“Amazon.com currently lists over [75,000] religious titles that touch on the subject of anger.” (Paul Marshall, cited [and updated] by Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, 8/12/12) 75,000! That’s a lot of holy anger!
I know of–and you probably do too–too many faith communities torn apart by conflict and anger. It’s true of families as well, torn apart by emotional and/or physical anger and violence. Then there’s road rage and the more extreme forms of anger that get acted out in shootings and bombings like we’ve witnessed all too frequently in recent weeks. Anger can be a terrible, and terribly destructive, emotion.
“Be angry,” Paul writes, “but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” “Be angry,” Paul says. Thank goodness he says that! Because, as Tal Ben-Shahar, the teacher of my Positive Psychology course says, the only people who don’t feel anger–or sadness, or envy, or any of the other emotions we might think of as “bad”–are either psychopaths or dead. “Be angry,” Paul writes, “but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Don’t just let your anger fester, don’t deny it, and don’t compound its destructiveness by beating yourself up for feeling it; but deal with it. In the words of positive psychology, actively accept it– allow yourself to be human, and then choose a course of action that will honor your humanity.
One way of thinking about that is lifting our anger up to the light of God, exposing it to that Light to be examined, instead of “making room for the devil,” as Paul says, or allowing it to worm its way into misshapen forms that will inevitably come up to bite us. We know that, paradoxically, suppressing emotions only intensifies them. So, “be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Talk to someone appropriate about what is making you angry, journal about it, see if there’s something underneath it, like fear, write a letter about it that you don’t send–unless after sufficient time and cooling it feels right and helpful. When you can do it reasonably and lovingly, speak directly to the person (if it is a person) who has made you angry. “So then,” as Paul writes, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; so not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”
This instruction about anger comes when the writer of the letter to the Ephesians–either Paul or someone following in his steps– has just finished talking about setting aside the old self and putting on the new self in Christ. “So then,” he says, getting very practical and specific, live together like this–speak the truth to each other in love, be angry but don’t let it cause you to sin; don’t steal but work honestly so that you’ll have enough to give away to others. Did you read the article in the Banner this week about the young people involved in the gardening project? The best part about it, one girl said, was being able to grow enough food so that they could give to others who were hungry. “Work honestly with [your] own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.”
“Let 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.” Do you know people who are always finding fault? Always chipping away at other people? Try to be a benefit finder (another term from Positive Psychology). You’d be amazed at how much better you’ll feel if you can make someone feel better about themselves, if you take the time to thank someone for something they did or said or are. You’ll feel better, not just them. As it turns out, our mothers were right–sending a thank you note really does make a difference, not just for Aunt Sally but for you too, even if you really can’t stand the fold-out sun hat she sent you for your graduation. Just the process of looking for something positive to say about it and expressing it to her is beneficial to you and her; “for we are members of one another,” as Paul says.
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” he goes on, “with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” What a wonderful, poignant image that is–”do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” I imagine that the Holy Spirit of God is grieved over this week’s shooting in the Sikh temple…and last week’s shooting in the Colorado movie theater. I think God’s Holy Spirit is grieved over car bombs and suicide bombs. Surely the Holy Spirit of God is grieved over our poisoning of the air and water, over habitats of wild and wondrous creatures being destroyed by our selfishness, over our warring madness. And closer to home, I’m sure I have grieved the Holy Spirit of God by closing myself off from certain people, by playing it too safe for Love’s intentions, by not loving myself enough or, sometimes, too much. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption”– which is, at least, today if not also some future time.
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Be kind. What a central, underrated trait kindness is! “Be kind,” John Watson wrote, ” for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, writes of kindness as being foundational–
There is a kindness that dwells deep down in things; it presides everywhere, often in the places we least expect. The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it, and once we sense it we are able to trust and open ourselves…
kindness has a gentle sound that seems to echo the presence of compassionate goodness. When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen. There is no judgment or harsh perception directed toward you. Kindness has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive; it wants nothing back for itself. Kindness strikes a resonance with the depths of your own heart; it also suggests that your vulnerability, though somehow exposed, is not taken advantage of; rather, it has become an occasion for dignity and empathy. Kindness casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference. –To Bless the Space Between Us, pp. 185-6
And then finally, perhaps most impossibly, the writer urges, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Be imitators of God?! Really? Isn’t that dangerous? Isn’t hubris the flaw of trying to act like you are God?
How can we measure up to “imitating God”? This is crazy-making talk for those of us with perfectionistic tendencies. But Paul elsewhere talks about “going on to perfection,” striving on to perfection, which for him is “energizing, enabling him to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” as he writes in his letter to the Philippians. (3:14). “I may have fallen down this time,” one preacher confesses, ” but I’m goin’ on. I may not be perfect yet, but I’m goin’ on.” (Janet Wolf)
“Be imitators of God, as beloved children–which we are–and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” We are “saved”–we become who we truly are, beloved children of God–not by effort but by grace, “not effortlessly but willingly,” as one commentator writes (Joel E. Kok, cited in Huey, op cit.). By the grace of God, we already are beloved children of God. It is for us to freely claim that identity and live into it.
“So then,” as Paul begins this passage, so then, if we are to let go of the old self and put on the new self in Christ, live together like each of you are Christ to each other. Go ahead, practice it. That’s what the church is for. Speak the truth to each other in love. Experience the full range of human emotions– anger, grief, joy, sorrow, jealousy, admiration, sympathy–be fully human as Jesus was human, but do not sin–do not let those emotions distort and separate you from God or one another. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…and be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us…”
The amazing Olympic athletes we’ve been watching these past two weeks would be the first to tell you that, if you want to be like them, or even a tiny bit more like them than you are now, you have to practice, to train, to focus on that goal. It’s the same with wanting to be like Jesus, or, if you will, wanting to be your truest Self, heck–even wanting to be a little better–you have to practice. The great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner said that it’s better to say we’re becoming Christian than to say we are Christian. Being Christian–being a true follower of Christ, following Jesus’ Way– is something we grow into. It’s a lifelong process, maybe even extending into the next life. We go on to perfection, to wholeness, to our true Self.
So, finally, here’s a prayer of confession – of truth-telling– about anger that might be a model for a prayer that could be helpful in lifting up our anger, or other hard, potentially destructive emotions, to the life-giving Light of God–
Almighty God, in your Word you instruct, ‘Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ We admit that we have fallen into sin on account of our anger, and we have held on to our rage far longer than a day. In anger we have said and done things which we are ashamed to name out loud, but that are all known to you. We have longed to strike back when we have been hurt. Rather than work through anger with the people involved, we have gossiped behind their backs. We have allowed unresolved anger to break up relationships, to undermine community cooperation and the unity among Christians.
Forgive us for what is past, and help us forgive others as we have been forgiven by you. Insofar as it depend on us, help us live in peace with all our neighbors. We pray in the name of your Son Jesus Christ, Amen. (Sourcebook of Worship Resources, vol 2,, p. 81)
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark