Bible Reading Ephesians 4:25-27
So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT)
Message “Dead and Renewed” (2) Colossians 3:1-12
I have heard sermons and read Christian books and articles dealing with anger. Almost always it is a treatise justifying our right to be angry. After all, Jesus got angry at the Temple, angry at the Pharisees, at a fig tree; and as we go through the Bible you can list example after example after example.
In Colossians, Paul created a list that described the dangerous trip toward twisting desires, moving from the outward temptation to inner motivations. He follows that list with another list, another path of which to be wary -- one that begins with an inner attitude and bubbles upward and outward into ever worsening actions.
Right vs wrong anger
It begins with the emotion of explosive anger, which is then nurtured into a long burning bitter rage, out of which flows mean spirited malice that is out to destroy others, which is then expressed in slander and abusive speech, character assassination, and ultimately, bald faced lies. (You’d think the lies were anticlimactic in relation to what preceded it, but to Paul the ultimate end of twisted anger is that we begin lying to each other now. Clearly, Paul is not justifying anger in this list. The question then, is: when is anger justified, often called “righteous indignation” and when is it wrong?
The tongue in cheek answer is: If I feel angry at someone, or the anger it is directed as someone I disagree with, then that is righteous indignation, but if someone is angry at me, or someone I agree with, then that is sinful. In other words, if I or my friend feels anger toward somebody, then that is justified. But if anger is directed at me, or my friend, then that is wrong – how can they even think that? It isn’t right, it is just a litmus test that too many people use. That is why I said tongue in cheek, it is not really a good test. It is the wrong test to use, but it often is the test we use – How does it affect and impact me? How do I feel about it? Rather than looking at it more objectively.
Just like Paul’s list of desires is a corruption and twisting of God-given drives that were intended to move us to positive things, so anger is a God-given emotion that spurs us to survive and deal with negative things that life throws at us.
Just as hunger pangs tell us to eat, or a throbbing finger tells us to stop the bleeding and clean and wrap the wound; the emotions of anger warn us that something is not right, and it is supposed to drive us to deal with a hurt, the fear, or the frustration so that we can take action to bring justice, or start the process of healing, and/or make life better for others or ourselves. So it isn’t the emotion of anger, but what we do with it that has the potential for good --- or for bad.
It is when it gets twisted and distorted -- either getting angry over things that we shouldn’t be getting angry over; or managing and expressing it in poor ways – it is then that we begin to have trouble. That is why the Bible doesn’t just tell stories about righteous anger (although those are the ones we like to quote) -- it also warns us about the twisting of anger into damaging attitudes and behaviors.
Proverbs says, A hot tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel. (Prov 15:18) A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control (Prov 29:11). The Bible reminds us that God is slow to anger and quick to forgive, and gives practical advice such as “Do not let the sun go down on your anger”. Now don’t take it too literally – because you might make it worse if you are trying to work through anger while you are exhausted and frustrated and too tired to do anything about it. But it is saying is to not to just let it go so that it festers. Deal with it. Because it is in the festering and the hanging on to it and the nurturing of anger that leads us down the path of Paul’s list which he climaxes with outright lying to each other, and probably to ourselves. So. feel the emotion of anger but don’t sin -- put away unhealthy anger.
So here is the better test of whether anger is good or bad. It is not whether or not we feel anger, it is not where the anger is directed by whom or to whom. Instead, ask yourself these questions: Do I like being angry? Do I sense others are intimidated or uncomfortable around me because of my words or temper? Am I constantly unhappy because of things that anger me? Are the resulting actions of my anger designed to control and/or hurt others in order to build myself or my agenda? Does my anger lead to compromising my values of justice and goodness and fairness and truthfulness? If I answer these questions objectively, and the answer is (well, we all may do that once in a while, but if too often the answer is yes to too many of those questions, then anger might be a personal project worthy of my attention.
Dealing with unhealthy anger
Some of how we deal with unhealthy anger depends on how we express it. Someone (I can’t remember the resource for this) thought it would be helpful to label some styles of the more common expressions.
The first one is the splatterer, or the erupter -- like a volcano – Boom! This aggressive explosion of anger may feel good in the moment, relieve stress and feel like they are exercising control over others, and there is no doubt that the information they are angry about is on the table because it is thrown in the face of the person to whom they are talking. But love is absent. Even if the splatter gets us what they want, it may leave them feeling guilty (if they have a conscience), and wound those around them and damage their relationships.
Splatterers need to learn the discipline of delaying their impulsive explosiveness. That’s what time outs are all about. Take a break, leave for a while then come back. That doesn’t mean don’t deal with it, but that the time to calm down so it the issue can be dealt with more constructively and bring a healing solution. In the fire code, we learn to stop, drop, and roll. When we experience the fire of anger, we need to stop, think, and pray. “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and its all Small Stuff” offers one common example. Some adults have a real struggle to not burst out in hot headed tantrums during childhood athletic events. Umpires and coaches alike receive their wrath. Splatterers need to keep in mind that the game’s outcome is not THAT important, when we are talking about little kids, or when we are talking about the Packers or the Lions either, for that matter. And while there may be exceptions, chances are pretty good that the refs have probably not been plotting all morning about how they can unjustly treat your child or grandchild’s team. Pray for the players, the teams, the coaches, recognize they are not perfect and they do not have you bias about who should be winning. Ask God to prepare you with patience and grace before the game for during the game. Just one simple example.
And then there are stuffers who repress (bury) their anger, and eventually it turns so inward it can’t get out. Stuffers may look on the outside like they are mature, controlled people of peace because all those feelings are hidden beneath the surface, and some people are very good at hiding them.
But in truth, Stuffers are like sharks. When sharks get caught (at least I read this) When sharks get caught they get so angry at that frustrating situation that they will turn on themselves and bite hunks of flesh out of themselves. This is what happens when we stuff anger -- the pain has nowhere to go -- it is a self-wounding expression that eats up the stuffer. Doesn’t hurt the person they are angry at, but eats themselves up.
And it also hurts others because if it is stuffed down then it is not dealt with and so the circumstances cannot change and the pain continues, because it is not resolved because it is not dealt with constructively. Stuffers need to learn how to express their anger appropriately for the good of others as well as for themselves.
And then there are leakers. Leakers have learned to let anger out, but it is misdirected or re-routed. I think we’ve all heard that story by now about the man who gets yelled at by his boss, but he is afraid to yell back and get angry at his boss -- so he foes home and gets angry at his wife. The wife is afraid to yell back at the husband, and so she yells at the oldest kid, who turns to the next kid, and the next kid until they get to the youngest -- who goes out at kicks the dog. That is a leaker version of anger.
Another version of the leaker is the passive aggressive approach, where they are submissive and controlled in response and agreeable to – say -- the boss’s anger. But then they get the boss back by underperforming or doing something else-- that might be completely unrelated -- to undermine the boss.
This misdirected lashing out can be confusing not only to the lashee (who may have done nothing to deserve it) but also to the lasher -- the employee may not even understand why he is underperforming at his job, may not realize there is some sort of anger going on from another event. He may not understand why he is undermining his boss or why he is lashing out at his family.
The main growth area for leakers is to identify the true source of their anger (because sometimes it is hidden beyond them) and then address it in a constructive way rather than diverting it to innocent, albeit safer outlets or victims.
Of course, sometimes there is a combination of strategies – sometimes we bury anger until it cannot be contained anymore and then it will erupt and splatters horribly, sometimes at the source of the anger, but sometimes leaked sideways to others as well...
Whether our expression of unhealthy anger splatters outward, gets stuffed downward, or leaks indirectly or sideways; we can all use these following strategies to help us cope with unhealthy anger expressions.
For All Styles: Alternate Activities
Fill yourself with other activities and projects and attitudes that will dissipate the anger... such as --- Laughter -- sometimes I will watch long doses of healthy comedy (harder and harder to find these days) but look for and find it and use laugh therapy as means of healing the heaviness that anger may bring. Taking time for gratitude and worship, participating in heavy duty activities like intense exercise, chopping wood or playing football, writing, sing a song -- like "Life is a booger, pick it pick it; life is a booger all day long"… a coping mechanism.
Go ahead and scream, cry, but in a way that isn't harmfully visited on yourself or on others… Lift your eyes to a wider view of life beyond the source of our anger of anger feelings. Like we said a couple weeks ago in overcoming the difficulty of a tempting desire, don’t let your struggle with that desire -- or now in this case – with your anger -- define who you are. You are more than that one thing.
Understand the circumstances
Then try to get a grasp of the circumstances. If you aren't sure what triggers your anger, what makes you lash out – then every time you find yourself angry, write it down – write down the circumstances. Not only is that good catharsis – it helps get the anger out of you because you have written it down, it may help you identify patterns – “oh that’s when I get angry – I’m always tired” or something else specific is going on in your life that triggers it. And then you can prepare and try to prevent some of it.
A simplistic example. If you learn that feeling rushed and anxious and susceptible to anger in traffic (It took me an hour longer to get home on Friday just moving from the top of Hancock to the bridge. But we turned on the Pandora and listened, and enjoyed our long journey home. Sometimes you can’t prevent it, but if you realize you feel rushed and easily angered in traffic, so then plan ahead so you aren’t always trying to make a 20 minute trip in 15 minutes, and maybe that allegedly slow driver if front of you that is holding you back won’t be so irritating to you.
Or knowing that I need to be careful when I am overly tired; for that it is when my patience is shorter, my nerves are frayed, and I don’t hear as well or think as clearly and that I am more prone to self-doubts and more likely jump to crazy conclusions --- and emotional outbursts. So I need to be aware of that, and that allows me to be careful…
Understand the person
And then seek to understand. Much anger comes because we ascribe malicious intent to the other person, when most times it is a simple lack of clear communication. It is possible they are motivated to manipulate and control you and make you mad, but at least try to believe the best and give the benefit of the doubt. Make people prove that they have evil intent towards you. Don’t assume it. And even if they did attempt to deliberately wound you; try to empathize - we don't know what that person is dealing with -perhaps it was hurt, frustration, or fear in their life that came out misdirected – maybe they are a leaker and so it came out at you sideways as lashes in our direction. They may not have intended it, or even realized why they do it, but it just happened. That doesn’t excuse what they are doing, but understanding does help us cope with it a bit more easily. Jesus on the cross, in part, was able to forgive because he understood that they didn’t understand what they were doing.
Strive for forgiveness
And then, if we can stretch ourselves to do it with God’s grace -- forgive and let go. H. Norman Wright defines forgiveness as sincerely being able to wish that person well. For deep wounds, that doesn’t come easily or quickly, it takes a lot of time and a lot of prayer and sometimes we may never get there, but it is something to strive for.
And then, get alone with God, out of the turmoil of life, and find that eternal perspective. Remember that this text is all under the introducing topic line of: having been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above (on heavenly values), and not on earthly things, (on priorities below).
Get this eternal perspective by getting away with God and away from your own agenda, find humility, understand we are treasured no matter what are our hurts, our fears, or our frustrations – what angers we may have.
Pray FOR those situations, confess them. Confess when we are angry at people and when they are angry at us – and put it on the table with God and ask for his help. And then he can tell us to [work at] letting go of it, or he may tell us to appropriate it and channel it into something positive.
We will always feel anger – not constantly, but we will always, from time to time feel anger because one of the warning systems built into the human body, but by God’s grace, we can also take responsibility for our ability to control it, and express it in healthy ways.
Many organizations that do so much good today (MADD, SADD Crop Walk, even America’s Most Wanted back in its time) came into being because someone was angry about something that was going on in the world or in their life, and they wanted to channel that negative energy into something constructive --- creating something positive so that same angering circumstance won’t continue to happen in our world, will not continue to happen to other people.
Remember the example of Nehemiah. When he heard about Jerusalem laying in ruins, he was angry. But then he stopped, and he thought, and he prayed, and then he acted in a positive manner to bring a constructive solution. In his case, literally a constructive solution – he went to lead the rebuilding of the city.
Paul concludes today’s text with another list –not one to avoid but one with which to fill our lives -- compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. If these are growing in us in increasing measure, unhealthy anger will have to decrease because they are almost opposites.
Turn from hanging on to anger that erodes and stings like sand in the wind storm --- and place our hurts, frustrations and fears on the ever- faithful God who befriends us in Jesus, the solid ground who leads us through these difficult paths to joy.
Prayer with Song
Closing Hymn # 534 v 1 Be Still My Soul
Let’s pray. Now Lord, we recognize our fear and frustration and wounds tend to shake us, causing self-doubts and makes us want to lash out in anger because it gives us a false sense of confidence. But turn us again to you. We don’t understand it all but you will make it clear and you can still control the storms of our life.
Closing Hymn # 534 v 2 Be Still My Soul
So Lord, we look forward to the day when we realize that disappointment, grief, fear, and all other anger producing events of life will fade in comparison to the restoration of your pure joy and we will find ourselves safe in your arms at last.
Closing Hymn # 534 v 3 Be Still My Soul
So Lord, help us to still ourselves before you -- not to passive inaction, but to choose to act in your comfort over the chaos of our own angry attempts to control -- to surrender our way to your way, to learn to know you more as we breathe your way within us so that we may walk by faith, our eyes fixed on you, trusting in you and your promises until the race is over and our work is done, and we stand before you and you affirm that our life was indeed lived for you because you have formed and transformed us even today. For it is --
Closing Blessing -- In Christ all things hold together. So as you go this week, hold on to him, let him hold on to you, so that you may bring praise to Christ who is all in all. Amen.