A sermon preached on August 9th, 2009 based upon Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 and entitled “Love, Truth Telling, and Anger.”
So then, putting away falsehood,
let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors,
for we are members of one another.
26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27
and do not make room for the devil.
8Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 2
9Let 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. 30
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
As you’ve heard me say various times before, I believe that life is ultimately about love. I generally say something to this effect at funerals, because death has a way of bringing this truth front and center; love is the only thing that is eternal; every thing else fades away. At the center of the message of Jesus is love: that God is love, that loving God and neighbor is the heart of the law, that this love includes our “enemies” and a limitless forgiveness.
The words of Paul this morning echo this fundamental message: “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another… Live in love, as Christ loved us.”
In our heart of hearts I believe that we all know that this is what our life is intended to be about. And yet, the reality of our lives often includes a great deal that is in opposition to love; much that distracts us from living the life that is our deepest desire.
In our family lives, with the people we would most readily say we love, we often find ourselves enmeshed in battles over who gets their way, old resentments and grudges about past wrongs endured, and the keeping of mental tally sheets regarding who has done more for the other,
If we search our hearts, most of us would have to acknowledge the presence of our own “enemies list;” people we avoid, the thought of which causes bitter thoughts and feelings. Many of these “enemies” are people we once thought of as someone we loved.
And oftentimes we operate in this world with a constant suspicion and mistrust of strangers that blocks our capacity to act lovingly towards the persons we happen to encounter in the course of our lives.
So, in the face of all this, how do we move from toward that ideal of a kind, tender-hearted, forgiving life, for which our lives are intended?
The words from Paul this morning help us reflect upon this question. He offers a helpful image when it comes to thinking about our communal life: We are, he says, one body. Paul uses this image typically to speak of the church, but I think it is helpful to think of all our social networks as bodies: marriages and families; people who work together, indeed, the entire human race. God made every human being. Jesus died for every human being. We are all connected at a depth we routinely don’t recognize.
In our physical bodies, sickness involves dissension: certain cells become infectious or cancerous, working against the rest of the cells in the body. Certain body parts or systems fail to carry out the function for which they are designed, throwing off the health and harmony of the whole. The overall vitality, indeed, the life itself of the body is threatened by the divisions within.
In our social networks, love is what you have when the cells and parts of the Body are in harmony. Wondrous things happen. Lives are healed, problems solved, society transformed — miraculous stuff really.
When, on the other hand, there are cancerous divisions in these bodies, the capacities of these networks are dramatically impeded.
In the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives very specific instructions in regards to dealing with such divisions. When one person feels wronged by another, the wronged person needs to go and point out the wrong to the offender. If this doesn’t work, a couple of others within the church are brought in to arbitrate. If that doesn’t do the trick, bring the dispute before the whole church to get worked out. Our reaction to all of this might be, why go to all the bother overly one measly little conflict? But the implication is that unaddressed conflict and disharmony undermines the health and power of the whole body, and therefore must be addressed early on. We may not grasp the emphasis Jesus put on this because we are so accustomed to living in social networks torn apart by dissension that we don’t realize the power of what we’re missing.
The health of the body requires truth telling: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Most of us feel uneasy about committing out-and-out lies, but we routinely tell one another half-truths, justifying our half-lies on the grounds that it makes things go more smoothly in the short term. But habits of half-truths undermine the long term health and vitality of the body.
By half truths I’m including the deceptions we perpetrate about our motives. Usually we have multiple motivations that come into play in our interactions with others. Do we keep silent about our self-serving motivation, thereby perpetrating a deception regarding where we are coming from? (Notice that it is not self-serving motivation per se that is the problem, but the deceit that pretends it isn’t there.)
If we are indeed one body, then when I speak a half truth to another I am in fact lying to myself, and when I speak a half-truth to myself (deceiving myself about my motivations), I am in fact lying to those I am connected to in the Body.
As far as possible, strive not to misrepresent yourself. Don’t pretend to be either more than you are, or less than you are.
And try not to deny that you are angry when in fact there is anger within you.
Anger is a big deal, with a tremendous potential for getting in the way of love, but it doesn’t have to. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 7and do not make room for the devil.”
It is important to notice that Paul isn’t telling us we shouldn’t feel anger, which is a good thing, since feeling angry is a part of being a human being in this world. Anger itself isn’t evil; it’s what we do with our anger that gets us into trouble.
There are two ways that anger can “make room for the devil.”
The first is to lash out destructively in our anger.
When we express our anger without any self-reflection, there is usually some degree of self-deception involved. There are a number of questions to ask oneself, including:
*Who, exactly, am I angry with? Is it the person I’m lashing out against, or a whole host of others who wounded me previously, both recently and long since past, and is this person I want to lash out against the sucker who is paying the price? Is it this person or a system that we are trapped in together?
*Was the person intentionally seeking to harm me, or were they acting out of their own personal fog?
*Does this hurtful action define in my mind the essence of this other person, or is it simply a part of who they are? (When we lash out, we lose this distinction.)
*Was there something I did that the person was responding to, of which I wasn’t aware and need to become aware?
*To what extent is my ego caught up in my sense of offense, and if so, could it be that my ego’s deflation isn’t such a bad thing?
*When I speak, are my words constructive rather than destructive? Am I helping to provide insight to what is happening between us, or am I simply putting forth a counter assault that will give me some momentary gratification but ultimately simply tear down the Body?
Looking over this list I find myself feeling pretty intimidated. Who has this kind of insight?! I remember the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Do we ever really know for sure why either we or others do the things we do?
Consequently, it’s easy to understand the second way that anger has the potential to “make room for the devil”, which is to simply refuse to deal with it. Unacknowledged, our anger works subversively in our hearts and relationships. We pretend we’re not angry when we in fact are, and the buried anger sabotages our personal vitality and the contribution we can make to the Body.
Or maybe we know we’re angry, but feel at such a loss with what to do with it, so it just sits there, poisoning our relationships. We begin to avoid the person with whom we’re angry, as well as situations that resemble the one in which the anger arose. Our world gets smaller. Maybe we end up exploding, acting with a cruelty the roots of which can be hard to trace back.
In the Bible people are often described as having “hard hearts”; buried anger creates a hardness of heart from which it can often be very difficult to free ourselves.
In every broken marriage there is a history of anger poorly dealt with, with toxic combinations of alternately lashing out and then burying this unavoidable energy. In every dying church you will find the same.
Following Jesus involves seeking out a third way between lashing out and burying the anger. Generally speaking, it helps to slow ourselves down. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” implies that we aren’t in such a hurry that we can’t take some time to reflect upon our anger as it arises, and deliberately choose how we will express it. Hurried people tend to be people stuck in anger.
But dealing with anger is hard; no getting around it. We will fail, and fail often, in our attempt to find the third way. So it’s a good thing the grace of God is present to help us when we screw up.
To be human is to experience anger, and if we are going to reach deeper intimacy in all the different sorts of love relationships that make up the Body, then there needs to be a trust that over time anger can indeed be worked through. Without this trust, people will, consciously or unconsciously keep their distance from one another lest they trigger anger.
And conversely, often times the people we feel safest with in this world are people we have fought with, hanging in their long enough with one another to realize that the anger did not destroy our relationship; instead it became the impetus to come to a better understanding of one another. The love became stronger, lest compromised by fear. The Body becomes powerful, a witness to others of the possibilities that open up to us when we are all flowing together in the Spirit.