuine, then we genuinely abhor whatever would destroy whatever we love. In other words, we hate evil (Romans 12:9). Psalm 97:10 says, “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!”
The second response: grief. What happens when we stumble upon a particular instance of evil? Grief. When we see evil happen, we feel grief over it. After all, sadness over sin is one way of loving ourselves: “’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning’” (Joel 2:12). And since we love others as we love ourselves, then it hurts us to see them hurt themselves with sin.
The third response: anger because of evil. But whereas aversion to evil and grief over evil both get the green light in scripture, there’s a yellow light on this one. In fact, you’ll even see it turn red quite often. The wise person is slow to anger (Proverbs 12:16). If you do get angry, make doubly sure that you don’t let any sin grow in its overflow: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). In fact, “Let all bitterness and wrath and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31).
The fourth response always gives us the red light. It’s called “wrath.” “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. . . . Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17, 19). What does our job description say about how we should treat enemies? Our job as followers of God is to figure out ways to bless our enemies: giving them food and drink when they’re hungry and thirsty (Romans 12:20).
What’s interesting is that anger and wrath aren’t necessarily green light for God either. They seem more yellow light. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Psalm 103:8). Even His wrath follows warning after warning: “Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’ But they did not listen . . . . Therefore my wrath and my anger were poured out” (Jeremiah 44:4-6). All the while, His anger and wrath stay anchored in grief, for He “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Why then are we stuck on second base, when God can round all four bases? Why is wrath off-limits for us, and anger is too unless we are very, very careful? It’s because we are incapable of balancing the full weight of justice and mercy without them crushing us between them.
“On the one hand,” we hear of World War II-era Japanese medical experimentation on humans, the results of which were so grotesque and cruel that the Nazi doctors who were invited to observe in the lab vomited at what they saw. We hear of schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorists, villages suffocated by chemical warfare, unborn babies with Down’s Syndrome targeted for elimination. “Do something!” we cry to God. May God give us justice.
“On the other hand,” we hear of justice and we panic. Why is it that justice in the Bible can be so uncomfortable to read about? It isn’t because we don’t like the idea of justice in general. But particular instances of retributive wrath make us squirm. More than one story of God’s rage gives us a subliminal scare: sometimes the people God is livid with look a lot like us. May God give us mercy.
In this world, we desire both justice and mercy. As for justice, we ourselves aren’t strong enough to deal out rage and wrath without becoming the evil which we were supposed to hate. As for mercy, we aren’t sturdy enough to want God to give us anything but mercy. And as for which one is appropriate in a given situation—mercy or justice—our sense of preservation of self and prejudice toward others make us unworthy judges.