Be Angry, but do not Sin

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 12 August.

At our grandson’s nursery there are two forbidden words, which they refer to as the N word and the A word. Now the N word is “naughty”, and I can understand why we might not want to use that – to tell a child he is naughty is likely to give him a negative self image. And describing behaviour as naughty does imply something about the perpetrator. But the other word, the A word, seems to me more problematic. It is the word “anger”. And your average two year-old spends some of his time angry. Without the word, how can he describe or understand how he is feeling?

Today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians has an unexpectedly positive view of anger. “Be angry, but do not sin”. It might come as a surprise that that is possible. Families have very different approaches to anger and many people have been brought up to think that even to feel angry is wrong. But when we turn to the Bible we see quite a lot of anger expressed – indeed Jesus was very angry when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple. But we are right to be wary of anger – it can be destructive and lead to violence and hatred. We are told to be angry without sinning. How do we do that?

The passage gives us some very sound advice. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Now there are different sorts of anger. The anger that flares up at injustice is normal and healthy. We all have our particular sympathies. When I hear about children going hungry because their parents can’t afford to feed them, or asylum seekers who have been abused and discriminated against in their own country being treated without respect or compassion, I feel my blood pressure rising. I could go on at length, but I don’t need to – every one of you will be able to name some injustice that really gets to you. And of course when it is someone we love, especially our children, we can get very angry indeed. Controlled anger produces energy, which we can use to rectify the situation. Losing our tempers, of course, rarely helps.

For some people channelling this anger is a large part of their lives. Activists are people who refuse to look away – they turn their anger into planning protests, challenging politicians and campaigning on social media. But increasingly among activists there are people realising that without a spiritual side to their lives they risk burnout. They become consumed by the cause, and lose a sense of proportion. The anger takes over. To let that anger become part of your life is to let yourself become bitter or wrathful, condemnatory or vengeful. It locks up a lot of energy and results in negativity.

The American Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, was concerned that activism and spirituality were often seen as opposite poles and so he founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation. He writes:

Anger is good and very necessary to protect the appropriate boundaries of self and others. I would much sooner live with a person who is free to get fully angry, and also free to move beyond that same anger, than with a negative person who is hard-wired with resentments and pre-existing judgements. Their anger is so well hidden and denied—even from themselves—that it never comes up for the fresh air of love, conversation, and needed forgiveness.

So the trick is to get angry, but to move beyond it. Today’s reading counsels us “To not let the sun go down on our anger”. We need to finish the day in peace, ready to rest, and then take the work up again the next day.

But for most of us, most of the time anger is not righteous indignation at the plight of others, but a factor in our personal relationships. It very often is masking something else. Don’t you feel sorry for the people who work in call centres? So often they receive shouting and abuse from customers who lose their tempers. Frustration builds up and spills over into anger. The trouble is that we want things to go the way we think they should, and get annoyed by the bureaucratic systems that send us round in circles, with the same answers and unkept promises over and over again.  The illusion is that we should be, or can be, in control. We need to remind ourselves that the injustices that Jesus submitted to without a word of protest make our concerns look very petty indeed. There will always be things we cannot change, and railing against them simply exhausts us.

Secondly anger is often a mask for fear. It can be fear of violence, of losing something, or of losing face and having our ego challenged. When people abuse those different from them – people of other races, they are often afraid of the changes that are coming to their neighbourhood. They fear the loss of jobs or poor housing, and look for someone to blame. They often choose an innocent victim.  Communities can scapegoat, too, as refusal to see their own faults projects them onto another. The most horrifying example is the fate of not just the Jews, but the gypsies and gay people as well in Nazi Germany. The economy was collapsing and the German nation had been humiliated in the treaty that ended the First World War. When Hitler began to blame minorities he struck a chord in people afraid of losing both material things and the sense of national pride. But we are immune to this anger once we see Christ in our neighbours. If we love him, we cannot take out our own anxieties on those he loves.

Lastly, anger can cover sadness. I often find that if I am angry with someone, I am covering up the feelings of hurt and disappointment at something they have done. Anger is a less unpleasant emotion – it is energising, whereas sadness can leave us feeling powerless. But the sadness will not go away if it is covered up, and forgiving the other is impossible until we cease to be angry. Sometimes families are split for years over a relatively minor argument, but one or both sides refuses to climb down. I find that terribly sad, when parents and children, or brothers and sisters become estranged. From today’s reading:

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,  and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

If we face up to our frustration, fear or sadness, we can find our anger melts away. But some people live with anger they don’t know how to leave aside. Being badly hurt by someone, especially someone we trusted, can leave wounds that have not healed, and for some people a corrosive anger can be a part of their lives. It can come out unfairly expressed towards loved ones, or it can be buried deep and turned in upon themselves. In the Old Testament we read that

  • The LORD is slow to anger,
  • and abounding in steadfast love,
  • forgiving iniquity and transgression,
  • but by no means clearing the guilty,
  • visiting the iniquity of the parents
  • upon the children
  • to the third and the fourth generation.

I have come to realise that this is not so much a threat as a statement of fact. Violence in families is passed from parent to child, until the cycle is broken. And this can be the more subtle forms of violence like sarcasm and belittling, as well as actual physical blows. The grace of God can break the chains that are perpetuating the cycle. And often God heals us when we seek help from other people.

So anger can be righteous anger in the face of injustice, it can be a mask for other emotions, and it can be the result of deep wounds. The writer of Ephesians gives us a touchstone for all our Christian behaviour.

Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

We do not live in our own strength – rather we know ourselves loved unconditionally and as we are. When we see others in the light of that love we will understand the command “Be angry, but do not sin”.

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