SIN AND ANGER
As we continue to work through the questions that you asked to hear sermons about we come to a very practical one. The question is, "How do you manage anger?" Some of you may feel the answer to that is easy...If angry outbursts are messing up your life, get thee to a counselor and deal with it. It's a psychological issue, not a spiritual one.
And yet things spiritual and things psychological are not unrelated. The church teaches that as we mature in our spiritual lives, all aspects of our lives change...we become more Christ-like. We exhibit more of the fruit of the Spirit in our personal interactions, which includes things like patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control...good antidotes to anger. The outcome of our anger is often sin, and that is unquestionably a spiritual matter. The line is finely drawn, and there are many related issues.
The person who wrote the question seemed to be having trouble controlling angry outbursts. That is one kind of problem, but it is not the only one related to anger. For a good part of my own life, I had the opposite problem. When I was growing up, we didn't do anger in our house. If I was angry with someone and expressed that, my father's response was always, "Well, she has always said nice things about you." He was trying to teach me to be charitable in what I said, but what I learned was that a good Christian doesn't get angry. I thought anger was sin.
Since I wanted to be a good Christian, I buried my anger so deeply that eventually I couldn't even recognize the emotion anymore. I would feel "hurt" or "disappointed" or "upset," but never "angry." It took therapy for me even to learn what anger felt like and to learn to recognize it in myself. That is the other extreme to those who are angry about every little thing. I didn't feel anger at anything. And of course there are other people at all the stages in between...those who feel anger more or less of the time and perhaps aren't always sure what to do with it or whether the emotion is a good one or one to be avoided.
I selected the Scripture passages that I did for this morning, because I think they address both ends of the spectrum. For those who, like me, might think that simply getting angry is sinful, we have the Gospel of Mark telling us that Jesus was angry. It is also worth noting that out of 234 times that the word "anger" appears in the Bible, 192 of those times it is talking about God's anger. So if God gets angry and Jesus gets angry, I take that to mean that I can be angry and not have it be sinful. Ephesians echoes that when it says "Be angry but do not sin." That reinforces to me that anger and sin are two different things.
As I learned in my own life, the emotion of anger serves an important purpose. Anger is for the soul what pain is for the body. Anger is the soul's way of saying "Ouch! That hurt!" Like with physical pain, it isn't pleasant, but it is an important clue that something is wrong. Pain instructs us to look to the source of the pain so we can bring the body back to wholeness. Anger does the same thing...it is the soul saying, "Ouch!" and it instructs us to look for the source and see how we can restore ourselves to wholeness.
To recognize anger is a statement of self-worth. Allowing ourselves to be angry is acknowledging that it is not OK that we have been hurt. We may discover that we are the source of our own pain, and we may have to learn to not always blame others, but the anger itself is instructive and self-affirming. Never to be angry is yet another hurt we inflict on ourselves...telling ourselves that our hurt doesn't matter and should be accepted and ignored.
Like with a physical wound, we can choose to ignore it or say it doesn't exist. If I ignore a gash on my leg, it is likely to get infected, maybe cause gangrene and a host of other problems...maybe amputation and even death. Anger that is ignored will also fester and do us harm. Anger itself is a good and useful emotion...even if having it doesn't feel good. When we feel anger, we are meant to do something about it...and that's where we run into trouble. Be angry, but do not sin. There's the rub.
Some of you have trouble relating to the problems I had. You have no trouble doing something with your anger...you simply take it out on whatever or whoever is convenient...your spouse, your children, the dog, the wall, your co-workers, people who cut you off on the road...whatever. You've done well to recognize it and to do something with it...but the thing you've done with it has not always been loving or helpful. In my case, my anger led me to sin against myself. In your case your anger has led you to sin against others. Both need a better solution.
Jesus shows us what that might look like in the passage from Mark. Jesus is in the synagogue and sees a man with a crippled hand. It is almost as if he has been set up...like the leaders of the synagogue went out to find someone in need of healing just to trap him. You see in Jewish law it was illegal to work on the Sabbath, and healing was considered work. They made exceptions if someone's life were in danger, but if the person could live through the Sabbath you weren't allowed to do anything more than maintenance for them.
So here's a man with a withered hand. Clearly he will live through the night...he had already lived through many miserable nights and days. It is just as clear that everyone knows by now that Jesus will have pity on the man and want to heal him...right there and then. So they watch to see if he will break the law. Jesus knows what they are thinking, and knowing what they are thinking is already making him mad. He calls the man forward and re-frames the question. He doesn't ask them if healing is defined as work. He doesn't ask them if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. As I've said before, Jesus is not only good and kind...he is brilliant. He can out-legalize the legalists and he can out-Bible the Scribes. He asks them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?"
It is perfect. He has put the question in such a way that there is no reasonable answer they can make. But they don't repent of their error even then. They still don't get it. They still don't understand that the law exists as their servant not as their master...the law is to help them love not to hinder them from loving actions. But nobody speaks up to say, "You know, he's right. Why on earth would God object to a loving act being performed on the Sabbath." They remain silent, and their silence makes Jesus even madder, and it makes his heart sick.
In this instance, Jesus is mad, and he channels that anger into the energy needed to heal the man with the withered hand. Then he simply leaves. His anger at the Scribes and Pharisees is larger than this one incident, and Jesus does other things to address it later on. But here, in the immediate moment, he turns his anger into a loving action.
I find that to be a really helpful example. When we feel angry, a lot of energy builds and we need to do something with it, and soon. The Ephesians passage tells us not to let the sun go down while we are still angry...what you don't get out will eat at you and will lead you either to sin against someone else or to harm yourself. Jesus shows us that we can take positive action when we are angry. A lot of people exercise or work at something physical but positive. Others do volunteer work and help someone less fortunate. I tend to go to a computer game, kill lots of demons and save the world from the evil forces of darkness...clearly I have a ways to go in anger management. But the point is to let the energy out in a way that does no harm and hopefully does good instead...to overcome the evil impulse to harm and destroy with the good impulse to heal and save.
So the good news is that there is a way to be angry but not sin. The bad news is that...like most things that really matter...it is not an easy way, nor is it a purely human way. From a merely human standpoint it makes perfect sense to turn around and smash or otherwise harm somebody who has made you mad...especially if the person is weaker than you are and you can get away with it. From a merely human perspective it is survival of the fittest and you eliminate the competition. Those are the rules of the dog-eat-dog world that we live in.
In the Kingdom of God, however, the rules are different. This is the rule where the way to be first is to volunteer to be last, and the way to lead others is by becoming their servant. This is the place where dying is the way to gain eternal life and where you only receive as much as you give away. It is the place where if someone makes you mad you turn the other cheek or simply leave if they intend you harm, and if you have enemies you pray for their well-being instead of blasting them into oblivion. This is the place where vengeance is left up to God and where we are called simply to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
Now, if you think that's easy...I have this bridge I'd like to sell you.. Living as Christ taught is incredibly hard, and I believe it is impossible without the help of both God and other Christians. So many times we think that the minute we decide to turn our lives over to God that we will be perfect Christians by the next morning. All our anger problems will be gone, we will be as patient as the day is long, will resist temptation in every form, and any bad habits will be eliminated.
I'm sorry to have to report that's not how it goes. When we turn our lives over to God, we do get the incredible benefit of the direct help of God in changing the destructive patterns of our lives. But the work of our spiritual formation and maturity is not all God's, or even mostly God's...it is mostly ours. Children are educated with the help of good teachers, but if they don't do the lion's share of the work themselves, they won't learn. It is the same with Christian life. People like Mother Teresa don't happen by magic or by some fluke of nature.
The people we look to as Christian role models got to be that way by experiencing the grace of God through spiritual disciplines across years and years. They, too, were impatient and unloving at the beginning. They had their own demons to wrestle into the ground and their own desert times to endure. But through it all they clung to God like a drowning child would cling to a lifeguard, and bit by bit...day by day, month by month, year by year, in sometimes almost imperceptible changes...they came to be more like Christ.
If you know the anger in your life leads you to sin...or if you are wrestling with any sort of sin for that matter, there is hope. You will have to do your share of the work, and you will have to want to change enough to go through the difficult process of transformation. But the place where we in the church have the advantage over a purely psychological approach is in the fact that we are a people who believe in the Resurrection.
We do not believe that God is either dead, uncaring, or uninvolved. We believe in the God who loved so much that God became one of us and endured death in order to raise all of us with him to life. This is a God who is capable of new and astonishing things...the God who can give life when it seems for all the world that the situation is dead and hopeless. This is the God who makes order out of chaos, puts flesh and blood on dry bones, and turns hot-headed fishermen into bold evangelists. In short, we worship a God who can do what we cannot do on our own, and who is more than willing to help us if we are willing to relinquish control of our lives.
If we say we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have agreed to the hard work of transformation...we have acknowledged that we want to become more like Christ. That's not a work of divine magic...it is a shared labor of love between us and God over the course of our lives. But as hard as the work might be, it is woven throughout with the joys of resurrection. If you are angry at everything or angry at nothing, you may need the help of a counselor as I did. But if you will cling to your faith, you will have additional help that others don't.
Whatever your struggle, trust in the God who unsealed the tomb. What everyone else might declare hopeless, God blows through with the breath of life. It can be different. It will be different. Death and despair do not have the last word...they are knocked from their high horses by the earth-shaking, grave-shattering laughter of the living God. Be angry, but do not sin.
Christ is risen...you can be too.
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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