Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Remember the news story about the Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater? In an argument with a passenger he got on the airplane’s speaker system and berated the passenger with a series of curses and insults. Then when the plane landed, he ceremoniously opened a beer, activated the emergency exit slide, slid down, and walked away from it all. That was the big story for about a week! The reason why that story was so popular, I believe, was that it addressed a collective fantasy. We all would enjoy confronting someone who has wronged us in such a dramatic way, and then walk away from them into the sunset triumphantly. We know that is an improper way to address anger, but that story sure held everyone’s attention for several days.
Continuing in the list not mentioned in Scripture but in several forms throughout Christian history- the list that Pope Gregory the Great compiled, the list of seven deadly sins, we find ourselves confronting anger today. Anger is a tremendously powerful and often destructive emotion. Anger is a natural part of being human. We were made in God’s image, and the emotion anger was given as part of our humanity. There are different types of anger and different levels of anger, and different ways that anger can be expressed.
Sometimes anger can be constructive. The great German reformer, Martin Luther, wrote: “I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; for when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all Monday vexations and temptations depart.” The American author, Mary Gordon, wrote: “Anger is electric, exhilarating. The angry person knows without a doubt he is alive. The state of unaliveness, or partial aliveness, is so frequent and so frightening, the condition of inertia common, almost, as dirt, that there’s no wonder anger feels like a treasure. It goes through the body like a jet of freezing water; it fills the veins of purpose; it alerts the lazy eye and ear; the sluggish limbs cry out for movement; the torpid lungs grow rich with easy breath. Anger flows through our entire body, stem to stern.”
Anger does flow through the body literally. There are physical manifestations of anger. James Hefley writes about anger symptoms: “The obvious symptoms of sudden anger are often red face, swollen neck veins, clenched fists, and a stumbling for words. The angry person’s vision may also be blurred, because anger clouds the visual centers of the brain. Dr. Walter Cannon, pioneer researcher in psychosomatic medicine at Harvard University, describes the symptoms more precisely: “Respiration deepens; the heart beats more rapidly; the arterial pressure rises; the blood is shifted from the stomach and intestines to the heart, central nervous system, and the muscles; the processes of the alimentary canal cease; sugar is freed from the reserves in the liver; the spleen contracts and discharges its contents of concentrated corpuscles, and adrenalin is secreted.”
We all know that feeling – whether it’s hearing someone say something that we disagree with on the news, seeing a reckless driver almost careen into us, or hearing reports of injustice in the world, we feel our stomach turn, our fists clench, and our eyebrows tighten. We’re angry. Hopefully we won’t say something we might regret, or bury the anger deep down. Hopefully we can deal with it in a healthy way. Part of my sermon research was to watch the History Channel’s episode about Anger in its Seven Deadly Sins series. Rabbi David Wolfe of Sinai Temple said, “Anger is like a boiling teakettle; when it overflows you have no idea who will get burned or where it will go.” Solomon wrote in Proverbs 25 that if you cannot control your anger, you are helpless as a city without walls, open to attack. Aristotle was right when he said that anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
There are many Old Testament passages that speak of the just anger of God against the wicked and even against his own people when they persist in disobedience. Jesus was angry on several occasions, in Matthew 21 and Mark 3. We might call this “righteous anger,” which is also mentioned in Psalms 4:4, “In your anger do not sin.” Moses was angry at the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt. Elijah was angry at the prophets of Baal and the idolatry which they practiced in Israel. John the Baptist was angry at the distortion of religion by the Jewish leaders. Paul was angry at those who wanted to confine the gospel to the Jews. Martin Luther was angry at the corruption in the established church. John Wesley was angry at the practice of religion in the Church of England. Sometimes anger needs to be directed at problems of the day.
If we are angry, we must step back and reflect upon why we are angry in the first place, because it is easy to react when we are angry, and if we react with a harsh word or action, or even violence, we have let anger get a foothold upon us, as Paul warned not to let happen. Psalm 4:4 states that when we get angry, we need to stretch out and consider what is happening. To me the Psalm almost has the connotation of resting to consider the anger. Whatever caused the anger needs to be identified, whether it is a circumstance, a relationship issue with others, or whatever it might be. I have heard some people suggest counting to ten, but even more powerful than that is prayer. Try praying the Lord’s Prayer the next time you are angry and see what it does with your anger.
This focusing upon God in the midst of anger is one of the lessons from the book of Jonah. We all know the story. Jonah chapter 4 is a parable about anger. Jonah is sitting on a hilltop being angry at God. We know that Jonah is a parable to provoke the nation of Israel in fulfilling God’s calling to take his message of grace to the Gentile world. First Jonah runs away from the calling. He tries to escape by ship and is thrown overboard and ends up in the belly of a whale. After being cast upon the shore he submits to God’s call and preaches to the people of Nineveh, pronouncing God’s judgment upon them unless they repent. Surprisingly, the whole city repents. Jonah is not very happy though, and he sits on a hill wishing God would destroy the city. Jonah sits under a shady plant, but becomes even angrier when the plant shrivels and withers. God keeps asking him if he has a right to be angry. Jonah becomes upset because a shade plant withered and died, and God’s magnificent compassion is contrasted with Jonah’s anger over the plant. God asks us the question, “Do you have a right to be angry?”
It is easy to confuse righteous indignation with selfishness, isn’t it? It is very difficult to try to look at yourself and the person you are angry with from the point-of-view of God. Recognize your worth and the worth of the person whom you are opposing. Recognize the fact of forgiveness — the fact of your own forgiveness and the imperative that lays on you to extend forgiveness to others. Jonah’s angry reaction is a mirror of our petty and embarrassing failures to fulfill our callings to share God’s message of grace with others in our lives. There is a wideness of the abundance of God’s love for others that we fail to recognize. God is always more loving and gracious than we can ever imagine. Theologian Leslie Allen wrote that “a Jonah lurks in every Christian heart, whispering his insidious message of smug prejudice, empty traditionalism, and exclusive solidarity.” Jonah’s anger is a sign of his immaturity. His anger at God was a sign of his unwillingness to trust the love and graciousness of the gods he worshiped and preached.
We need to find ways to vent our anger in a healthy way. So many people have buried angry feelings deep down- grudges, hurts, resentments can fester below the surface for years. We can spend much of our lives harboring anger over what someone did to us, over a harsh word that was spoken to us or over an attitude or action that we felt. I have friends who like to play tennis as a way to release anger. Another friend enjoyed hammering at a Habitat for Humanity house. He came to the work site pent up and angry. He hammered all day, and at the end of the day, he was uplifted, his face was bright, he felt like a new person. He said it was the best therapy he’s ever had, and I told him that there were many more houses to build. Some people like to talk to a friend or counselor. Some people are able to talk directly to the person who offended them – that is the best way to vent anger – to forgive the other person.
If we have found the forgiveness of God, we should be willing to forgive others. Our unwillingness to forgive others may mean that we have not really experienced God’s forgiveness. We could possibly close the door of our own forgiveness and never fully realize our freedom in Christ by harboring an unforgiving spirit. Once Corrie Ten Boom was told by a fellow prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, “If you’re going to survive here, you’ve got to learn to hate.” Corrie responded by saying, “Hate can be a worse prison than this.” She was right. Hostilities and resentments can imprison us worse than anything we can imagine. The good news of the gospel is that God forgives us, and we can find the power to forgive others. Since we have been forgiven, we are able to forgive others. That can bring a real relief from anger. It is always helpful to get that anger off of the heart, and to let it out in some way that is not destructive.
We need to look at the example of Jesus and how he controlled his anger. When he entered the temple to worship, and saw what the money changers were doing in the temple, his anger was kindled. This is not just a personal selfish, momentary concern. Jesus was very upset by the exploitation that he witnessed. He did not agree with the desecration of the temple and the abuse of the poor. His anger was clearly directed at hypocritical religion, the exploitation of the poor and widows, and the failing to care for the hungry and needy. In the same way, we should be angry at the poverty, disease, hunger, sexual abuse, racism, and any crime that we witness or hear about. We should want to change these things and should fight them. That is why we sang the hymn today, “Fight the Good Fight.” It contains such words of hope and courage: “Fight the good fight with all thy might. Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right. Lay hold on life and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally.”
We should have an anger that expresses love and genuine concern for the powerless. We cannot be silent because we have a responsibility to help transform the world. We are supposed to be salt and light in the darkness. As the theologian E. Stanley Jones prayed, “O Christ of the whip and the flashing eye, give us an inward hurt at the wrong done to others, but save us from personal resentments, lest they destroy us. Amen.”
When Paul wrote, do not let the sun go down on your anger, he was looking to an Old Testament tradition that required some things to be settled by sunset. For instance, if you were holding someone’s coat as collateral for a business deal, and the sun was about to go down, you would need to give it back to the man so he wouldn’t be cold. Or, if you have hired someone to work in your fields and they have been working all day, it would also be the right thing to do to pay the worker before the sun went down so there would be money for the man to buy food for the family. Paul was warning about how anger can turn into resentment and evolve into hatred. How many times have we been so mad at something, or someone, and after going to bed angry, we wake up even madder than when we went to sleep? Paul wrote that this kind of anger gives the devil a foothold – it lets evil simmer and boil over in our hearts. If you are angry at someone, resolve it now, before the sun goes down!
My prayer is that, when we become angry — and we will — that we will reflect before we act, and be able to express it in a righteous way. And even if the anger is at a great and genuine wrong, we will be given the eyes Jesus had to see what we must in conscience, oppose, or who we need to forgive.