The Goodness of Anger
Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
Jim from B.C.
Our Second Lessons for the past four weeks have been from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and it's evident from the snippets we've had, that these Ephesians had trouble getting along with each other. In chapter 2 Paul talked about the "dividing wall of hostility" in that congregation, between Jews and non-Jews. And in today's Second Lesson he's talking about their anger toward each other.
Paul uses some rich vocabulary this passage: bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and so on. We still have a rich vocabulary for anger NOWADAYS: mad, cross, furious, outraged, steamed, ticked off, cheesed off, and various other "offs". We also have many words for milder anger: irked, irritated, annoyed, indignant, and so on. This shows that anger is a very common emotion today, as it was back in those days.
Because most of us have been hurt by anger, we tend to think of it as sinful. In fact, some of us would do anything not to get angry.
The Bible says, however, that anger can be good, if it's anger against sin and evil. How often can you read in the Old Testament of God's righteous anger, his righteous wrath expressed, for instance, through the voices of the prophets.
There's a remarkable incident right after the greatest Israelite leader, Moses, had received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses came down the mountain, and it says in Exodus 32: "As soon as he came near the camp and saw the (golden) calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it."
Even Jesus, the Son of God, who was full of compassion and forgiveness, got angry at times. He got angry against the arrogance and the stubbornness of the Scribes and Pharisees. He once got so angry at the sales-people and the money-changers in the Temple, who were making a profit from religion, that he overturned their tables and drove them out with a whip. Jesus is our perfect example to emulate, and we find that Jesus did not suppress his anger, but he did control it. He did not stifle his anger, but expressed it, purposefully, using the energy created by the emotion, to do something about evil.
The Psalms also have rich expressions of anger (though we don't usually read those parts in church), for instance against foreign nations, against pagans who enslaved the Israelites and killed their children. In response, one Psalmist said, "O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take YOUR little ones and dash them against the rock!"
What amazes me is not how angry the Psalmist is, but how honest he is, how free he feels to express that anger!
Really, it's a matter of honesty; and in today's Second Lesson, Paul encourages such honesty. He says: "So then, putting away falsehood, let us all speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil."
He says, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." That means: express it. Get it out on the table, the sooner the better. "Don't let the sun go down on your anger." Don't let it fester inside, or you'll lose sleep over it. It can eat you up inside, and lead can lead to depression or even physical illnesses like ulcers.
Rather than using the word "expressing", perhaps a better word would be "CONFESSING" our anger. As soon as you begin to feel the anger arising within you, as soon as the tiger begins wake up and the stomach starts to tense, express that feeling in words, and express it in a non- blameful way. You don't want to let it build up until it explodes. Say something like: "I'm getting angry, and I want to tell you about it. Will you listen?" Kids can be encouraged to say, "I'm climbing angry mountain, and I don't want to get to the top."
If the conversation has already become heated, then it's a good idea to say, "Hold it! Let's start again, from the beginning. Let's talk about where my anger is coming from." Or "Let's talk about where your anger is coming from." Sometimes the "presenting issue"(that is, the issue on the table, being talked about) is not what's causing the anger, but rather something deeper.
One of the reasons anger is so difficult to talk about is that it comes from deep feelings, and many of us want to keep those feelings private. St. Paul is saying, "No. Tell the truth to each other. Confess your feelings. Speak the truth in love." And if for some reason you CAN'T immediately speak the truth to that person you're angry at, then first talk to another person, a friend or counsellor, or your pastor someone who will listen, and understand. This is not a substitute for being honest, but a way of getting the anger off your chest.
So St. Paul says: "Be angry, but do not sin." Control it and channel it. Express it in a way that does maximum benefit and minimum hurt. Often Paul warned his people against insults, name-calling, verbal attacks, gossip, back-biting and so on, saying, "Be careful lest you end up devouring each other.
"Put away away all bitterness. . . and malice," he says in today's text, "and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. . . . Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."
Here St. Paul is getting into some of the ways of diminishing anger.
Some of our anger may not be righteous anger. The prophet Jonah, for instance, was constantly angry, at the Ninevites and at himself. It was a petulant, self-pitying, spoiled child! That's where his anger came from. At the end of the book of Jonah, he even got angry at a tree!
I heard a story of a little boy who was throwing a tantrum, and misbehaving so badly that his mother locked him in a closet as a punishment. The boy's thrashing just got worse, and she thought he was going to wreck the inside of the closet, so she opened the door, and here, he had ripped all the clothes off the hangers and piled them in a heap and was sitting on top of the heap.
She said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I was so mad I pulled down everything, and SPIT on your clothes, and SPIT on your shoes, and now I'm just waiting for some more SPIT!"
Some people, I think, go through life like that, just waiting for some more spit!
That kind of anger may be motivated by fear, fear that we will be hurt or lose out, if something doesn't go the way we think it should.
Sometimes our anger comes from our own arrogance and hubris. Consciously or unconsciously, we are saying to ourselves: "I should have what I want, when I want it, how I want it. After all, I am GOD. Things have got to go MY WAY."
That is not helpful anger, and we must find ways to reduce that type of anger.
I can think of four ways. The first way is to submit to God. Totally submit. A good way is to use the famous Twelve Steps: admit you can't manage your anger or whatever is troubling you in your life. Turn it over to God: let Him handle it; let Him do with it what He wants. Let him TELL YOU what to do about it. Turn your life and will over to God.
Prayer is a way of submitting to God. The very act of prayer is an act of submission. To pray is to say: "You, Lord, are the power greater than I. You are the master; I'm your servant. You are boss, I'm employee." A good prayer is the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Accepting what you can't change goes a long way to reducing anger, and bringing calmness and peace inside.
A second way to reduce anger is to bathe yourself in the love of God. That includes reminding yourself, through the Word and the Sacraments, that God loves you, so much that he came to earth as Jesus and died for you. Remind yourself constantly, that through Christ, God has forgiven you all your sin and everything you've done wrong, and therefore you are free to forgive OTHERS. You are free even to forgive yourself. And there is great peace in that.
A third way is to remind yourself of God's wonderful promise (in Romans 8:28) that all things work together for good, for those who love God. No matter how grossly unjust or unfair life seems, and no matter how bad things appear to have become, God will work everything out in the end, for your good. All wrongs will be righted, all ugliness will turn to beauty, all pain to pleasure, all tears to joy. The crooked shall be made straight, as John the Baptist said. That's part of the promise of the Resurrection. God will make all things work together for your good in the end.
The last way I want to mention, that helps to reduce our anger, is if we redirect it; direct it against God. Most of our anger is ultimately directed at God anyway. Again, at deep level, we are crying out to God, "Why did you create me this way? Why did you allow this to happen? Why aren't you doing something about my problem?"
We SHOULD direct our anger against God, because God can take it. He's big enough to handle it. In fact, God has ALREADY taken our anger, and the anger of the whole world. When God came to earth as Jesus and was crucified, he was taking upon himself all the anger and hatred and bitterness and guilt and negativity of all time. It was all put on his shoulders, and he was crushed under its weight.
But God raised him up, which means that when we are joined to Christ, no one and nothing has power over us any longer, including the emotion of anger. "We are lords," as Luther liked to say, free to do as Jesus did when he was here on earth. By the power of his Holy Spirit, we are free to be honest, to express our anger, or any other emotion, carefully however, and with love and concern for others, channeling the energy of that emotion into doing God's work.
God bless you in handling your anger, and all your emotions. Amen.