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The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger

 

Ephesians 4:25-32       Exodus 23:1-9      Matthew 5:21-24; 43-48

 

[1]      What must it have been like, that day in the temple, when Jesus braided a whip (it would have taken him 10 or 15 minutes to braid the whip; plainly his violence was premeditated; we can’t pretend anything else), while his eyes flashed fire and his voice skinned people as he kicked over tables and scattered money?  What must it have been like to see our Lord enraged?

 

What’s more, Jesus was angry not once but many times.  He was livid whenever he saw religious hucksters fleecing defenceless people; livid again whenever he came upon church leaders who caused followers to stumble; livid once more whenever he ran into hard-hearted people who cared not a whit about the suffering of those who had suffered for years.

In view of the fact that Jesus was angry on so many occasions I am surprised that the church has customarily assumed that anger of any sort is sinful. In view of the church’s distortion of what it means to follow Jesus I am no longer surprised at the apathy that surrounds us everywhere in our society; no longer surprised that even the worst apathy — the kind that invites victimization — is now paraded as a virtue.  I have never doubted that our Lord turned water into wine; I am just as certain that the church regularly turns wine into water, not least where it fails to grasp the nature of our Lord’s anger and thereby fosters the pseudo-virtue of apathy.

At the same time, angry as our Lord is on many occasions he will yet die for the very people who have enraged him.         We must always remember this and take it to heart concerning our own anger. Our Lord’s anger at people never inhibits his love for them.  He will give up his life — gladly give it up — for the same people who have infuriated him. Having been angry with them (rightly angry with them), he yet never disdains them, doesn’t ignore them, doesn’t dismiss them, doesn’t write them off as lesser creatures not worth his time and attention and energy. The people who have made him boil he will yet love with his last breath.

From our Lord’s example it is plain that apathy is inexcusable in any Christian. It is plain, according to scripture, that Christians are commanded to be angry when situations call for anger. “Be angry”, the apostle Paul tells his readers.  “Be angry”, he insists, “but do not sin.”  We are to be angry even as we are not to sin in our anger.         Plainly anger can curdle into sin.  Then when is anger sin?

 

[2]         Anger is sin whenever anger gives way to revenge.  Revenge impels us toward bloodletting.  Revenge pursues retaliation.  (Our Lord’s anger, we should note, never issued in retaliation.)

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president of the USA a journalist asked him why he and his brothers “boiled over” so very infrequently. “We Kennedys don’t get angry”, replied JFK coolly, “we get even”.

Before we think the Kennedys vicious and ourselves virtuous we must understand that anyone at all can begin virtuously and end viciously. The pattern is plain. We are brought into the orbit of something that leaves us justifiably angry.  But if we are not spiritually alert, our anger at injustice becomes the occasion of temptation to revenge.  Now our anger at injustice has perverted itself into enjoyment at the prospect of revenge. We begin to nurse our anger, feed off it, rationalize the twist with which we have twisted it. The result is that anger becomes our settled disposition; anger becomes our characteristic mood, the colour of our blood, the core of our personality.

There are always telltale signs when people have fallen into carefully nursed anger (now sin) that has also become their characteristic mood. The first sign is that they imagine slights where there is none.  They speak of themselves as “sensitive”. But in fact they aren’t sensitive at all; they are merely “touchy”. Genuinely sensitive people, like Jesus, are moved at injustice, injustice that principally victimizes others. Touchy people, on the other hand, can think only of themselves.  Sensitive people forget themselves in their outrage at manifest injustice. Touchy people focus on themselves in their never-ending narcissism.

Another sign of anger that has curdled into revenge and therefore denatured into sin is over-reaction.  “Did you hear that?” someone now fumes, “I have been treated shabbily.” To be sure, an offence has occurred; but it was relatively slight.  A rowboat, rowed by someone who may be malicious but as often as not is merely inept, bumped into us.         We now launch an aircraft carrier.  We were pricked with a safety pin?  Out comes our 12-foot spear, replete with poison tip.  When word goes through a staff or a board or a committee that Mrs. “X” has a short fuse (and therefore all present are made to feel that they must step carefully), the most obvious feature of Mrs. “Short-fuse X” isn’t that she explodes quickly; it’s that she explodes over trifles, trifles that affect her.  Before long she is also telling everyone that whatever it is that has made her angry was done deliberately simply to “get” her, as all of life is now interpreted to be endless conspiracy.

When anger passes from obedience to the command of God to fodder for the evil one, when anger becomes our settled disposition, we display the destructive urge that psychoanalysts say lurks ever so deep in us.         Psychoanalysts comment a great deal on humankind’s deep-seated urge to destroy, which urge unconsciously finds satisfaction wherever it can. Before psychoanalysis noticed it scripture insisted on it and even illustrated it. We moderns try to deny it, telling ourselves that we have progressed beyond all of this. But of course no cultural sophistication, however rich, overturns anything pertaining to the Fall.

I find movies entertaining twice over.  The movie itself is entertaining, and the response of the movie-watchers in the theatre is also entertaining.  In the course of one entertaining movie-night I saw on the screen a young man playing an electric guitar.  The amplifier cut out on him.  No sound now. He fiddled with the dials on the amplifier for a while, becoming increasingly enraged. Finally he grabbed the guitar by the neck, swung it like an axe, and smashed both guitar and amplifier in a fit of destructive fury.  At this point the movie-watching audience laughed, laughed uproariously, as though something enormously funny had occurred.

Psychoanalysts maintain that one reason for laughter is this: what we are found laughing at points to something deep inside us whose subject-matter we cannot discuss or admit in polite company.  Laughter is the smokescreen behind which we can bring out what is ever so deep in us yet which is not normally socially acceptable, not customarily aired in polite company.  This is why we laugh at off-colour jokes, laugh at racist jokes, and laugh at exhibitions of destructive rage.  The anger-fuelled urge to destroy courses deep inside fallen humankind. Expressing it isn’t socially acceptable. Therefore socially acceptable vehicles are sought that will allow it to emerge.  Humour is such a vehicle.

Once anger has moved from a right response at injustice to a settled disposition we wish to nourish inasmuch as it feeds us; once this has occurred anger quickly turns into hatred.

Years ago when I naively (and non-biblically) had vastly more confidence in the political enterprise to transmute the human situation, I became disillusioned with both the political right and the political left. My disillusionment with the political right came first, and I fled to the left.  From the political left I heard a high-flown vocabulary about concern for the poor and solidarity with the disadvantaged.  But I didn’t find much concern for the poor, certainly no willingness to make any sacrifice for the poor.  I found enormous anger at the rich born of envy of the rich.  I have yet to meet a socialist who isn’t a closet capitalist.  I have met many who maintained in one breath that they were committed socialists and who complained in the next breath that their investment portfolio wasn’t performing as well as expected.  Anger as a settled disposition, residual rage bent on revenge, will invariably turn us into people whose apparent quest for righteousness is merely the disguise that hatred wears.

 

[3]         Then how do we leave the very pit of hell where settled anger smoulders all but inextinguishably?  We leave it only by looking up, looking up at the One who is light and love and life. As we look to him who is light, love, life and therefore truth we must allow his truth to x-ray us ruthlessly.

(i)         First we must allow ourselves to be interrogated as to the command of God never to seek revenge.  Have we really heard the command of God?  Do we intend to obey him? Do we know that the Hebrew word (and the Greek word too) for obedience has the grammatical form of intensified hearing?  (In other words, if we don’t obey then we have never profoundly heard, regardless of what we say we have heard.)  Revenge is always forbidden God’s people.         “Never avenge yourselves” God insists; “vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.”  We are not to finesse the matter of revenge at all.  (By “finesse” I mean exact revenge, thereby satisfying ourselves, all of this done with as much stealth and sophistication as needed to keep us appearing anything but vindictive.)  We are instead to leave the entire matter with God.

There is a crucial point we must understand this morning.  When God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”, he does not mean that we can forget about exacting revenge because he is going to exact it for us, and exact it more painfully than we ever could ourselves. We are not to leave vengeance to him on the understanding that he is infinitely vengeful — as if he had a heart as depraved as ours.

For years I watched Bobby Clarke, the most talented hockey player with the Philadelphia Flyers, use his stick to cut down and cut up opposing players as though his stick were a scythe.  Opponents, needless to say, reacted with heavy stickwork of their own. At this point Clarke always acted as if he had been treated unfairly, as if he were the victim of a “first-strike” policy implemented by the opposing team.  With his posture of victimization Clarke let it be known that revenge was now in order. But Clarke never tried to avenge himself.  He let two goons do it for him: Dave “The Hammer” Schultz and Bob “Mad Dog” Kelly. Clarke could safely leave revenge to his two team-mates since they could exact it much more thoroughly.

This is not what is going on when God says, “Don’t you avenge yourselves; leave it with me.” We must never think that God can be counted on to act on our behalf in a manner commensurate with our depravity.  God’s command to us means something entirely different; namely, the whole matter of revenge we should simply forget.         The jab, the insult, the offence that has brought out our lurking revenge we should lay before God and leave there.         We aren’t trusting God to exact revenge on our behalf; rather, we are trusting God to work his unique work for good in an evil situation which has so enraged us that we passed the bounds of rationality days ago and are incapable of any objectivity concerning it.  We are trusting God to do something positive, something good, something restorative with a situation that we, in our upset, cannot assess accurately, and in our anger can only make worse.  We are forswearing vengeance not in order to allow God to exact it for us and exact it more painfully than we ever could; we are forswearing it because we now know that what we are bent on he isn’t.  Where we can only add to the world’s distress (even as we acquit ourselves self-righteously for doing so), he can uniquely relieve the world’s distress. Therefore we are to leave vengeance with him.  Note: we are not to leave vengeance to him; we are to leave our vengeance with him; that is, lay it before him and walk away from it ourselves.

Our first responsibility is to hear the command of God; really hear it; that is, obey him.

(ii)         Our second responsibility is to admit that our heart is every bit as depraved as the heart of the person who has offended us.  Therefore we too need deliverance from perverted passion.  We don’t need timely suggestions, sound advice, a model to imitate; we don’t need these chiefly.  We need deliverance.

While we may be either annoyed or mystified by the people who use “born again” language we must admit nonetheless that the promise of a fresh start in life, an ever-renewed new beginning; this is what the gospel is finally about. While many people suspect any talk of Christian experience as exhibitionistic and therefore fraudulent, our foreparents in faith were unashamed to speak unselfconsciously of what their hearts had come to know and cherish. We must never belittle the private necessity, the public significance, and the gospel-promise of a genuine change in the human heart.  The power needed to render the covetous person contented and the addicted person sober is dwarfed by the power needed to render the vengeful heart a vehicle of mercy. For this reason Jesus (who, said John Calvin, comes to us “clothed with his promises”) promises and guarantees all we need for the one and only attitude Christians are permitted to have toward their enemies: “Love your enemies and pray for those who spear you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”   Jeremiah insists that the people of Israel must seek the well-being even of the Babylonians who have captured them, taunt them, and threaten them relentlessly.  Moses insists that when an Israelite sees his enemy’s ox or ass going astray, the Israelite doesn’t say, “Let that stinker find his own animal — if he can find it before it breaks a leg”.  Instead, he must inconvenience himself and return even his enemy’s animal. Job, overwhelmed at his suffering, had to endure his friends telling him that perhaps he did wrong here or there.   Job, however, insists that there is one wrong he has not committed: he has never rejoiced at the misfortune of an enemy.

Peter tells us that when Jesus was reviled he did not revile in return. Paul tells us that when we are reviled we are to bless. To do anything else is to tell the world that we have not yet been delivered from a heart that is as cold, hard and venomous as the heart of the person whose treatment of us we deem inexcusable. Then deliverance is precisely what we need above all else.

(iii)         In the third place we are to hear and heed the command not to let the sun go down on our anger. We are not to let the sun go down on our just anger, our proper anger.  Even that anger which mirrors Christ’s; even that anger apart from which we should be culpably apathetic; even this anger must not be found in us after sunset.

In Hebrew thought the setting of the sun sets limits to many human activities. The wages of a hired man (a day-labourer) have to be paid by sunset.  Pawned goods must be returned by sunset.  A corpse has to be buried by sunset.   Anger, however justified, must not be put on the back burner, there to simmer indefinitely. Sunset sets limits even to the most righteous anger.  After all, the psalmist reminds us, “God will not always chide; he will not remain angry forever”.   If our heart is attuned to Christ’s then we should react in anger in those situations where he reacts.         But since our heart is attuned to his we shall not nourish our anger, not gloat over it, not allow it work evil and therein intensify the world’s misery. In the words of Paul, we are to give no opportunity to the devil.  Commenting on this latter statement John Calvin remarked in his quaint way 450 years ago, “If your wrath endures, the devil will take possession of your heart”. Through the prophet Isaiah God himself has said, “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you; but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you”.

We must be found doing nothing less and nothing else.

 

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     February 2006