Sinning Like a Christian: Anger

Mark 11:15-19

15 They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. 16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”  18 The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching. 19 When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city.

Ephesians 4:26-31

26 Be angry without sinning.  Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need. 29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.  30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.

I can only think of a few times in my life where I have been really angry.  One was when I was in middle school, and at a school dance, a friend of mine decided she was bored and started spreading some dumb rumor about me.  I got so angry that I went up to her and slapped her in the face.  Luckily, it didn’t escalate further than that.  She called her dad and went home.  Another time was when I was in seminary, and I was dating a not so nice guy (not Corey!).  After a very heated phone conversation, I hung up, and in anger, I threw my cell phone across the room.  Luckily, it survived!  The relationship, obviously, did not!  And the most recent time I was really angry was when a friend of mine watched our dog and our house while we were on vacation back in March, and as many of you remember, she stole some things from us and left the house in disarray.  It took me a long to time get over that, and to be honest, I’m still a little bitter about it.  But when I look at my life and the emotions I struggle with, anger usually doesn’t top the list.  Instead of getting angry, I tend to get sad, confused, and sometimes annoyed, depending on the situation.  But the times that I have gotten really angry and have acted out, such as resorting to physical violence or taking it out on my cell phone, I certainly felt that in that moment, I had lost a sense of my humanity.  After all, that’s what anger does.  It causes us to lose a sense of our humanity.  And that is why it is one of the 7 deadly sins, and one of the most dangerous at that.

And yet we read in the biblical narrative of Jesus that the first thing he does after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is that he goes into the temple, and in a fit of anger overthrows tables, calls synagogue officials thieves, and screams out to all who could hear that they have turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves instead of a house of prayer.  This is certainly not one of Jesus’ best moments…or is it?  In our favorite stories of Jesus, he is welcoming little children into his arms and considering the lilies (60).  But before Jesus is forgiving of us, the reality is that he gets angry.  And he’s especially angry with the religious leaders…the clergy…the religious people.  I guess we would all be in trouble.

Many scholars will tell that you that one of the main things that led Jesus to the cross was his actions in the temple, and that makes sense.  You can’t turn over tables in the temple of God in the ancient world and expect to get away unscathed.  Much of the bad that happens in the Bible is due to anger.  I am reminded of how in resentful anger, Cain killed Abel.  How Jonah, angry with God, refused the call to go to Nineveh and went in the opposite direction, only to get swallowed by the big fish.  When Jesus preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, the people became so enraged by his words that they tried to throw him off a cliff!  (60).  In the Hebrew scriptures, it is a constant dance between the anger and compassion of God and the Jewish people, yet God remains faithful.

Bishop Willimon once asked a police officer what causes him the greatest fear in his line of work.  The answer was anger (61).  The worst and most brutal crimes are the crimes of passion between people.  One person gets angry or jealous or out of control, and violence, harm, and even murder occurs.  Just this past week, there was yet another shooting on a college campus at Delta State University, where a professor shot his girlfriend and one of his colleagues before turning the gun on himself.  The latest news is that his motive was that his colleague did not offer him tenure, and out of his anger, tragedy resulted.  There is no argument that when anger takes over our lives, we lose our sense of humanity and the sense of humanity in others.  Anger blinds us to seeing another way out and distracts us from channeling our raw emotions into something helpful and valuable.  Anger, at its worst, brings out the most violent, most shameful parts of ourselves.

Yet, we can also argue that much of the greatest good in the world is achieved through anger.  Where would we be today if it were not for the anger of those who fought for civil rights, who struggled to overcome violence and oppression, who fought for the rights of women and minorities, and who spoke out in anger for our many freedoms?  Anger, while it can be deadly, is also a natural and necessary response to injustice.  It is an acknowledgment that this is not the world as it is meant to be, and it is not the world that God intended (66).  As Christians who should care about social justice, compassion, and equality, we should be angry at the state of the world today.  We should be able to express our anger with each other, in church, and through prayer, conversation, and then let it lead to healthy and well-intentioned action.  Anger, when it is fed through the proper channels, can be a powerful force for change in our world.  These days, I would say that most of my anger is directed toward the violence, injustice, intolerance, and prejudice in our world, but it’s up to me to do something about it instead of just sit on it and do nothing.

There are many people who think that Christians should not be allowed to get angry (64).  Many look at us and think that we are to be smiles and happiness all the time as we sing and fellowship together.  Really?!  If we are not angry about something, then I am worried for the state of the church.  The church should be a driving force in making change happen in this world.  There was a time that when the church got angry and spoke out against inequality and injustice in our communities, people paid attention.  Not so much anymore.  Maybe we are not angry enough at the state of things, and we need to look within and decide what, in fact, angers us the most, and then channel that anger into something productive and transformative.

Back in December of 2014, a group of over 200 students and faculty at Candler School of Theology participated in a “die-in” in response to the grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY.

candler die in

These students and faculty lay on the ground in a well-trafficked courtyard in peaceful protest.  Student body president, Sam White said, “We cannot study in a school of theology and continue to live and interact daily as if these lives do not matter.”  Moral Leadership professor, Robert Franklin, closed the protest by referencing a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. as he named the participants “transformational non-conformists.”  (http://candler.emory.edu/news/releases/2014/12/students-lead-protest.html)

Instead of acting violently out of anger, the students channeled it into a peaceful protest while making their anger known and voice heard.  This, in turn, started a dialogue about racial tension and violence in our country, and awareness and better understanding was the result.  People felt heard and valued in the midst of their anger and frustration with the state of things, rather than feeling the urge to act out irrationality or out of bitterness.  So maybe the problem or the sin isn’t our anger…but it’s what we do with it.

After all, anger is a powerful and motivating force.  And yet, “anger (if we are not careful) tends to drive us, not in prophetic zeal to right what’s wrong with us and the world, but rather even deeper into ourselves, in seething, simmering resentment.  Part of its sin is isolation.  We are right, the world is wrong.  We are the victims of injustice; the world is unjust” (67), and down the spiral we go.  Anger is one of the deadly sins because it isolates us and keeps us from having to be affected by the world around us.  It has the potential to keep us from having to change.  Some people cling to their anger because it’s all they know, and it is holding them hostage.  If they try to break free from it, they would be forced to be different.  They would be forced to face the world without the anger that they have held onto for so long, and what a different world that would look like.

When we find ourselves struggling with the kind of anger that isolates us, holds us hostage, makes us bitter, or at its worst, threatens to do harm to ourselves or someone else, we need to name it as a sin and give it over to God.  Our anger ought to be given over to God as an offering.  It is our confession that we have come to a place in our lives where we are unable to fix that which afflicts us (66).  We love and serve a God who can handle our anger, and even gets angry with us and for us.  We have a savior who turned over tables in the temple, whose anger is shown against us so that he might be decisively for us, who refuses to let our sin have the last word (73).  We have a savior whose anger led to a cross, where ultimately, forgiveness holds the victory.

A story is told about a woman in Belfast, Ireland, who is a hard-working and devout Christian, whose husband was tragically murdered over a decade ago.  She kissed him on the cheek as he left the house for work that morning, and as he got into his car in front of their house, two men got out and one shot him five times in the face.  The other man shot at the woman and her daughter, but the bullets only shattered the door.  The two men sped off, leaving her husband there to die.  Her husband was a superintendent of a local jail, which made him a target of anger and violence (71).

When this woman was asked how she is not angry with these men or her husband’s murder, she tells of how, as she stood over her husband’s bloody body, she began saying the Lord’s prayer.  She got as far as “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others…”  She then prayed to God that she might begin to forgive these people who killed her husband, but she also prayed a different prayer.  She prayed that God would help her every day not to be destroyed by anger.  Every day.  Her choice was to give her anger over to God and let God be angry with them, or punish them, or forgive them, or whatever God chose to do.  But she chose to forgive. She chose not to let anger take over her life.  How many of us would be able to do as much?

So let us give our sin of misdirected and resentful anger over to God, because since “God in Christ gets angry with us and the world, we don’t have to.  We can go on, delivered of the horribly dangerous, terribly self-destructive sin of anger” (72).  And when we find ourselves angry with the state of the world, may we seek guidance on how to use that anger for good and not for harm, to channel it into means of justice and mercy, and to show that yes, even Christians get angry from time to time, but at least we do something right and holy about it.  And may we continue to hear the good news: that even in a world where the sin of anger leads to bitterness and violence and threatens to cut us off from the goodness in the world, we turn to a God who can handle our anger, who is willing to take it on, and who loves us enough to be angry with us, for us, and who delivers us from it, if only we are willing.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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