March 14, 2010
William G. Carter
"Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil."
If anger is the Deadly Sin on our plate for today, we had best start with a story about Jesus. It’s a Palm Sunday story, and the Lord has just ridden a donkey into Jerusalem. Making his way to the Temple, he discovers something inside that makes his blood boil. In a rage, he drives out the buyers and the sellers. He knocks over the tables of the moneychangers, and throws around the seats of those selling doves. He quotes the scriptures, of how God’s house is a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. Then he settles down to cure the blind and the lame.
The religious officials see all of this, and hear the children calling him the Messiah. That, in turn, makes them angry, and Jesus leaves the temple to spend the night in a nearby town.
In the morning, he returns to the city. He is hungry and finds a fig tree without any fruit. It is as unproductive as God’s temple. So Jesus curses the tree and it withers at once. We need to talk about anger, because anger is a holy trait, and it is a trait that God has bequeathed to God’s children.
Technically speaking, anger is an emotion. It comes to all of us. Anger is sparked by conflict. Something unwanted happens, and that sets off sparks. A deed is done or a word is spoken, and somebody “sees red.” We get angry because we care about something or someone, or because we want something to go our way. And when it doesn’t, the heart pumps faster, blood pressure rises, and adrenaline spurts into our system. Our faces can contort, the countenance darkens, and words either fly or become very intense and specific.
There is righteous anger, as with Jesus who cares deeply about the things of God, and discovers that the business in God’s house is not as God intends it to be. And there is deadly anger, with the power to consume us and destroy others. The line between “righteous” and “deadly” is a dotted line, and today we will do what we can to spot the difference.
It helps to take note of how frequently anger comes to all of us. One morning this week, I kept a log of all the disturbances that made me angry. It began about a quarter of six, when one of the cats banged on the bedroom door while I was trying to finish a dream. We were out of coffee. I pushed the button on the shaving cream and it sputtered. The shirt that I had just ironed did not fit.
A number of the annoyances were vehicular. I got into the car and saw new clutter that was not mine. As I turned onto another street, an approaching truck sped up. The lady in the car in front of me was crawling like a turtle. I beeped the horn and she slowed down. My favorite radio station was going in and out of range. Then some guy driving behind me came up quickly and honked the horn. He gestured when I moved out of his way. I was going to gesture back, but I’m a minister and I didn’t want anybody to recognize me.
When I got to the office, I discovered the person I went early to meet was running late. That was understandable, but two other people didn’t show up and never bothered to call.
I ran out to do an errand, and overheard a parent nagging her child. I thought, “Cut him a break.” As I stopped at a store counter to ask if they carried a product, the person in the blue smock didn’t know what I was talking about. When he finally understood, he said, “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
Then I dropped by to see somebody at 11:30 as scheduled, and he wasn’t there. I waited for a little bit, then decided to get a hamburger. As I rolled away, I discovered the burger was cold and the Coke was a Diet Dr. Pepper.
Now, most of this is small and petty. If I were inclined to hang onto any of that, it would drive me mad. And if it had been a large disruption, it could have ruined my day. A week and a half ago, I learned that one of my classmates, a minister on the West Coast, had killed himself. The news slapped me across the face. I was stunned, sick to my stomach. Then I got angry. I was really angry.
Why did he do that? He was fifty years old. He was strong, he was good, he was in fine physical shape. He had a wife who loved him. He had two teenaged kids. He was an advocate for people with disabilities. Why did he have to take his own life? He pulled away from all of us, and crawled alone into some dark cave. It was tragic. It was wrong. And I’m still upset by it. A lot of people get angry, and stay angry, after someone we love has died. On a day when we mark the lives of those we have loved and lost, it’s a good thing to survey our anger over the loss.
Anger shows up in many forms. It is said that the natives of Alaska see so much snow that they begin to see variations, and they give each variation a name. In the same way, anger is a human passion with many, many names: resentment, ire, annoyance, indignation, fury, vengeance, rage, bitterness, hatred, umbrage, antipathy, acrimony, animosity, antagonism, hostility, rancor, ill will, spite, malice, venom, aversion, enmity, and wrath. One leads to another, in a zig-zag progression. Pretty soon, the anger can consume us.
A woman tells how her husband didn’t come home one night. He was a writer, and had learned a book of his poems would be published. With that, he disappeared: was he celebrating? Was he working through the achievement. She didn’t know. In the middle of the night, she woke with a start, and saw he still wasn’t home. “Anger woke me,” she said. As she lay there, trying to go back to sleep, her mind began to name all the grudges she had against her husband. The list kept getting longer.
Suddenly the anger shifted, and she was vividly remembering her resentment at somebody else, a man who had treated her with contempt. And then she remembered what somebody else had done. She was building an “impressive storehouse of grievances,” and thought sleepily, “This could go on forever.” She sat up, jolted awake, and said, “I can’t let this get the best of me.” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, 137)
Unchecked anger will get the best of us every time. It will drag the best thoughts out of our heads and stomp on them. It will choke whatever joy may reside in our hearts. This is how anger moves from an all-too-human response to slight or grievance, and takes on more sinister form.
The classic description of anger’s deadly force, I think, comes from author Frederick Buechner:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (Wishful Thinking, p. 2)
People do crazy things when anger gets the best of them. They quit jobs that they really need. They pull away from people who love them. They kick house pets and plot murders. They fertilize flower gardens with bitterness, and scream with rage when the perennials won’t come up. Sometimes they will even insulate themselves from God. And why not? Anger is usually a sign that life is out of control, and it’s difficult to give God any credit when life isn’t turning out as we want.
In a deeply insightful book on anger, Garret Keizer writes that anger blends in with envy, lust, greed, and all the rest. It’s often the chemical additive that makes sour thoughts degenerate into deadly sins. Add a shot of anger to a test tube full of pride, and you are mixing a kind of dynamite. If you want to understand anger’s destructive force, says Keizer, call it by the ancient name of “wrath.” Wrath is a word we’ve used to describe God’s anger, and therein is the key. Keizer says,
Wrath is the anger of someone who had begun to play at God. Wrath is the anger of one who has distorted his sense of self and the world – a disproportion that he shares with his proud, envious, lustful, gluttonous, and avaricious counterparts. He feels that his prerogatives, his grievances, his right to redress are all absolute. Holy, holy, holy. A person consumed by wrath has eaten and digested the forbidden fruit she thinks will make her a god. She storms out of the garden of Eden cursing and swearing, which is as much as to say acting as though she created the place and that it is her business and hers alone what happened there. (The Enigma of Anger, p. 51)
That kind of poison can kill you – and it might also kill somebody else. So the writer of Ephesians gives three pieces of direct advice. First, “Be angry but do not sin.” Anger comes naturally, as we live in a world that we do not run. Sin is the behavior that destroys, and it crouches at the door when we let anger determine our motives – for example, when we strike back in revenge, or escalate a situation. When anger comes, let it wash over your soul like every emotion. You can’t pretend that anger doesn’t hit you, but you don’t need to let it have power over you
Second, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Give it a time limit. Don’t keep carrying it. Don’t let it build over time or accumulate. Start each morning new. This is particularly true for those of us who live with other people who wake up beside us. My mom and dad used to tell the four of us kids that they never went to bed angry; I know that wasn’t always true. But if they did, they somehow hit the reset button first thing in the morning. The advice in the rest of the paragraph applies: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” It’s hard work, but regular practice makes better people of us.
Third, “Do not make room for the devil.” That’s good advice generally, and especially for anger. Whatever anger you feel is yours alone. It doesn’t need to be swallowed, but it doesn’t need to be shared either. There’s something increasingly destructive about taking the anger we feel and stirring it up. Our hurts and grudges are real, but we do not need to feed them. And if we talk out of anger with somebody else, in order to gain their sympathy or drag them in, pretty soon we may find ourselves dragged under. This is the warning for all of us.
You may know the story about the old Cherokee who was talking with his grandson. At least a half dozen of you know it, because you’ve emailed it to me and said, “Maybe you can use this story sometime.”
The story goes, one evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My child, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, hostility, arrogance, resentment, inferiority, sorrow, regret, self-pity, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” (attributed to many sources)
(c) William G. Carter
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