A sermon preached on August 8th, 2015 based upon Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2.
We live in, it seems, a particularly angry time. Anger is everywhere you look. Partly I think that this is because of the pace of life: it’s faster than it ever was, and when our lives are hurried there are more opportunities to experience anger, and less opportunity to constructively deal with that anger. And so a hurried life has a way of amplifying the anger that is a part of life.
But there also seems to be a lot of anger at this particular point in time in American history, because what we call “the American dream” can seem harder to attain, let alone clearly define. We might say that the American dream is to have a higher standard of living than our parents had, and that certainly is happening less and less these days, and yet we also know that the American dream at its best isn’t just about having a bigger piece of the pie, that it has something to do with a quality of community that we long to be a part of, where people look out for one another, and somehow that sense of community seems more and more elusive as well.
The polltakers tell us that since 1971 a majority of us say “no” when asked if we think the country is headed in the right direction. Most of us are confused about what needs to happen for us to head in the right direction.
We are frustrated, and the frustration generates a great deal of anger.
Which, I think, explains the appeal of Donald Trump. He seems to embody anger. He routinely lashes out with take-no-hostages diatribes, belittling people with whom he disagrees, afterward seeming altogether untroubled by regret. He just keeps throwing the verbal grenades.
So frustrated, angry people look at Trump and they hear their anger being verbalized, and seemingly legitimized, and not only that, he suggests that the problems we face as a country are not particularly complicated. If we elect him, he promises he’ll quickly straighten the mess out. It’s just our stupid leaders, it just those illegal aliens, who are robbing us of the American dream.
He prides himself for being a truth teller, but he is just as deceitful, if not more so, than most of the other politicians running for president.
His stick finds a following in a frustrated, fed up, angry nation.
But those of us who are Christian aren’t allowed to indulge in either Trump’s unbridled anger, nor his simplistic explanations for what’s gone wrong. Put away falsehood, the Apostle Paul says, speak the truth to one another in love.
Why? Because we really are connected to one another on a very deep level. In the first chapters of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul celebrates the fact that Christ has made us one, and he doesn’t mean just those of us who make up the church. He means everybody: Christ has torn down the dividing walls that separated Jew from Gentile. Christ has made the whole human race one, and now it’s our calling to live out that reality. Speak truth, not with clever sound bites that gratify our unrighteous indignation that extends the hostility, but with love that builds up.
And so Paul says “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
Now I don’t mind admitting, I’m not very comfortable with anger — either my own, or anybody else’s. But then again, other than Donald Trump, I’m not sure I know anybody who is. (And since Trump feels compelled to send out angry tweets in the middle of the night when he should be sleeping, maybe he’s not so comfortable with anger either!)
Anger scares us, and many of us, if we can find a way to avoid dealing with anger, we will. And our Christian identity has a tendency to encourage this avoidance. We aspire to be loving people, not angry people. Our mothers told us, if we can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. And it can seem hard to figure out how “nice” and “angry” go together.
But Paul says, go ahead and be angry.
He says this because experiencing anger is a part of being human. Jesus was fully human, and Jesus got angry.
We could say, yes, but he got angry at injustice, and that is true. But he also got angry with his disciples when they couldn’t catch on to what he was telling them.
For the most part, anger isn’t something we choose; it is an emotion that rises up within us without our control. It is something we feel, rather than something we do.
We have choices to make regarding how we will respond to the feeling of anger. And it is with these choices that sin can enter.
So what are the choices? Well, we can lash out. In the moment, this may be the most emotionally gratifying choice, because while we’re lashing out we feel powerful. But afterwards there is inevitably regret, because in lashing out we are not likely to choose our words well. We will do like Trump and attack the personhood of the one with whom we are angry rather than focusing on the particular actions that provoked us to feel angry.
Nor will we get the response we’re looking for. The people we lash out at will respond by raising their defenses, and making counter attacks, and a battle will be off and running that shuts out the possibility that truth is pursued. The other person will conclude that the problem is all ours, and that it isn’t safe to be around us. The relationship will be damaged, sometimes irreparably.
In other words, we will have let our anger be the occasion for sin, wreaking further havoc in this world.
Another choice is to try and ignore the anger that rises up inside us — pretend it isn’t there. We don’t retaliate in any overt manner. But we withhold ourselves — our love — from the other. We might justify what we are doing by saying we’re turning the other cheek like a good Christian should, but that’s really a lie. We’re letting the sun go down on our anger, allowing it to take root inside us as bitterness.
Maybe one day somebody catches us with our guard down and does something that sets us off, and we find ourselves raging in a manner altogether out of proportion to the action in the moment that made us as angry, and we end up burning a bridge.
Or maybe the anger gets expressed somewhere altogether other than in the relationship in which it arose. You can be sure that the road rage that overtakes people isn’t really about somebody cutting them off. It’s about some toxic rage they’ve carried around with them, buried deep inside, and the offending party just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or maybe the anger never comes out, and instead it turns inward, like a cancer, poisoning our spirits, leading to depression. Anger turned inward — that’s one of the ways the psychologists talk about the roots of depression. It saps our vitality and our joy.
It can kill precious relationships. “What’s wrong?” asks the other. “Nothing,” we lie. The relationship withers away. My parents’ marriage died this way. I never heard them fight. They just froze each other out.
Whether by lashing out or by withdrawing, pretty much any marriage that has ended in divorce has fallen apart over anger handled poorly.
So, what might it look like to be angry without sinning?
Anger overcomes us, and we take a step back, take deep breath, pray, and ask, “What just happened here? What was is it that got me so angry?”
There are instances where what we will see is that our anger was out of proportion to what happened. Perhaps our ego took a hit, but no real harm was done, and we simply need to lighten up.
Maybe we can recognize that for whatever reason, at the moment of the interaction we were feeling fragile, and that an action that otherwise would have seemed like nothing — a reason maybe for a shared laugh — struck us as having a malice than in fact wasn’t there.
Perhaps we can recognize that the anger that arose within us had its roots elsewhere in an altogether different time and place, in unkindness or cruelty committed by others, and something about the present interaction had the effect of transporting us back to the pain of those old wounds.
Sometimes it is important to recognize that there is hurt beneath the anger — that in some sense the anger that arises within us is a cover for the hurt. It can seem easier at times to get angry than to go to the vulnerable place where we acknowledge that we, in fact, have had our feelings hurt — that our desire to be loved and share love was thwarted — and it’s painful.
If the person who hurt us is someone we otherwise care about, then it can be far more effective to open-heartedly name the hurt, rather than to lash out in anger. When we do this, the defenses are a lot less likely to go up in the other person, making it possible to examine the truth of what has transpired between us.
One way or another, it is helpful to come to a decision. The positive aspect of anger is that anger provides energy to act.
The action we might decide to take is to consciously let go of the desire for retribution. To lighten up. To forgive. To remember the big picture. What matters is that we consciously make this choice.
At other times the action to be chosen will be to speak the truth as we see it, but to speak it in love, communicating that we value our relationship with the other person. In the words we choose we refrain from assaulting the other with wholesale condemnations, and focusing instead on particular actions or patterns or policies or whatever that have hurt us or people we care about.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths,” says Paul, “but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
One of the assumptions here is that the Holy Spirit is at work both in our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we get angry. The Holy Spirit is trying to lead all of us to a place where love prevails, to a place of tenderheartedness. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” Paul says, which means don’t interact with the people in a way that thwarts what the Holy Spirit is trying to do and encourages them to harden their hearts.
Sometimes some well chosen words when anger arises that speak the truth in love can provide the Holy Spirit the occasion to soften the other person’s heart. They get some honest feedback on how their actions are impacting other people that they may never get, because in the past all they experienced was people either lashing out or withdrawing from them.
It is a hard habit to develop, but Jesus told us to pray for those who harm us. In so praying, clarity may come to us as to how to deal with the anger we are feeling towards them.
Now everything thing I have said here — all the advice I’ve given — was said first off to me, because, as I said, I don’t deal with anger very well. I’m speaking from own failures.
We stumble together into the arms of grace, and God says to us after every failure, “Try again.” And as we keep trying, some of God’s grace seeps through, and over time, in some, far from perfect way, people catch a glimpse of the merciful God who has made us all one, and keeps on seeking us out every time we deny the reality of that oneness, calling us back home.