The sin of Anger
Matt. 5:21-22 Ephesians 4:30-32
A writer named Eugene Ioneseo has written a short play titled Anger. The play takes place on an idyllic Sunday in a beautiful country town where strollers shower coins and smiles on the local beggars and husbands treat their wives with adoring deference. Eventually, in all the town houses and apartments, everyone sits down to Sunday lunch. One after another, the husbands discover flies in their soup. Smiles turn to frowns, soothing words become cross ones. Insults are delivered and returned, crockery goes smashing. Soup (with flies) pours in torrents under the doors. The police arrive, these civic disturbances turn eventually into global war, and then into an atomic Armageddon. The final scene, projected on T.V., is of the entire planet exploding–all because of a fly in the soup.
That is Anger–irrational and insane. But let me tell you another story. It is better known. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. Edmond Dante is a young sailor returning from sea to marry the beautiful Mercedes. But he has enemies who want his position and his fiancé. Through their guile he is imprisoned in the dungeons of Chateau D’If where he spends 14 years. But while there he meets an old man who teaches him the knowledge of that day and just before his death reveals the whereabouts of a great treasure on the Isle of Monte Christo. Upon the death of the old man, Edmond Dante is able to escape. The rest of the story tells how systematically he hunts down each of his former enemies, and using his great wealth over the next years, coolly and calculatingly ruins each person and their families.
Here we have anger that burns for decades as a man nurses that anger, not into a blaze of passion, but a cold and deadly resentment. But this, too, is anger.
There are many temperatures of anger.
It can take the form of icy cold hatred that has complete control of its emotions. It is an anger of the will.
It can take the form of cool antagonism or a long term grudge that causes us to ignore the object of our hatred. It takes the form of despising and avoiding that person.
It can take the form of touchiness, impatience, irritability. Silence often prevails for days at a time. Here is an area where most of us operate on the scale of anger. But anger can take the form of hot bursts of temper. It can be an anger that erupts and lashes out, but then is of short duration. It is the anger of the emotionally immature. And then there is the anger that leads to violence, to murder, to insanity. It is a self-destructive thing.
But anger is not necessarily a bad thing. It is given by God. It operates in animals for self-preservation. It operates in people for the same reason. It is also meant in us for the fighting of wrong. And I suspect, along with others, that Sloth has cut the Achilles heel of beneficial anger. Jesus was angry on various occasions as he saw the exploitation of people by religious charlatans (John 2:13-17; Mark 3:5).
But anger is of such a nature that it can quickly become demonic. Anger is the second sin we meet in the Bible. Adam and Eve have been expulsed. Two sons have been born to them. They grow up to be young men. Both men bring an offering to God (Genesis 4:5-7). But anger is “crouching at Cain’s door”, and will consume Cain unless he masters it. He fails to do so and kills his brother.
We can go through scripture to find anger operating at different levels. There is the insane anger of Saul against David. There is the seething anger that causes the Levite in Judges to cut up his concubine into 12 pieces and mail her out to the 12 tribes. Then there is the cold plotting anger of an Absalom that for 2 years waits his time in order to kill his brother Amnon. And you can move to the anger of Jonah (4:8-9) who sits and pouts under the shady vine.
The New Testament recognized the horrible thing that anger is. Paul tells the Galatian Church (5:20) that anger is a work of the flesh that will cause a man to forfeit heaven. Paul, writing to the Ephesians (4:30-32), tells them “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you with all malice.”
But it is our Lord who puts anger in clearest perspective. Matt. 5:21-22 – Anger is murder in embryo. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
When Dante in his Divine Comedy tells of his visit to hell, he tells of his entering the 5th level of hell. There he sees muddy people in the swamp, all naked and hurt. They were hitting each other, not with hand only, but with head, and with chest, and with the feet, mangling one another piece meal with their teeth. Occupying this same level of hell were the 3 furies stained with blood, their hair was of serpents and horned snakes, and with their nails each one was tearing at themselves, beating themselves with their hands and crying out – the doom of the angry ones for all eternity – self destruction! It is no wonder that the Church has called anger one of the seven deadly sins. It, too, will kill you, and may lead to other things.
Some time ago I was leaving the hospital after making some visits. A woman with a small child was waiting for someone. She was oblivious to her surroundings. As I passed her staring into space, she snarled to an absent person “You make me sick!” And how true that is; doctors can describe to you what happens when anger takes over. The external signs are: increased pulse, trembling, flushed face, knit eyebrows, tensed facial muscles, dilated and flashing eyes, and impaired speech. The internal changes are: the output of adrenalin is increased, circulation, heartbeat, blood pressure, and blood sugar are all increased. There is an energy increase to the brain and muscles, respiration speeds up, as does perspiration. Skin temperature changes, the stomach slows down as does the gall bladder, the kidneys and the liver functions.
You don’t get angry without the entire body being affected. Sustained anger will kill any of us. But anger will not only kill the body, it will kill the family, and the community.
Anger in Our World:
Our world is going through waves of anger in the past few years.
- Violence is evident in our national and international affairs: plane hijacking, gun violence, revolutionary incendiaries, kidnappings, assassinations and incessant wars – even in so-called civilized societies.
- On the home front, child abuse of every sort, sexual, physical and verbal, is approaching epidemic proportions. Spousal abuse is an increasing. Rape is an act of anger and hatred, and not simply of lust. Male hostility to women’s striving for equality may be behind much of the depriving of women economically and educationally in our culture.
- Art and Entertainment is increasingly angry. Some of the punk rock groups let rage prevail in their performances. Some of the angry art on the canvasses of our art galleries has more to do with destruction than construction. The literature of modern writers is increasingly cynical, expressing their frustration with their perceived meaninglessness of life.
- And in our politics, angry attack ads seem to work better than stating one’s own platform. Our pre-election debates do not search for common ground, but are used to express our common derision for the other party on the other candidates.
Time magazine more than a decade ago stated that anger was the dominant mood of North America. It claimed that anger has been baptized by Modern Gestalt Psychology and therefore justified. “The astonishingly high standing of anger today can be verified thus: it is not only regarded as moral but as something even better, healthy and therapeutic. A fight a day keeps the doctor away,” psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin suggests in something called The Angry Book. With a burst of earnest lyricism, he asks: “Have you ever experienced the good, clean feel that comes after expressing anger, as well as the increased self-esteem and the feel of real peace with one’s self and others.” In the Intimate Enemy, Dr. George R. Bach, a clinical psychologist, turns anger into an art, or possible a science. “Intimate hostilities,” he guarantees, “can be programmed.’” Dr. Bach has his own slogan: The family that fights together stays together. And don’t worry if you aren’t very good at being angry. Dr. Bach will teach you.”
Anger in the Church
But in the church out broken anger like that in our world is not yet permissible. But anger prevails nonetheless.
It is more subtle and therefore more devious. Anger is seen in:
- Frequent moving of pastors, often due to the unsanctified anger of the saints. “Anybody would be better” is too frequently heard.
- Financial boycotting of the church budget, because we disagree with a program or a person, is anarchy in disguise.
- Personal absenteeism is another response of anger. We get away to the cottage or its equivalent and refuse to serve in office: cool neglect is often the outgrowth of anger.
- Sunday dinner where words about the pastor, teacher, song leader, or Mrs. Jones are ingested, are a form of gnashing our teeth, so is complaining after a majority decision has been passed.
- “Righteous” indignation against those we disagree with: e.g. The so called “war on Christmas” turns us into warriors, virulent opposition on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, etc. turns moderate disagreement into excessive preoccupations, all forms of the dragon of anger.
The Causes and Cure of Anger
The reason for anger of the wrong type that we have been speaking of is usually self defense. Those who are easily angered usually have a low self esteem; and aware of their limitations, feel like failures. They are people who live with frustration at themselves. These people feel trapped by life, often feeling hostility against themselves. Sigmund Freud called it thanatos, the wish to kill oneself. But that wish is difficult to live with, and so our self hostility is projected to those around us. I must keep on proving that I am not inferior. Anger has been called “the aggressive defence of an injured self.”
So what is the cure for this dis-ease of the soul?
Perhaps it begins with asking ourselves some difficult questions.
- Why do I get angry so easily and so often?
- What is so damaged in me that makes me feel the need to defend myself against all comers?
- What makes me think that I have the right to be judge, jury and executioner?
- Do I find it difficult to forgive because I have a hard time believing that I am forgivable?
If we can believe that we are loved, warts and all, by God, we might be able to forgive the person who has hurt us, in spite of their faults and flaws. Only God is perfect. Our parents, our children, our neighbours and our co-workers are not. Let us give them a break! Only God has the right to be judgmental, and I think I still hear him saying, “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
Though we have been wounded, we are called upon to be “wounded healers” and in the working towards the healing of those who have wounded us, we may find ourselves healed. I think that would be a good thing!