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How To Be Human (Again): Good and Angry
Colossians 3:7 - 3:11
July 4, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
Anger is a complex response to a complex world. Continuing with our sermon series "How To Be Human (Again)," This week's sermon, Good and Angry, explores what anger is, what's wrong about it and what's right about it. We also delve deeper to address the five categories of anger and how to approach anger from a Biblical point of view.
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As we emerge from the pandemic and reenter society, we've been talking about how we need to figure out how to be human all over again. Jesus is in a position, uniquely, to help us do that. Jesus not only shows us what a truly human life looks like, but the whole reason why Jesus lived, died, and rose again was to make us fully human—like himself. Even now, Jesus is on a mission to renew God's image in us so that we might become our true selves—the people that God has destined us to be.
The Fourth of July seems as good a time as any for us to reflect on the state of our society. It seems clear to me that over the course of this past year, there has been an uptick in anger. People are angry about all kinds of things. There's a variety of different sources. People are angry about the virus. They're anxious and afraid about the spread of variance. People are angry about politics. They're angry about racial injustice. They're angry about potential risks to their civil liberties. People are angry about vaccines, and people are angry about masks.
There's a psychology professor at Harvard, who told a story from last summer. He went on a run one day, and someone got angry and yelled at him because he was wearing a mask. This was in Boston. Then he thought about it a little bit more, and he said, well, maybe you're right, I'm running around a reservoir. I'm not near anyone, I'm not a danger to anyone. So the next day goes for a run and he doesn't wear a mask. Then of course someone gets angry and yells at him for not wearing a mask. So clearly, you can't win. We've all got issues with anger.
The television show, “The Office,” did a spoof on this years ago. Andy Bernard works at the company Dunder Mifflin. He's got difficulty controlling his temper, so his boss, Michael Scott, comes up with a solution. At one point Andy turns to the camera and says, “So Michael had a little chat with corporate and they decided to send me to management training. Anger management, technically, but still, I’m management material. This whole thing, it's supposed to take 10 weeks, but I can do it in five. How? Name repetition, personality mirroring and positive reinforcement through nods and smiles. So don't worry about old Andy Bernard. I'll be back just like Rambo.” Then after he completes this course, he comes back to tell us, “Well, I graduated from anger management the same way I graduated from Cornell—on time. Now I'm back. Got a second chance, and I'm not going to blow it so look out Dunder Mifflin! I mean, look out in a fun kind of way, not like I'm going to hurt you.”
Well anger increasingly seems like it's on the rise. On the one hand, it makes sense. People become more easily angered when they're under a lot of stress. Certainly, we've all been under a lot of stress. We've been cooped up in our apartments for over a year. We've had to deal with more than our fair share of uncertainty and confusion. That's enough to make someone angry. Lonely people are more prone to become paranoid, negative, and angry, for the very simple reason that they don't always have others around them with whom they can process their thoughts and their feelings. We shouldn't be surprised given how lonely many of us have been that we're a little angrier than usual. Social media doesn't help because social media amplifies our outbursts of rage and frustration. Those messages that get the most likes, the most comments and that are forwarded around are usually the ones that are making negative statements about some perceived outgroup. Of course, what that means is, your message is more likely to go viral the angrier that it is. That means that we should be especially careful about our social media feeds. We might be fed a whole lot of anger.
On the one hand, this increase in anger makes sense, but on the other hand, I have to say that I'm more than a little dismayed and more than a little concerned about the ways in which Christians, in particular, are expressing their anger. Over the last year, people have forwarded me social media posts that were anger fueled and profanity laced, and they literally made me cringe. It used to be that anger was considered one of the seven deadly sins, one of the seven deadliest sins, but it seems increasingly like we're turning it into a secular virtue. We praise people now for their anger because that shows that you're passionate. You're committed. You're concerned, and you're not going to take it anymore. All of which suggests to me that we need a little biblical balance when it comes to anger. So I'd like to take a deeper dive. We've been sitting on Colossians 3 for the last few weeks, and I'd like us to take an even closer look. Specifically, I'd like us to ask, what is anger, what is wrong about it and what is right about it? So what is anger, what's wrong about it and what's right about it. So listen, as I read from Colossians 3:7-11.
“In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
This is God's word. It is trustworthy and it's true and it's given to us in love.
Last week, we talked about how there are certain attitudes and actions and ways of being that are appropriate for the Christian life, and others that are not. That's why the Apostle Paul tells us that we need to take off, we need to put away those patterns of thought and behavior that do not fit, and we need to put on the ones that do—like exchanging clothes. We need to take off certain articles of clothing and put on new ones. When it comes to the practices that we're supposed to put off, you'll notice at verse eight, that anger tops the list, but now you must put them all away—anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk. In a similar way, when Paul provides a representative list of sins, in Galatians 5:19-21, more than half of them belong to what you could call the anger family. So very clearly, the Apostle Paul is fixated on the problem of anger, and that means that we need to pay attention to it.
Categories Of Anger
Let me ask you, do you have an anger problem? Do you have an anger problem? Now that question is not as easy to answer as you might think at first. Let me give you five categories—five ways in which you could respond to that question. Maybe you fit in more than one.
Number one: Some people know that they have a problem with anger. You know that the way in which you express your anger is unhealthy, and it's disruptive. You lose it. You lose your cool. You lose your patience. Your temper flares, and you do and you say things that you later regret. It's something that weighs upon you. You have a reaction to people in situations that is far out of proportion to the crime, or maybe you are someone who holds on to grudges and grievances. You nurse old wounds. You replay the tapes in your mind of things that people have done or said. As a result of that, you refuse to let things go. You just hold on to the grievance. That's number one.
Number two: Perhaps you have a problem with anger, but you don't see it. You refuse to recognize it, or you're not willing to admit it. You say, well, I don't have a problem with anger now, not me. I mean, some people might, but not me. That's because your anger is expressed in a veiled form. You are passive aggressive. You think critical thoughts. You're prone to brooding and complaining. You might even say, well, this is just who I am. I can't help it. This is who I am. But no, that's no excuse. You're overly critical and you're easily irritated and everyone else knows. You really have to do something about it.
Number three: Others know that they're angry, but they don't see that as a problem. No, they would see that as part of the solution. You might say, for far too long I let people walk all over me, and I didn't say a thing. I'm through with that now. I'm not going to be a passive doormat. I'm not going to be a victim of someone else's abuse. No, I'm going to take charge of my own life. I finally got in touch with my anger. Now I feel so empowered. Now I feel like I'm really alive. Now I feel like I am in control of my life. As you'll see later, I firmly believe that it is important for us to recognize the appropriate anger in our life, but there's a real danger if we fail to realize that oftentimes the aggrieved become aggressors. Today's oppressed often become tomorrow's oppressors.
There's a fourth category on the flip side. Some people don't get angry when they should and so ironically, the absence of anger in your life could be an anger problem. You don't get upset. You're unflappable even though something truly wrong is happening around you. Maybe not necessarily to you, but the problem is that you don't care enough to care. That's an issue. You might be an under reactor, rather than an over reactor, because you're safely distant from life's troubles or from the worries that maybe other people have. Either you don't notice, or you choose not to notice those wrongs, which are taking place all around you, which means that you tacitly endorse them. You tacitly endorse the status quo.
Then there's a fifth way in which you might respond to this question. There's a final category. Maybe the biggest anger problem in your life is not coming from you, but it is coming at you. You are the object of someone else's anger and hostility. As a result, you're constantly walking on eggshells. You never know what is going to set this person off, and that anger poses a real danger to you. If that's the case, well then your first priority is to get immediate help—immediate help—to keep you and those whom you love safe. You may need to call the authorities if you feel threatened. Longer term, you might need someone to help you process the sense of fear or shame or powerlessness you often feel because you're the object of someone else's violence and aggression. If that's the case, then I would say, please reach out to a trusted friend, reach out to a pastor, reach out to someone on our staff, speak with a counselor, let us help you get the help that you need.
So do you have an anger problem? Maybe you didn't think so when you walked in these doors this morning, but now you do. It's a more difficult question to answer than we may have thought. I wish I could say well, no anger issues are reserved for certain people, but I'm afraid that's a lie because we all have issues with anger. We all have an anger problem. We realize that anger is powerful, and because it's so powerful, it can be destructive. That's why it needs to be properly channeled. Many people have developed a number of different techniques to help us channel that anger. We can make use of some of those relaxation techniques or deep breathing exercises. We can reframe our self talk. All those things are good and may be helpful. You might want to write an angry email to get it off your chest and then never send it—immediately put it in the trash. I found that it's often helpful to tell someone when you're upset, I need you, rather than I'm mad at you because people often respond much better to knowing that you simply need them rather than you're angry at them. So there's a number of techniques that may be helpful. I'd encourage you to seek them out, but that's not what I'm going to focus on today because instead I'd like us to go a little bit deeper in understanding what this anger is, where it comes from and what we're supposed to do with it.
What Is Anger?
So what is anger? It's not merely an emotion. It's not merely an action. It's not merely an attitude. Anger is a complex response to a complex world. It's a complex response to a complex world. In its simplest form, you could say that to be angry means to take a stand and to say, I am against that. I'm against that—whatever that might be. You're taking an active stance in opposition to something that is important and something that is wrong. When you say I'm against that, you're saying this matters, and it's not right. You're actively opposing it.
But the question is: How do you do it? In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says in 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin.” Be angry and do not sin—which suggests that there is a form of anger that is not sinful. So it is at least hypothetically possible to be good and angry. You can be good and angry. Anger is the appropriate response to injustice. It's the appropriate response to any wrongdoing, any violation of God's good design for human life. We respond in anger when we recognize that someone has been wronged, including ourselves and we are driven to make things right.
What’s Wrong About Anger?
If anger is this active stance of opposition to that which is important and that which is wrong, then what's the problem? Well, the problem is that anger can go wrong in a myriad of ways. We all know that. We know how anger can divide friends, destroy marriages and wreck churches. So why does anger so often go wrong? Well, let me give you three core reasons. It often goes wrong because it's based on the wrong reasons, it's directed towards the wrong target or it's expressed in the wrong way.
Oftentimes, anger is motivated for all the wrong reasons. When you respond in anger, you're taking that stand. You're saying this matters and it's not right, but, in fact, perhaps, there was no sin, no evil, no injustice, no wrongdoing. Sometimes we get angry just because things didn't go our way. You're angry because you didn't get what you wanted. I'm so mad at you because you didn't do it the way that I wanted you to, but that doesn't mean that you've been wronged. Maybe something you desire has been thwarted or blocked, but you have now twisted the real concern for wrongdoing into nothing more than the obsession with yourself. You're just focused on yourself—what you want, what you desire—so you get angry with God or you get angry with other people, but the real problem might be your expectations. Your expectations are off. Sometimes our anger is motivated by the wrong reason.
Sometimes we attack the wrong target. We take out our anger on someone who hasn't actually done anything wrong. Maybe we were simply mistaken or maybe we've misinterpreted a person's words or actions. Sometimes we feel like we're in a position where we can't actually address the person that hurt us or harmed us or wronged us in some way and so what do we do? We take it out on somebody else—consciously or unconsciously—we take it out on somebody else. Why is it so appealing? Because even misdirected anger makes us feel like we're in control. Even if we're not taking out the anger on the right person, we feel like we're doing something and therefore regaining control of our lives again.
Thirdly, perhaps most commonly, what's wrong with our anger is that it's expressed in the wrong way. There might have really been an offense that deserves our opposition, but the problem is that our response is blown out of all proportion. We become too hot, and our anger burns too long. That's what does the damage in our relationships. It's excessive. When anger simmers—especially over a long period of time—it can so easily turn into hostile mean spirited contempt where we just want to inflict punishment on the other person. We demand our pound of flesh. We want to make them pay. Anger goes wrong when it's motivated by the wrong reasons, directed towards the wrong target or expressed in the wrong way.
It is possible to experience righteous anger, but here's the thing that I want you to realize—righteous anger probably occurs less than you think. More often than not, your anger probably goes wrong than it goes right. We ought to be very, very careful about ascribing any positive significance to our anger. Why? Because anger is so attractive. C.S. Lewis said, the reason why we're attracted to it is because it's so easy to think that we are entirely in the right and the other person, the other group of people are entirely in the wrong, but life doesn't work that way. Very rarely are things that clear cut. More often than not, we're dealing with Shades of Grey.
So we should be very, very careful about ascribing any positive significance to our anger. Anger probably goes wrong more often than it goes right, but it is possible, at least hypothetically, to be good and angry.
What’s Right About Anger?
So what does that look like? Well, the opposite of unrighteous anger is not passive indifference, or tolerance of the status quo. No, it's something much more positive, and something much more profound. Let me offer this definition—the right kind of anger is constructive displeasure that mercifully seeks the good of others. The right kind of anger is constructive displeasure that mercifully seeks the good of others. It doesn't turn a blind eye towards wrongdoing nor does it morph into some seething desire for vengeance. Rather, anger is this active stance of displeasure towards a real wrong, but rather than being motivated for the wrong reasons or directed towards the wrong target or expressed in the wrong way, it's based on all the right reasons. It's directed at the right target, and it's expressed in the right way. It's not destructive; it's constructive. It's not intended to tear down but to build up. It's not vindictive; it's merciful. It's gracious. It is at its core loving. It is proactive, and it is proportionate. It proportionately addresses the wrong with the goal of making things better. Have you really ever experienced anger like that? My guess is it's pretty rare. What does that actually look like in practice?
Let me tell you something that may surprise you. The God of the Bible, and Jesus in particular, may be the most famous, angry person you've ever heard of. The God of the Bible, and Jesus in particular, may be the most famous angry person that you've ever heard of. The Counselor David Powlison puts it like this:
“No other person in history has ever allowed his or her anger to be so carefully detailed and held up for public inspection. No book ever written tells so much about one person’s anger—and portrays it as essentially and coherently good. Never capricious. Never irritable. Never selfish. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that consistently builds upon it offer an extended, coherent case study. Among other things, it’s a case study in the inner workings and the outworking of healthy anger.”
The scriptures often portray God as someone who gets angry. Psalm 7:11, for example, says that, “God is a righteous judge, and he expresses his indignation every day.” God is a righteous judge, and he expresses his indignation every day. That sounds odd to us. That strikes us as somewhat offensive. We're uncomfortable with the idea of God's anger. We're especially uncomfortable with the idea of God's wrath. Anger and wrath seem unbecoming of God. If God exists, God must be a God of love. This is one of the primary objections that people have to God today. They say, well, I can never believe in an angry God. But you see the problem is that we assume that God's anger is just like ours. Oh, well, if God gets angry well then that means he must fly off the handle. He's a capricious bully. He's out of control. His anger burns too hot, and he's just seeking to harm us. No, God's anger is not violent. It's not vindictive. It's not out of control.
This is what many people think. This is what the Yale Theologian Miroslav Volf thought for many years. He thought that God's love and God's anger were fundamentally incompatible with one another, but that was until he began to seriously consider the world's injustices and the atrocities that we face in life. Then this led him to a startling new conclusion. He writes:
“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That is exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed. My people shelled day in and day out. Some of them brutalized beyond imagination and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. A passive God, who indifferently shrugs his shoulders at the world's injustice, or who is helpless to do anything about it, would not be a god worthy of our worship. The God of the Bible gets angry, and it's good that he does. We see that supremely in the person of Jesus. Jesus is not some cool, calm, collected, Eastern mystic, with a serene expression plastered on his face, nor is he detached, unflappable stoic. No, in many ways, Jesus became the most famous angry person you've ever known because that's what the Scriptures record for us. But his anger was not capricious. It was never blown out of proportion, and it was never mean spirited. Consider John 2. Jesus slowly, deliberately and methodically makes a whip of cords. He doesn't fly off the handle. He takes his time to create this whip of cords, and then he uses it to drive people out of the temple, not in order to hurt anyone, but rather because the people trying to make a buck off of the temple system had turned it into a literal zoo. They had turned God's house into a zoo and a den of thieves. So God is angry.
Consider John 11, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus has died. Jesus not only weeps, he not only breaks down in tears, but he gets angry. It doesn't always come through in our English translations, which often say that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit. That does not capture the Greek at all. It says that Jesus was indignant. It means that Jesus was fiercely angry. Fiercely angry. Why? Because mourning, loss, pain, death don't belong in God's good world. They are enemy intruders in God's creation, and Jesus is mad about it. He's mad as hell—mad as hell at death.
How about Mark 3? Jesus enters into the synagogue and he sees a man with a withered hand. He knows that his detractors are looking at him to see if he will heal this man on the Sabbath because they're just looking for something. They're just waiting for something that they can accuse Jesus of, so Jesus asked them, well, you tell me, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath, to kill or to save, to destroy or to heal?" But they were silent. They refuse to say anything at all. Mark 3:5, he looked around at them with anger. He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart. Then he says to the man, "stretch out your hand." He stretches it out, and it is restored. You know what, that was the trigger because from that point on, these two rival groups that were present in the synagogue that day, now they start plotting together about how to destroy Jesus. Jesus is the most famous, angry person you've ever met. He wasn't a pushover. He wasn't a weak stick. He got angry because he cared enough to care.
Now, you might say yes, that's right. We want a God who gets angry at sin, evil injustice, and wrongdoing. If you get to the point where you think it is appropriate that God's anger should fall on other people, then you also have to allow it to fall on you when you deserve it—and there's the rub. The opposite of love is not anger or hate. No, the opposite of love is indifference. The more a parent loves their child, the more that they hate the drunk in them. You see because God loves you, he hates the sin within you. That's how he loves the sinner but hates the sin. Without anger, love would not be love. But you see, God's anger is this constructive displeasure that mercifully seeks the good of others. That's why he is good and angry.
We see that most clearly from the standpoint of the cross. Do you realize that through his prophets, God said that one day he would hold the unjust responsible. He will hold the unjust responsible for the lives that they've lived. He uses a rather dramatic image. God says that he will make the unjust drink a foaming cup of wine, and that foaming cup will make them stumble and fall. It's meant to be an image of God's anger, his wrath against sin and evil and injustice. But then, something completely unexpected happens. The final week of Jesus's life, he goes into the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays. He asked, "Father, if it's possible, if there's some way, let this cup pass from me." Which cup is he talking about? That cup, that cup, the cup of God's anger. His settled opposition to sin, evil and injustice. Jesus asks that if there's some other way, let that cup pass from him, but there's no other way. There's no other way for God to oppose sin and yet love you. So what does Jesus do? Not my will, but yours be done. He takes that cup and he drinks the cup of God's anger in your place because there's the only way that God could destroy sin without destroying you. Here's the beauty and the power of the cross. Jesus not only forgives you for the ways in which you have scorned God's love or wronged other people, perhaps even through your own unrighteous anger, but he also heals you. The cross shows us that Jesus knows what it's like to be an unjust suffer. He knows what it's like to be the object of someone else's anger and hate. He not only forgives you, but he heals you. Finally, he frees you. Jesus can free us from the destructive patterns of anger in our own lives. Because as we look to him, we see that Jesus not only died for us, Jesus lived for us. He didn't just die in your place, he lived in your place, and he shows you through his life therefore what good anger, righteous anger really looks like—constructive displeasure that mercifully seeks the good of others.
When you consider the cross, consider what that tells you about yourself. Even though you've done wrong, even though you are among the unjust, even though you try and test God's patience, you exasperate God, you realize that, because of your failure to listen to his voice, and to do what he says. You exasperate him, and yet God is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. His anger arises slowly, and it is grounded in love and mercy. That's what we're called to as well. James 1:19-20 “Be quick to hear, quick to listen, slow to speak.” Zip it and be slow to anger. We’re called to be slow to anger like God is. When we realize what he's done for us, how patient, how forbearing, how ultimately forgiving, how he constructively seeks our good through his mercy, that's what enables us to demonstrate our own constructive displeasure in order to mercifully seek the good of others. Anger is not simple and easy. It is a complex response to a complex world, but Jesus stands ready and able to forgive you for the ways in which your anger has gone wrong, to heal you from the ways in which you have been the object of someone else's unrighteous anger, and to teach you how to express your anger right in order to make things better because you care. He teaches us how to do that until that day when he ushers in a world where there will be no sin, no evil, no injustice. On that day, thank God, there will be nothing to be angry about.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we come to you today. We honestly confess that all of us have anger problems. It might show up in different ways. We might be more or less aware of it, but we know that we all have struggles with anger so we need you. We come before you now and we pray that you would meet us at our point of need. We thank you for the grace that you have showered upon us at the cross. Thank you for the ways in which you have forgiven us, for how our anger has gone wrong. We pray that through your Holy Spirit's power, you might show us how to make it right. Help us to demonstrate our constructive displeasure toward all that which is important and which is not right so that we might mercifully seek the good of others as you've done for us. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.