We are in the midst of our worship series, Creature of Habit. Some of us may be more spontaneous or adventuresome than others. We may like moving things around our workshop or the furniture around the house for the sake of variety, but we are still creatures of habit. We have the good habits that make life better and easier for ourselves and those around us, but we also have our bad habits that may or may not make us feel better in the moment, but are not helpful for our lives and/or the lives of the people around us.
We’ve been learning that when we become believers and followers of Christ, we are expected to take off let go of the bad and cultivate the good. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about this like being a curator of an art gallery where we keep the best, get rid of the worst, and work on acquiring the new and good.
Part of the problem is that most of us don’t like change. Even if we know that there is a problem, we prefer the thing we know, rather than risk the thing we don’t know. We may decide to accept those things about ourselves that we know are less than helpful.
How many of you are familiar with John Wayne? He was one of the most successful actors in the history of Hollywood. He acted in over 170 films and produced 25 of them. Sometimes he was a good guy. Sometimes his morals were more questionable, but as his son said in a documentary about him, his characters always had a code. They were always true to that code, to their principals, even if we in the audience didn’t agree with it. Whether war or cowboy movies, they were always some kind of action film. After he had many successful films, he got a role that was very different for him. It was a straight out drama, and Wayne played someone very different, no code. The critics said he did a fine job. The audience, his fans, couldn’t accept it. This wasn’t the John Wayne they were used to. He was typecast. Once he was identified in a certain way, people had trouble accepting him in another way. Actors often try to do a variety of roles because they don’t want to suffer the same fate.
Do we do that to ourselves? Do we typecast ourselves? Have our more challenging habits become part of our identity? This is how I talk. This is how I react to situations. This is who I am. People just need to accept me this way. You know what? You are accepted. You are. You are loved. There is an old saying. God accepts you just the way you are, but God loves you too much to leave you that way. God sees the full potential of the person that he created you to be. You are a new creation! You are not stuck in the typecasting of your previous life. You have a new identity, a new role, called Child of God. Part of that is becoming more like God, becoming holy.
Two weeks ago, we looked at how the tongue, our speech, can get us into trouble. How hurtful even unintentionally thoughtless comments can be. This week we look at something that plagues many of us, anger. The Bible has some strong words about anger. Again we will be looking at several passages in concert. The first comes from Proverbs 15:1. We will move to Ephesians 4:22-24, 26-27, and then look at Matthew 5:21-26.
Proverbs 15:1 NIV
15 A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Ephesians 4:22-24, 26-27 NIV
22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.
Matthew 5:21-26 NIV
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Anger is tough because it is a human emotion. God created us to have emotions, and one of those emotions is anger. The emotion isn’t good or bad in and of itself. It is more of a question of what it cultivates within us. What it causes us to focus on. Do we allow it to rule in our lives?
Are any of you familiar with the Incredible Hulk? Comic book character. TV show in the 70s. Movies in more recent years. The basic premise is that physicist, Bruce Banner, is exposed to gamma radiation which mutates his cells to such a degree that when he is extremely angry or stressed, Banner will transform into the Hulk and wreak havoc in his violent furry. The creator, Stan Lee, described him as a combination of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While considered a super hero in the comic book world, his anger can fuel destruction far beyond the immediate problem at hand.
In a film from a few years ago, The Avengers, New York City is under attack, and Captain America asks Bruce Banner, “How fast can you turn into the Hulk?” Bruce replies, “That’s my secret, Capt. I’m always angry.”
I think that more of us identify with that than we would like to admit.
What makes you angry? Think about it for a moment. What means “angry” to you? Are you talking full on Hulk angry? Is it really more of an annoyance, a minor irritation? Or maybe, it’s something you continually have to put up with, and you’ve reached a point of angry frustration. You’ve reached the last straw. Or, it is a consuming furry, rage?
Is it just me, or do people just seem angrier these days? I remember seeing a panel “news” show on PBS in the 1980s, and it seems to be the basis for all news panel shows with people from various political perspectives these days. It was The McLaughlin Group. No matter how calm and civilized the conversation began, by the end they were all yelling at or over each other. The amount of anger and vitriol was unbelievable to me. Personally, I couldn’t take it. My father would love to watch this each week. He loved to watch the battle, the confrontation. Now that I think about it, for him it was probably like a verbal football game. He also loved debate. I couldn’t take it. I would have to leave the room. Those rare occasions when I tune into a cable news show, they all seem to be like that now. Is there any place on tv where they just give you the news anymore?
Is the media a reflection of the culture, or did the media create this angry culture that we seem to be enduring? Maybe a little bit of both where they feed off each other. It taps into our darker side, the old self, our sin nature. The anger that seems to pervade the public sphere follows us home into our personal relationships. People who don’t agree with us are evil or our enemy, and we are so very angry with them. Maybe it is the stress that this causes that keeps us in this agitated state of mind, which can trip over into anger at the least provocation. In an instant, we can become the raging Incredible Hulk. Even if we don’t show it on the outside, it still can reveal itself in so many ways.
As I mentioned before, anger itself is not the problem. It is its cause, what it causes us to do, and the frame of mind that it can create in us. There is the anger that is focused on us. What was done to me. How I was injured. How I was offended. Then there is the anger that is caused by the sin and injustice in the world. This is anger on behalf of God, really. There is plenty to be angry about without even stepping into controversy. The “collateral” damage of children who are killed or injured in war zones. Victims of human trafficking, in other words, modern day slavery, to name just two. It’s right to be angry about these things as long as it doesn’t consume us to the point where we cannot be effective in combating it, and most importantly it interferes in our relationship with God.
People like to say that Jesus got angry. Often it is used as a justification of our own anger. One of the most popular examples is when Jesus drove out the money changers and other businessmen in the Temple. (cf. Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-17; Lk 19:45-46; John 2:13-17) There are accounts of this in all four Gospels. Nowhere in the text does it mention that he was angry. Was he passionate and determined about it? Absolutely, but it was not like this activity was something new. It had been going on for centuries.
However, if it was anger that drove Jesus there, it was righteous anger, an affront to God, and it did not linger. Once the incident was over, it dissipated, and he continued on with his day healing the sick and teaching. (cf. Mt 21:14-16)
There is a place where Scripture does state that Jesus was “angry.” In Mark 3:5 it says:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if [Jesus] would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
What our Bibles translate as “anger” actually means wrath. So, when Jesus saw that the people thought that the injured man should continue to suffer when it was not necessary, he was filled with wrath. I don’t know about you, but on the surface that sounds a bit scary to me. So, this was not minor annoyance, inconvenience, or frustration. This is what at least for a normal human might be all consuming, Incredible Hulk kind of anger. What caused it? Not anything that was pointed at Jesus directly, but an injury to one of his suffering children.
How did Jesus respond, by directing his anger, his wrath at the offending parties? No, he healed the man, and again continued on with his ministry. The response of the Pharisees and Herodians? They started to plot how they would kill Jesus. Their wrath, their rage caused these two enemies to come together to plot murder. What does Paul say in Ephesians 4:26, “‘In your anger do not sin’.”
In the Matthew passage, Jesus equates anger with a brother or sister (meaning someone in your community) with murder, and maybe now you can see why. Unchecked anger can lead us to a very dark place. And, how are we supposed to respond when we have been injured or wronged? We may feel that we have a right to be angry. It’s not fair. It’s not just. You’re right. It isn’t fair. It isn’t just. Feel the anger. Feel the hurt, but then let it go. Don’t let it get a foothold in you. Don’t let it harden and turn bitter in your heart. Then, anger will rule over you, and you know who is not guiding you when that happens, Jesus.
Do you feel angry and exasperated all of the time? Do you try to keep it hidden? Do you let it all hang out? Do you think that you have it all under control, but a small thing throws you over the edge? What is your habitual reaction? Is it time to examine what it is that you are holding onto that is controlling you in this way? Or, do you already know? Does the idea of letting it go feel like you are letting someone get away with something? I’ll paraphrase one of my favorite sayings. That is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. They may not even know or care that you are holding this anger against them. They may even like it because it gives them control over you. Man, the idea of that would make me angry, with myself.
“Recently, the Mental Health Organization launched a report, ‘Boiling Point’, about problem anger, how it affects individuals, families and communities, and what we can do to minimize the harm it causes. … Sixty-four percent say that the world is becoming an angrier place. Almost a third of people polled (32%) say they have a close friend or family member who has trouble controlling their anger. More than one in ten (12%) say that they have trouble controlling their own anger. More than one in four people (28%) say that they worry about how angry they sometimes feel” (Dr. John Schinnerer, “Statistics on the Growing Anger Epidemic,” February 21, 2017, https://webangermanagement.com/statistics-on-the-growing-anger-epidemic/).
Sometimes, it’s not that we are purposely holding anger against someone or something. It can just seem like the state of the world or the state of our lives. Our patience is at a low ebb, and we have lost our sense of humor. Finally, there is that last straw, and we collapse (or blow up). Maybe the actual problem is that we need to rest. We need a nap.
One of my favorite stories is about a mom and her toddler in a grocery store or a Walmart. They had been running errands and shopping. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and they’re just about done at the store. You can probably guess what happens next. Toddler has a full blown meltdown near the check-out lines at the front of the store. People are watching. Some look over sympathetically, others with disdain. Others still flee the scene. It’s not pleasant. Screaming crying child collapsed on the floor. Does mom look angry or embarrassed? No, she calmly sits on the floor next to her child. When the child calms down a bit, she takes him in her arms and rocks him and says in a soft calm voice, “It’s okay. You’re tired. Let’s go home and take a nap.” With that she picks him and carries him back to the car, leaving her shopping cart full of items. Sometimes, what we need the most when we can’t deal with all that the world is throwing at us is a nap. We need rest.
Maybe we are over scheduled. Maybe our bodies are in pain, and we’re not sleeping properly. Maybe there are things going on in our lives that are too much. Do you need a friend to talk to? Do you need someone to share the load? We are here for each other. The two year old toddler can’t recognize when he or she is about to go into meltdown mode, but if we are mindful about it we can. Before we explode *BOOM* take a step back, and take a deep breath.
In a history of spiritual practices class, a teacher told us what she does in meetings when someone else there frustrates her to the point where she feels her anger building. She would silently repeat a prayer meditation ten times. Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner… Notice that her focus is changing her own attitude, her own behavior, not that of the person who was frustrating her. The truth is that we have no power to change the other person. We only have control over ourselves. I have used this prayer meditation myself, and it works if it is used faithfully. Humbling ourselves before God. Breathing deeply. Counting to ten to get us out of “react” mode and into “response” mode. All of these things are helpful.
One of my favorite people on the planet earth is Desmond Tutu of South Africa. An archbishop in the Anglican church, he was serving in South Africa during the time of apartheid. He was Nelson Mandela’s spiritual director. As he watched the injustice in his country, he would have a perfect right to be angry, all day every day. His would even be the righteous kind of anger. He could have become mean and embittered. He did not. He could have encouraged revenge as a way of exacting justice like what happened in Zimbabwe next door. He did not. He was a driving force behind The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was designed to provide a path to justice without continuing the cycle with violence and revenge. Considering the strong willed people he had to encounter through the process, he still could have wound up angry. He did not. He is one of the most joyful persons I have ever seen. He still displays wonder and delight in the people of God’s creation. Can he be serious when talking about serious subjects? Yes, but he can also giggle at a joke (I find his giggling joyously infectious.), and he can appreciate the beauty of creation. Despite everything, he’s not an angry person.
And, we come back to Jesus, the reason why we are here, the one that we want to learn from and pattern our life after. Yes, he occasionally got angry, but he didn’t hold onto it. He did not allow it to make him bitter. Can you imagine how things might have played out differently if he had allowed his anger to have free reign the week of his crucifixion both before and after? The destruction, the death. I don’t want to even think about it. One thing is for sure, none of us would be saved. None of us would have a chance at escaping the control of evil over our lives. None of us would have a chance of escaping the consequences of all of the terrible things we have done in our lives. For some of us the most horrible things are in our past. For some of us it was yesterday or even this morning.
Because Jesus did not get angry at the people plotting and perpetrating his murder, the people who were filled with rage because of what they found so threatening about him. Because Jesus didn’t get angry, we can be forgiven. We can be saved. We are able to have a life with God.
The painting on the front of your bulletin is one of my favorites of all time. From the very first time I saw it in a book, I was captivated by it. It is Christ Before the High Priest by Gerard van Honthorst. There are so many things that we could talk about in this painting, but there is one thing that I want you to focus on. Look at the High Priest. You can see the anger, the accusations. I can almost hear him say, “And, let me tell you another thing!” You can see someone with the certainty of his own power to determine the fate of the one standing in front of him. Now, look at Jesus. He is calm. He is patient. He is relaxed. You can see that he is actually the one in command of the situation despite all the enemies that surround him. The thing is that he is not is angry. It’s a set up, and he knows it. He’s going to be dead within 24 hours, and he knows it. Yet, he still isn’t angry. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:24 KJV)
We are going to get angry sometimes. For the right reasons and for the wrong reasons. What we don’t want to be is enslaved by it. We don’t want it to rule us. Christ came to give us freedom from that. He came so that we might have life and have it in abundance. (John 10:10)The choice we have is how to respond, and that we don’t just fall into a destructive pattern, a habit. It is so easy for things to go terribly wrong when we act out of anger. Maybe we need to pray. Maybe we need to count to ten. Maybe we need to take a nap. Maybe the problem is so much more complicated and hurtful than that, but at least we will be well rested when we decide what we need to do, as we go through the process of healing. That’s how we change the narrative. We change the story where we can have joy and peace despite difficult circumstances. We are creatures of habit, but we don’t have to be typecast into a narrative that brings us down.