“Nip Anger in the Bud”
Lenten Series: “Sins Jesus Carried to Calvary”
Not long ago, NBC News teamed up with Esquire magazine on a study of the rage that characterizes American society today. They surveyed 3,000 Americans to determine who in our day is the angriest, what’s making them so angry, and, perhaps most importantly, who’s to blame.
One of the more interesting statistics in the study revealed that half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. In large measure this anger stems from the perception that life is not working out for those persons as they always assumed it would. They see others as standing in the way of their progress, and they don’t see things improving any time soon (“American Rage,” Esquire, 1/3/16).
The one thread I see running through the survey is that anger is more times than not tied to our sense of self-preservation. It presses buttons that, quite honestly, don’t take a lot to press, buttons like our personal worth (“I need others to show me some respect.”) and our personal needs (“I need others to acknowledge the legitimacy of my needs.”) and our deepest convictions (“I need others to agree with my most cherished beliefs, which I will never give up or lay down.”). Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that you learned about back in Psychology 101, which run from survival needs to self-actualization needs, and how so much of our anger stems from seeing us get stymied at every place along the narrowing pyramid.
Is it any wonder that helping folk deal with their anger has become big business in recent years? For example, I read about an amusement facility that’s just opened up in Tucson, Arizona, where patrons can go to smash stuff. Called “The Breaking Point,” you can pay $10 for 10 minutes to go inside one of two rooms, where you have at your disposal, no pun intended, various objects for you to smash, including bottles, ceramics, appliances, and office furniture. You must first sign a liability release form, wear protective eyewear and a jumpsuit. Oh, and one more thing, if you’re intoxicated you’ll be turned away. What a business like that tells us is that not only is there a market for anger, venting it can also be dangerous to one’s well-being. After all, isn’t it the case that anger is just one letter short of danger?
Because so many of you have business backgrounds, I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t there some place in such a market for the church? Doesn’t this reality give us as Christians a platform for reaching this population of people? Shouldn’t we at MBBC be offering people an option for addressing their anger?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding “Yes.” But my background in the church over these last 40 years has taught me that, sadly, church too often is a place where some people go to nurture their harsh feelings and cultivate their angry attitudes. As healthy and as emotionally balanced as our fellowship is here at Mountain Brook Baptist, I dare say that there’s not a single person present this morning who has not experienced some measure of hurt feelings or deep discouragement over some congregational incident of some sort in days past. After all, no church is immune from provocations and irritations.
We see that truth over and again in the New Testament, especially in those sections where church leaders offer instruction to congregations in the form of letters, or epistles as we often call them, such as the one that is before us this morning from James, brother of our Lord Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. The letter of James is a “general epistle,” written not just to one congregation, such as Paul’s letters to churches in Corinth or Philippi or Ephesus or Colossae. The first verse in the epistle of James tells us that his letter was directed “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1). In other words, James wrote to Christians who, because of increasing persecution, had been dispersed from Jerusalem to various parts of the known world.
You’d understand, then, how those believers would have struggled with feelings of anger. Who wouldn’t be angry at being driven from one’s home and family and livelihood, as these believers were? Who gets slapped upside one cheek and then turns the other to be slapped? Well, we’ll get back to that question in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that these early Christians were indeed facing all manner of hostility from those outside the faith, which no doubt had created a significant measure of irritation and anger.
But that wasn’t what concerned James the most. What concerned him was not the hostility of outsiders toward the believers to whom he directed his letter. What concerned James more was the hostility that was happening on the inside – specifically, the hostility believers were showing toward one another!
Look at verse 19. “My dear brothers and sisters,” James writes. “Take note of this (which tells us all we need to know about the importance of what is to follow): Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for (here’s the critical lesson) man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Quite simply, we must never assume that our rashness and rage are signs of righteous indignation. Instead, we would do well to hold our tongues (a matter to which James will later dedicate almost an entire chapter) and actually attend to the perspectives of others so that we might hear the voice of the Spirit, who desires to guide us into all truth.
Think about the matter this way. Of all the so-called “deadly” sins, anger may well be the most tricky to understand and deal with. That’s because while all of the other sins must be overcome, anger is the one that must be managed. We don’t talk about “managing” lust or greed or gluttony or arrogance. We want instead to get rid of them, to expunge them from our souls. But we can’t expunge anger. It’s an aspect of our natures that we must learn to express in a godly way so that our anger in fact brings about the righteousness that God desires. Otherwise, if we don’t, then our anger, like all of the other deadly sins, will ultimately be our undoing in every respect – physically, emotionally, and of course spiritually.
How, then, do we manage it? Let me offer you three suggestions that I’m working on in my own life.
First, acknowledge your anger, but acknowledge it only to yourself. Someone has described anger as a caution light, warning us that something is not right. So, ask yourself the question, “Is my anger motivated by my desire to further God’s purposes, or am I conflating my own purposes for God’s?”
If the answer to that first question is, “’Yes,’ my anger is motivated by my desire to further God’s purposes,” then the second step is to allow your anger to move you to accomplish something useful for the cause of Christ. I think of so many of the missional ministries of Mountain Brook Baptist Church that have been inspired by a desire to right some wrong or correct some injustice or to shine God’s light into some dark part of this fallen world that God sent Jesus to redeem. Then our anger will be divinely motivated and will in fact serve the righteousness of God.
But if our answer to the first question is, “’No,’ my anger is about my agenda not getting addressed; it has nothing to do with God’s purposes,” then James’ counsel comes into play and we must pray to God for the grace to release our anger by forgiving the person or the circumstances that caused us to be angry in the first place. Then our anger will be human anger; it will be sinful anger, and it will not serve the righteous purposes of God. Only grace can save us from the deadly sin of anger to the lively virtue of righteousness.
Do you sense your need of such grace in your life this morning, as I do every morning, a grace that is greater than all our sin?
William Willimon is a professor at Duke Divinity School and the former bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Some years ago, he wrote a book on the seven deadly sins, titled, Sinning Like a Christian, a provocative title if I’ve ever heard one. He concludes the book with a chapter on anger and a story of a woman from Belfast, Ireland, whose husband, a good man, had been murdered in cold blood, right in front of her eyes, by revolutionaries, who out of their unrighteous anger were out to make a point. Here was a woman who had every right in the world to be angry – to be angry at God, to be angry at the world, certainly to be angry at her husband’s murderers. And yet, Willimon writes, she was one of the most committed and compassionate Christians he had ever met. He asked her how she had managed to overcome her anger; and she told him that as she stood over the lifeless body of her husband overwhelmed with grief and anger, the only thing she could do was pray, and the only prayer she could pray was the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
She said that at that very moment, she knew that the only way she could deal with what had happened to her was to forgive the people who had done this dastardly deed. So, she asked God then and there to help her every single day to do just that. And God did. And God’s help gave her something more – the freedom and the passion to devote herself to the work of the Kingdom.
Willimon wondered how a person could forgive such a thing…until he remembered another good man, a man also murdered in cold blood, by people trying to make a point. That man, with his dying breath, also prayed. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Then Willimon realized how then and there, on that cross, God’s righteous anger was on display – punishing sin and forgiving sinners. On that cross God cared enough about this world – He loved it so much – that He got angry at our sin, angry enough to punish it and to forgive it in one dramatic and decisive act.
How does that chorus go? “Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. For every sin on him was laid. Here in the blood of Christ I live.”
If God could be angry at our sin in a way that actually accomplished our salvation, God can most certainly show us the right way to deal with our anger before it grows into something that keeps us from the life that He gave and raised Jesus for us to know.
So, brothers and sisters, take note of Jesus, and be quick to listen to the strains of grace that drift down from Calvary. Be slow to speak, for your speaking will reveal your inmost thoughts, which are more times than not contrary to God’s purposes, and be very slow to become angry, at least the type of anger that will never produce the righteousness that God desires. Instead, ask for grace to be released from it so that when you become angry, you will be angry at the right things and be inspired to do something about them – something that brings glory to God, something that makes much of Christ, and something that allows you to experience life in all its abundance, both now and forevermore.