What? Me Angry?

October 19, 2011

Last night’s Bible study class (which I lead weekly) continued in the Sermon on the Mount to the topic of “Murder Management.” Jesus raised the bar on the fifth commandment, “Do not murder” to include the avoidance of anger:

21“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ [that is, criminal killing] and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother* will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. 23So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift. 25Reach agreement [lit. make friends] quickly with your accuser while on the way [implied: to court], or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. 26I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!”[NET Bible]
*Literally, “whoever says to his brother ‘Raca’”—that is, an Aramaic word of contempt or abuse meaning “idiot” or “empty head.”

Since anger is identified as the second stage of Presbyterian grief (yesterday’s post), and since the Fellowship of Presbyterians in August said, “We are not acting out of anger,” I thought an examination of this Word’s application is very relevant to the PCUSA situation.

First of all, to the surprise of some and the chagrin of others, I am not by nature an angry person, and my reason for activism in the PCUSA is not to foment or perpetuate anger in myself or others. Jesus warns us against anger here, because it leads to something far worse, the contempt of a brother, and if unchecked, to destruction of a person. Dallas Willard notes that Jesus is not merely concerned with the preservation of life (do not murder), but in the protection of persons (do not perpetuate anger). Both are important, and followers of Jesus must keep the safety of persons close to the heart.

For this reason, the church, our congregations, you and I must remember that there are persons within our Presbyterian fellowship against whom we must not perpetrate anger. LGBT folks claim that evangelicals’ objection to so-called gay ordination are doing violence against them. Their basis for this assessment is that they feel the objection itself, no matter how reasonably or calmly stated, is by definition a destructive influence. I obviously disagree with this evaluation, but I take it seriously and seek out ways to be gracious in personal contact with gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances. Many, many pastors give quiet, helpful ministry to all kinds of folks, as an expression of their faith in action.

Some believe, however, that anger is a necessary fuel for continued effective activism. Even conservatives have told me this, but I don’t buy it. I need only point to James’ epistle, in which he writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for one’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (Js 1:19f).  Because anger leads to hostility and a desire to punish, it cannot be a pure motive for the Lord’s work!

Anger serves a purpose, however; it happens spontaneously, without warning, in reaction to something. We’re supposed to note anger’s presence. Righteous anger is an alert, a smoke alarm of sorts, indicating that something is not right and needs attention. There is also unrighteous anger that reacts to not getting one’s own way. That anger needs to be confessed and immediately released, with thanks to God for keeping one from falling into sin. But the purpose of righteous anger is to bring to one’s consciousness that something is wrong. In this case, we say “thank you” to the anger for doing its job, but dismiss it and not let it fester or cause us to fret or worry. Instead, we welcome it as an invitation to home in on the matter to which it alerted us. What is wrong? Where is the root of the trouble? What is my part in it? Is there something I can do to address or redirect events?

The apostle Paul admonished the Ephesians: “In your anger, do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:26f). In other words,

Acknowledge the feeling; examine its root.
Deal with the problem; give anger the boot!

[I must have gotten this witticism from somewhere, but cannot recall the source.]

Call it what it is, and take it only for what it is worth. Conduct an examination of your conscience to identify where the anger springs: fatigue? selfishness? a genuine injustice? Then deal with the problem, which might mean personal confession, seeking reconciliation, or getting to work in a righteous way that would please God. Let go of the anger, because we do not need it in order to fix what is broken now.

Join me in praying for the PCUSA and for every encounter between brothers and sisters, that we might be wise and patient, self-aware and forgiving, as we seek God’s will and the strength to do it.


3 Responses to “What? Me Angry?”

  1. You have been so gracious to me, a gay-affirming friend, that it makes me give extra consideration and weight to your ideas. See, it works!

  2. How do we explain Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers? Did his actions flow from his anger?

    • revmary Says:

      Larry, this is a great question—it came up in class last night, too. You can add his “name-calling” in Matthew 23, too. Along the lines of my post, the first distinction is between righteous and unrighteous anger. In neither case was Jesus defending his own ego or working out of selfishness. But righteous anger required righteous action: confronting the Pharisees who were blind with hypocrisy, and physically overturning tables outside the temple. Given what else we know about God, the relationship between Father and Son, the Son’s obedience, etc. etc. we have to say that the action itself was directed and chosen, not driven because of an adrenalin rush and therefore “uncontrollable.” And when it was over, he moved on. But it is interesting to note that none of the three gospel writers who include this episode in their stories mention anger. He saw and he did. [I’ll chalk this one up to a dangling question—fair?]
      In fact, the only place in the gospels where anger is attributed to Jesus is in Mark 3:5, where he on the Sabbath saw the man with a withered hand and was confronted by the Pharisees who dared him. “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” In this case, his anger was toward the onlookers, resulting in compassionate action toward the one who needed healing. Anger here was as I describe: the smoke detector that something was burning, and dealing with the problem. In that sense you could say that anger was catalytic; but I still stick to my point that anger as an ongoing fuel is not a healthy way to do God’s work.

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