Last Sunday we spoke about “anger,” a completely normal, basic human emotion very much like happiness, sadness, or anxiety, among many others. The “problem” with anger is that is tied to basic survival – it is the mechanism that regulates our instinctive “fight, flight, or freeze” response when we feel threatened. No wonder we tend to see it as intrinsically bad, even sin!
But we should not see anger as a sin – rather, it is what we do with anger that has the potential to become sinful as it undermines the sacredness of our lives and our relationships.
With this understanding in mind, the Apostle Paul writes to his church in Ephesus, now Turkey, the way he does: “When angry, do not sin; do not ever let your anger (your exasperation, your fury, or indignation) last until the sun goes down. Leave no foothold for the devil lest he takes advantage of such an opportunity.” (4:26-27)
Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t get angry” or “If you ever get angry,” but “When you are angry.” We’re all going to be angry at times, yet the problem is not feeling anger, rather act on those feelings. I’m aware of this challenge, for which reason I constantly need to pray, “Dear God, change me so I can be stronger than my feelings are.”
Last Sunday we also spoke about God’s getting angry when his Creation or his children are “threatened” by idolatry or injustice, and we remembered how Jesus himself got angry – not once, but several times.
Jesus got angry at people who made a mockery of God’s healing and forgiving grace, who put rituals and regulations over people, and who made difficult for others to encounter and to walk hand in hand with a loving God. He even got angry at his own disciples for believing that children were second-class citizens. Yet Jesus’s anger was always redeeming, never an expression of hatred or resentment, or a trigger for vengeance.
Today I would like to sketch a road map to face our anger issues or help someone who is struggling with anger issues.
First, we need to know ourselves better, our personal traits better, since what we are and how we respond to threats have the potential to add gasoline to our instinctive anger. Here I’d like to talk about our AQ – not our IQ, our intelligence quotient, rather our AQ, our Anger Quota.
We all have an AQ, a point, a threshold, when we get angry and start to growl and even to boil up like a volcano, spewing out venomous anger in all directions – don’t we?
Just for fun, let me give you a test – I promise I won’t ask any of you to reveal your test scores. Imagine yourself approaching the express checkout line at the grocery store, where it says, with capital letters, “TWELVE ITEMS OR LESS.”
You have been polite enough to pack no more than twelve, that’s it, but the guy in front of you seems to have ignored the sign – his cart is loaded to the brim! Besides, you are in a hurry; your pulse rate starts to rise; you feel like your territory has been violated; someone is taken advantage of the system, and taken advantage of you, and your blood is already 210 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now try to imagine your AQ when your frustration has to do with conflict with relatives, friends, bosses . . . Knowing, or at least being aware of how much heat, how much anger you can take, is critical –still 210F, closer to 450F?
If you are, for instance, the “perfectionist” type, someone who expects perfection in everyone else, an extremely picky person, someone who usually gets mad a anyone who doesn’t do things your way, chances are, your Anger Quota will have you boil, or fry, in a matter of minutes.
The same will happen if you belong to the “always on the edge” type, always running like crazy with overload schedules and routines, so busy, always so much on the edge, behaving like a rubber band stretched to the limits, ready to snap at the slightest thing.
And don’t expect any different if you are the “blamer” type, usually without a basic sense of humor, compassion, and empathy, someone who finds it difficult to relax and enjoy a good time, to be flexible and tolerant, someone who is always blaming others for whatever wrong happens to you and to others.
Same, again, if you are the “#1” type, always obsessed with being #1, always on top, being the best, having the best home, the best kids, the best church, the best of everything, even being the sickest of the group when folks start bragging about their own illnesses and surgeries. Obviously, whenever your #1 status may be threatened, chances are your Anger Quota will go through the roof in a matter of minutes.
Knowing, being aware of our “anger type” and our “anger quota” will not necessarily resolve our anger issues, yet we cannot begin to deal with our anger issues unless and until we learn to be in touch with our feelings and take responsibility for them.
Is that all we need? No way! — a good road map requires something more than self-awareness — what about letting God help us process our anger?
Have you ever thought of that? Instead of letting our anger dangerously loose, instead of bottling our anger up, trying to suppress it – both are toxic options — why not consider asking God to help us deal with it?
The moment our anger begins to blip-blip-blip on our emotional radars, why not remember that God, who is slow to anger, is inviting us to bring our anger to Him? Why not? Jesus did it – whenever angry, and with good reason, Jesus brought his own frustration, all his pain to the Lord in prayer.
I’ll never forget a very down-to-earth youth leader with a formidable amount of empathy — every time he intervened to help us with conflict resolution, he would say to us: “Do like David, do like David.”
David always found a safe place in God’s presence where he could process his anger in prayer and he did it knowing that God would never reject him for it — and when you see things like David did, you no longer need to hold your anger forever ever or to blast it out.
Even though David often expected the Lord to be really tough on his enemies, he learned to leave all his anger, all his resentment in God’s hand, for he realized that just because he was irritated, or upset, or even mad at his enemies, it didn’t mean that he was right to go around like crazy hitting everybody else with a hammer.
“Do like David,” our youth leader used to say, “Count to 100 before acting on your anger.”
Many centuries later, the Apostle James will echo David’s approach and exhort his own churches like this: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
As you can see, God’s way of dealing with anger is to be slow to anger, and Jesus got the idea, as we can see from this Gospel “incident” today, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t ever call your brother or sister ‘Raca’, for if you do, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Jesus was visibly upset – he might have heard one of his own disciples call one of his pals ‘raca,’ an Aramaic word that most Bibles translate as “fool.” But ‘raca’ is much more than ‘fool,” and it has the sound of clearing one’s throat to spit – it is a word that carries anger, but anger that demeans and degrades, for it also means ‘extremely stupid,’ ‘empty-headed,’ ‘idiot’ to the square.
Think of common racial, ethnic, or gender slurs and you’ll be close.
Now, Jesus concludes, if you went that far, if you treated one of your siblings like that, think twice before going to church with your offering or to partake around this table — you’d better stop, reconsider, go back, be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then, only then, go back to the altar.
Which was Jesus’s way of counting to 100!
Friends, when you “slow down” you anger you will find precious time and opportunity to re-evaluate a person’s words or action, and – oh surprise — you may even find that there’s no need to get angry, or that much angry, as that person really did not intend to hurt you or was merely acting out of their own biases and fears or their own unresolved anger.
So, when you feel yourself getting upset and your blood is closer to 1000F, the sooner you say “No!” to those thoughts and feelings, the better, and instead of letting the anger control you, get down on your knees and pray something like this:
“Dear God, please help me, and help me now! I know being upset is not going to get me anywhere. This person hurt my feelings and that was wrong, but I’m not going to act on this. I want to trust You with my anger and trust that you will help me to take care of the situation — your way, not mine.”
May I close with a story once told by one of my favorite theologians, Mr. Rogers?
An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves.
One is evil — he lets anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, and ego take over his heart. The other is good — he lets joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, compassion, and faith take over his heart. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other human being, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”