Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Anger- James 1

James 1:17-27
1:17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

1:18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

1:19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;

1:20 for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.

1:21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

1:22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

1:23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;

1:24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.

1:25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing.

1:26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

            It doesn't take me long to dig into my life to find examples of anger. The other night I was making chocolate chip cookies with my two sons. We mixed up all the ingredients and the boys took turns stirring. Then we carefully placed the dough on the baking sheet and put them in the oven. The boys sat in front on the oven staring in the window at the baking cookies. I noticed that there was a sliding lock on the oven door and I thought it might be a good idea to lock it with the boys being so interested in what was happening inside. So I slide the lock over. Then the timer went off and we went to open the stove and the lock wouldn't unlock. I pulled and wiggled, but the door wouldn't budge. The lock was stuck tight. The boys stared in on our cookies that were trapped in the oven and we could smell them cooked to perfection, but not accessible. I could feel the anger welling up inside me. I was ready to get the big hammer, or push the oven down the stairs. I felt like my skin was about to turn green and my shirt would rip to shreds- Chris smash! ... I think the oven had a lock that was set to only open below a certain temperature, eventually we got the cookies, and they were even edible, though a little crunchy.
            That's a pretty trivial example. I could give more examples. There was a time a man with road rage freaked out at Crystal and started punching the van window with my son Zander on the other side. There was a time when there was a bloody fight at a youth group I was leading. A lot of the anger I see is caused by pretty trivial things- traffic, for example. People worried about being late because of traffic, or getting cut off,  or someone making a mistake. Some are less trivial- loss of a relationship, or serious illness, for example.
            There are lots of other causes for anger. Many are not as trivial as the examples I've given, but there is no shortage of examples. We live in a world with a lot of anger. We feel anger when we believe a situation isn't fair, or just. Or, anger might just be an indication that we aren't getting our own way. Things aren't being done our way, or according to our expectations. We feel anger when we can't control the situation. If we can't control the situation then we  become afraid of what might happen. That fear leads to desires for self-protection. That leads to us wanting to fight to change the situation, or run away from it.          
            The emotion itself is natural. Anger just happens, but the way we react to our anger is a choice. It is natural to feel that initial feeling of anger, but it is our choice to yell and scream or hit and throw things. Dwelling on the situation that is making us angry can also be a choice. We could choose to think about something else. Anger is given to us to highlight a situation. In that sense it is neutral, neither good or bad, but we are completely responsible for our reactions to our anger. Two people might encounter the same situation, but one flies off in a rage and the other doesn't. We have a choice as to how we react. Acting in anger can be quite dangerous.   
            The medical community has started to see the effects of anger on health. Anger causes the release of  a hormone called cortisol. In small doses it can give a burst of energy. However, higher and prolonged presence of cortisol can lead to serious health problems.  Anger has been linked to headaches, digestive problems, depression, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and can even impair the brain's ability to think.[1]                 
            Anger isn't just bad for your health- It's bad for your soul too. Jesus says in Matthew 5:22,
"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."
Jesus sees anger as the seed of murder. A person who is seething with anger essentially is in the same condition as the person who is about to murder someone. The outer act of murder would never happen except for the inner disposition of anger. God's desire isn't for people who are seething with anger, while holding themselves back from murder. God's desire is for people to be filled with love who are peacemakers.
            In our Gospel reading today Jesus is saying that it is the inner disposition that leads to action that determines a person's cleanness or uncleanness, not a specific ritual. Someone who is filled with anger will have actions that flow from that inner disposition. That shows the uncleanness. Ritual hand washing before eating, does not determine the state of a person's soul. It's the condition of the heart that is the root. The action is only the flower. Unless you change the root you will always get the same flower. A rose root will produce a rose. A dandelion root will produce a dandelion. Our actions show what is inside of us. They betray our cleanness or  uncleanness.       
            There are plenty of other verses we could talk about. Jesus says in Matthew 5:43 'You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you".
            In his letter to the Ephesians (4:26, 31), Paul says, 26 “'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry... 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice". At first this might seem like it is allowing us permission to be angry- "in your anger do not sin". But, we have to ask why Paul is telling us to be so careful with our anger. "Don't let it last more than one day" seems like what he's saying if we take him literally. It is dangerous. It is especially dangerous if we let it seethe and become entrenched in our hearts. So get rid of it. Get rid of all rage and anger.
            The church throughout history has also given us strong warnings about anger. Some have allowed for it for the sake of justice and righteousness, but they also warn that this is dangerous ground. Usually anger is spoken of negatively. The 4th century monk John Cassian taught that anger can exclude God's Spirit from dwelling within a person, and so he forbade expressions of anger. It has been taught to be one of the deadly sins- commonly called "wrath". The Church has taught that anger interferes with prayer, clouds judgement, is dangerously self-justifying, and often leads to more sin. Some in the church even taught that all expressions of anger were sinful.    
             It's about this point that we want to defend our right to be angry. If we don't get angry people might abuse us. They will walk all over us. We want to say that our anger energizes us to stand up for justice and fight oppression. We might not want to call it anger. We want to call it "righteous indignation", because in our anger we are standing up for what is right.
            But, it's at this point we are confronted with today's reading from James.
(1:19-20) "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."
            We say we want our anger because we believe that it will help us stand up for justice and righteousness, but James tells us plainly, "human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires". James says we are wrong to hold onto our anger for the sake of justice and righteousness.  The root of anger will always produce a certain kind of flower. The way we protest against the injustices in the world are as important as the end. The end and the means are one. The way we protest produces a certain kind of world.
            For example, when I hear about someone abusing a child I can become really angry. So if I walk into a room where I see a child being abused my anger will motivate me to do something. But, if I'm motivated by my anger alone I will want to destroy the abuser. The victim disappears. All that exists in my anger is the abuser. ... However, if I walk in and am motivated by compassion, instead of anger, the victim will be larger than the abuser in my vision. It is also likely that I will be able to think more clearly about what to do and who to call in order to make sure the abuser doesn't abuse anyone else and that the victim is protected and cared for. ... Anger is destructive. Compassion leads to wholeness and peace.
            We might also want to defend our anger by pointing to the anger of God in the Old Testament, or the anger of Jesus in the New Testament. Without getting into a whole other sermon I'll just say that we have to be careful about saying that because God or Jesus did something that we have permission to do it. Just because God split the sea, and Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead doesn't mean we are called to do the same. We are called to imitate in some ways, but not in others. There are reasons that would allow God to act in anger justly, when we would be. God has all the information and sees all situations clearly- we don't. Also, we have to consider that God and Jesus have the moral character to use their anger without sinning. We are dramatically broken and likely don't have the character to act in our anger without sinning. Also, what we know as 'anger' might not be equivalent to 'anger' when applied to God. We often project our anger onto God and Jesus- for example when Jesus turns over the money changers tables in the temple.  There's more we could say, but that's another sermon for another day.    
            Jesus, and Paul, and James, and many others throughout the history of the church have taught us that anger is dangerous and leads to sin. So what do we do? What we don't do is repress it. Bottling up our anger is really just another way of holding onto it. What we do is that when we feel the initial anger, we stop. We slow down. We recognize the anger. We name it. Then we put the situation into perspective. We look at it in comparison to the big picture. So someone made a mistake on the road and cut you off. Have you ever made a mistake on the road? How would you hope to be treated if it was you who made the mistake? Maybe you think they were really trying to be a jerk. Why do you think that? Why not assume it was a genuine mistake? But, even if it was wilful, in the overall scheme of things is it worth getting worked up about? Why not use this as an opportunity to learn the virtue of patience? Is there any other way to learn patience except through learning to deal with frustrating situations? Remind yourself of Jesus' words. If we can learn to love someone who cuts us off on the road, perhaps we can start to learn love an enemy. This doesn't mean don't confront someone who has wronged you. By all means confront them, just not in anger.    
             When we learn to live in cooperation with God's Spirit living in us and working through us, then we can allow anger to be transformed. Like I said earlier, it's not wrong to feel that initial burst of anger, but our reaction to that initial burst is what matters. We can allow anger to rule us and we can throw things and yell and scream, or we can choose to breathe and slow down. We can recognize that we are feeling angry, but we don't have to let it rule us. We can allow it to float through our minds and leave as easily as it came, but that takes practice and it takes a continual training our minds on God. We can learn to follow God and God's way alone, which is meekness. Meekness is submission to God alone, not the bullies around us. Sometimes meekness means standing up against bullies in submission to God's will. In this we learn to be God's instruments to create peace wherever we are because we know that is the will of God.  
            As we learn to live and move in God's will,  and as we allow God to work in us and through us, then when something doesn't go our way, or something isn't perfect and it bothers us, we will be reminded that we are not God. We can give our desire to control to God. When we feel alone and afraid we will be reminded that God is always with us. When we make mistakes, or others in our lives make mistakes, we will be reminded that God knows all of it and still works through it and still loves us and them. When we see something that is unfair we can remind ourselves that we should respond, but that anger will not bring about the righteousness God desires. We live in a broken place, but God will not allow anything that he cannot redeem and bring good out of. In the end God will have the last word. Putting the situation into the bigger picture can make our anger seem quite petty, but in the moment we feel completely justified.
            Anger is a reality in all of our lives. We all choose how we react to it. The guidance we are given in the Bible about anger isn't to make life harder for us. We develop habits and patterns around anger that can be hard to break. Sometimes the ways we react are destructive. They are destructive to the people we live and work with- our friends and families- or strangers on the street. Sometimes the way we react to our anger is destructive for us. It is dangerous for our bodies, but it is also dangerous for our soul. The guidance we are given isn't to make life harder, it is to ultimately make our lives better and make the world a better place. It is about God's kingdom being established in our lives. Amen.        

1. What makes you most angry and why?
2. What usually happens when you act out of anger (in that moment and in hours or days following)? 
3. Why does James say that human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires? 
4. What steps can you take to deal with anger in your life? 

[1] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Anger_how_it_affects_people

For more on Anger consider the following:
The Good And Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith (chapter 4)
Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft (chapter 10)

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