Be Angry But Do Not Sin

Trinitarian Congregational Church

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Anthony S. Kill

July 29, 2018

Texts: Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 2:14-22


I want to address the reading from Ephesians today.

It reads like a primer for healthy, positive relationships –speak the truth, don’t tell lies, don’t steal, work honestly,  don’t speak evil, say only what is useful for building up, ‘so that your words give grace to those who hear;’ put aside bitterness & wrath & wrangling & slander & malice, be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. This is the kind of value system that we try to teach our children, and try to live ourselves, at least on our better days.

But there’s one line in there that may surprise us at first glance. The author doesn’t include anger in his list of ‘don’ts’. Instead he says, “Be angry!” Oh, he qualifies it – he says “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” But first he says “Be angry.  It’s OK to be angry!  — just be sure you deal with it.”

Most of us have been trained to suppress our anger, or deny it, or at least see it as a failing, a bad thing. And some of us don’t always deal well with our anger, especially with those closest to us – we explode or we snap, then regret what we’ve said or how we’ve said it; or else maybe we brood and fume and stew in our anger, and give our loved ones the cold shoulder or the icy silent treatment (“Well if you don’t know why I’m mad, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”)  Probably a lot of us could benefit from anger management classes in some form or another!

I want to remind you that the Gospels have no hesitation about depicting Jesus as getting angry. Perhaps the best-known example is today’s Gospel story,  when Jesus clears the money changers out of the temple. Variations of that story is told by all four of the Gospel writers. Jesus is depicted as brandishing a whip, pouring out coins, overturning tables and driving out the money changers and animal sellers from the temple.

Another example is in Mark chapter 3, where Jesus sees a man with a withered hand in the temple on the Sabbath,  and he asks the Pharisees if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.

His question is met with stony silence, the Gospel says, “and Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”

For all our pietistic emphasis on his gentleness, mercy and goodness,  Jesus of Nazareth was no mild-mannered Casper Milquetoast. He really did feel and express strong emotions. He was very capable of feeling white-hot righteous indignation, and acting on it. The lesson here for us, is that anger is not a sin.  Human feeling, human passion is not sin.  In fact, it may be more of a violation of ourselves and of our relationships to deny our feelings, or suppress them without acknowledging their reality and their legitimacy, than it is to explode from time to time.  Anger is one of the emotions that gives definition to our lives, to our dignity, to our principles. In a way, it helps define who we are. Anger helps us determine where we draw the line, what we will not tolerate, where our own boundaries are violated — by another person, by some social theory or practice,  by an act that we dare not tolerate without protest.

If we deny our own anger to ourselves, we are deceiving ourselves, and not listening to the voice of our own soul crying within us. If we deny our anger at another person, we are withholding our true selves from them, not letting them know who we are or how we feel, or what we need. And if we deny our anger from God, we are withholding a part of our true selves from God, and not acknowledging before God an important aspect of who we are.

The theologian Robert McAfee Brown wrote that he came to a clearer understanding of the role of anger in Christian living when he realized that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference.  The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.

To love or to hate someone is to take an active interest in that person — for very different reasons, of course. To be indifferent is simply to ignore them, to act as if they did not exist or did not matter, or that their actions did not matter or make any difference to you one way or another.

I think the same could be said for love and anger. When our spouse or partner or a family member or close friend acts in a way that feels disrespectful or hurtful or uncaring toward us,  we can hardly be indifferent to that act, nor will our first response likely be loving and forgiving.  First we have to feel the slight or hurt that needs to be forgiven. Then we can work toward communication, understanding, and forgiveness. When our child or someone we love does something that is potentially dangerous  or self-destructive or disrespectful, or destructive to others,      how awful it would be if our first response was indifference,  or calm acceptance of their behavior.

We may do well to not fly off the handle in a rage, and to try to more calmly explain our concerns and our feelings, but anger is often part of the response they need to hear from us, in order to understand the effect that their behavior is eliciting in us.

So also, when we see others suffering, or being hurt or abused or diminished in some way, our Christian response – our HUMAN response should not be indifference. Our response should be to care about those in that situation. And part of that care may well be expressed as a righteous anger at the situation, but our response should not stop at anger.  That care and that anger should hopefully lead to action, like the kind of action taken by Communities Together over the decades that Lee Schurter told us about this morning by the coalition of churches first known as the Greater Lawrence Council of Churches.

Anger can serve us in our Christian vocation. It can encourage us (literally: ‘give us the courage’) to act in a Christ-like manner.

Way back in the fourth century, St Augustine recognized anger as a element of Christian hope, when he wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” “Anger at the way things are,  and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Maybe more churches should be passionate communities. Throughout the centuries, it was not the polite, docile communities that have fed the hungry,  housed the homeless, founded hospitals to heal the indigent, and schools to educate underprivileged children, advocated for human rights, or gone the extra mile. It is the passionate communities that have done those things. It is these passionate communities that have dared the extraordinary, gotten involved with the extremes of life with those on the margins, and moved into the extra mile because of love.

In the Book or Revelation, the Angel of Judgement says to one of the churches, ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. “But, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

I think a passionate community was the sort of community that Jesus was trying to gather around him when he walked the hills and shores of Galilee, healing the sick, teaching about love of neighbor and love of enemy, gathering sinners and outcasts around him.

Before I close, I want to return to the rest of that verse in Ephesians: The author says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” I think this passage gives us a clue about why we’re sometimes afraid of our anger, and why anger does sometimes result in destructive or sinful behavior.

This is a warning about what can happen when we fail to recognize our anger, acknowledge it, and express it as an honest, legitimate human feeling that demands and deserves appropriate expression. Because so many of us have been socialized to consider anger to be a “bad” emotion, we often displace our anger, or suppress it, or deny that we’re angry. Then we let the sun set on that anger, and it festers in the dark.

Unfortunately, anger has a poor shelf-life. When it is stored up over too long a period, it becomes rancid and harmful. Unacknowledged and unexpressed anger really can ‘make room for the devil.’

Turned inward, anger can transform into depression, and we direct the negative feelings against ourselves that really should have been directed at someone or something outside ourselves.

Or suppressed anger can build up, till we explode at the person with a huge rage over what was only a small or minor offence.  Or perhaps worse, suppressed anger can become displaced, and we end up targeting some innocent victim who isn’t even the person that made us angry in the first place — the old saw about kicking the dog at home because we can’t kick the boss at work; but more likely, we’ll over-react today to some offense by our child because we didn’t appropriately respond yesterday to some perceived offense by our spouse.

Anger that festers in the dark can also lead to long-term feuds and resentments and grudges, where rage and hurt become actual patterns and habits in relationships, poisoning them for months or years or even a lifetime of alienation. This can happen between siblings, between parents and children, between neighbors, even between spouses. The antidote to all of this is already listed in those few short verses Sarah read from Ephesians 4:

Honesty – speaking truth and not falsehood – which also includes self-honesty – acknowledging our own true feelings and motivations, unpleasant though they may be. Refusing to speak evil of the other, no matter how justifiably angry you may be. Remembering that even when you’re angry, your goal is to be a source of truth and a source of grace to the other person. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and, finally and most, most important, forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

All this can seem like hard work, and it’s true that we really do have to work hard on our relationships sometimes – in our homes, in our families, in our communities, in the church.  It isn’t always sweet, or easy. But it is also true that it is in our relationships that we meet Christ, and practice love, and find joy. And it is in our relationships that we discover, day in and day out, the surprising grace of God.