So we are back to the Proverbs this morning – which means we are back to the nitty-gritty of life – we are back dealing with the everyday realities of our lives, and our relationships, and our character, and our work. And since are back to the things of daily life, the fact that we are dealing with anger this morning might not come as a surprise to us.
Every one of us here this morning has seen anger. Every one of our lives has been touched by anger – whether by our own anger or by the anger of others. In some cases the anger did damage to lives or feelings or relationships. In other cases, however, perhaps that anger was redemptive – it was perhaps an anger that pushed back against injustice and demanded fairness and goodness they were absent. Anger simply is a part of human life.
Anger simply is a part of life in a negative sense – in the sense that human beings in every moment wrestle with their own capacity for an anger that is destructive and harmful.
And anger simply is a part of life in a positive sense also – in the sense that there will always be instances of injustice and unfairness in the light of which women and men get angry.
There is no getting rid of anger. So the question that is posed to us this morning and every morning is not the question of how to banish anger from our lives and relationships – the question is not how to elevate ourselves into some sort of untouchable, spiritual bliss above the passions of heart and body. Rather the question for us, and particularly for us as followers of Jesus, is this: What place anger should have in our lives.
Anger is going to have a place, but what place should it have?
Anger is going to shape us, but how should it shape us?
Anger is going to raise its head, but when should we push it back down and when should we allow it to rise up.
Obviously this is a complicated subject. When we talk about anger we are dealing with personal narratives and complicated experiences; when we talk about anger we are dealing with questions of justice and injustice; when we talk about anger we have to think about how actions or attitudes are differently perceived by others. To even begin talking about anger as part of our lives is to open up far more questions than we can possibly answer.
So we are going to keep our focus somewhat narrow this morning. And we are going to take our lead, of course, from the book of Proverbs. Given the complexity of the subject it’s actually helpful that Proverbs really takes one approach or attitude toward anger. As one author puts it, the simple answer to anger offered by the Proverbs is this: “Cool it.”
Anger might be a complicated reality.
Anger might be important and good in certain situations.
Identifying anger might depend on individual stories and personalities.
But the Proverbs take a very specific approach to anger. The Proverbs push us to keep our anger in check. When it comes to anger, the Proverbs says very simply: “Cool it.” We can give just a couple of Proverbs that take this approach to anger.
A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back. Proverbs 29:11
Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is to their glory to overlook an offense. Proverbs 19:11
There are other proverbs that deal with anger, but these two pick up the basic theme of this book of wisdom. The basic answer to anger is this:
Keep it in check.
Don’t give in to it.
When you feel it rising, push it back down.
This week I came across an article written in the New York Times a number of years ago – back in 2009. It was an autobiographical piece written by a woman named Laura Munson. At the time of writing she lived in Montana with her husband of 20 years and their two children. They were in many ways a normal and happy family – they had 20 acres of land, a farmhouse, dogs and horses. They cared for their kids – they had gone camping and stargazing and travelling as a family. A normal and happy family.
One fine summer day, as Laura Munson puts it, her husband came to her and said: “I don’t love you any more. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy.”
The words came to Laura Munson like a sucker punch – slammed into her out of the blue – her world suddenly in turmoil. And she doesn’t know exactly how she did it, but in the moment he said to her “I don’t love you any more. I’m not sure I ever did.” In that moment she replied to him: “I don’t buy it.”
She didn’t rage. She didn’t cry. She didn’t push or shove or scream. She shook inwardly no doubt, but her reply was a simple: “I don’t believe you.”
In reply to which he got nastier, and said: “I don’t like what you’ve become.”
Terrible, pain-inflicting words. In some ways she wanted to rage. She wanted to cry. But she didn’t. She said: “I don’t buy it. I don’t believe you.”
In a metaphorical sense, he was lashing out, he was punching, but she was refusing to engage. In those moments she became convinced that he was going through some personal challenges, some life crisis – and that this was all about him – not about her or their relationships. She refused to be drawn into it. Instead, she told him he could have all the time and space he needed to work through whatever it was he needed to work through. She says that rather than getting angry she asked him: “What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?”
He almost didn’t know what to do with this – but fair to say that Laura Munson and her husband went through a difficult, painful, gut-wrenching few months were he did just that. He took the time, took space; he backed off from many normal aspects of family life; he became unreliable; he was petulant and childish. She gave him space, and in her mind, she gave him a 6 months. As she writes in her article, they never got to the sixth month. It took four months of turmoil and loving him from afar before something in his life and heart and mind changed.
During those four months, Laura Munson’s friends were irate – angry on her behalf. Kick him out. Get a lawyer. Get angry. But she didn’t… She had good days, she says, and she had terrible days. She didn’t yell. She didn’t cry. She didn’t beg. She didn’t get angry. And after 4 months, as she said, he was back.
There’s more to the story of course – more to the article that I’ve merely summarized. Click the image to the right to read the full article. And not only is there more to the article than what I’ve shared, there’s probably much more in the background to this story that didn’t make it into the article.
The truth is that we can’t simply take this story and try to match it up to our own lives and experiences. Every relationship is different. Every person is different. Every circumstance is different. And even in this particular case, there may have been alternative good and wise courses of action to follow.
But even with all of those qualifications; and even with every hesitation about whether this story applies directly to our individual circumstances, we appeal to this story today for this reason. We appeal to this story because in our lives we need narratives that open to us the possibility of grace. We need stories that reveal to us the possibility of a different kind of world. Specifically, we need narratives that open up to the possibility of a world in which courage and strength are married with graciousness and mercy. We need stories that help us to see that there is some possibility
of refusing to lash out at the one who has lashed out at me;
of refusing to hurt the one who is hurting me;
of refusing to get angry or get even with the one who is doing harm to us.
I think that the story of Laura Munson and her husband gives us a glimpse into such a world and into such possibilities. And one of the most positive aspects of this story is that it shows us that refusing anger, and refusing to lash out, and refusing to seek the harm of the other – doesn’t mean being a doormat or a victim. In fact, very much the opposite is true. Her stories reveals that it takes courage, it takes strength, it takes tremendous self-confidence and grace to refuse the seductions of anger.
A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back. Proverbs 29:11
Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is to their glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11
Not a doormat. Not weak. Not a victim. But strong and courageous and gracious and unwilling to lash out in anger.
Very often our anger seeks to diminish the other.
Very often our anger seeks to hurt the other.
Very often our anger reflects our insecurity and lack of hope for ourselves or the other.
And even when our anger is at an injustice that has been perpetrated, our anger often seeks not only to set things right, but to turn the tables. And as often happens, the victim in his or her anger easily becomes the victimizer.
We said at the outset that anger is complex. Who would want a world devoid of anger at injustice and oppression? Who would want a world devoid righteous indignation at those who exploit the poor or those who are without power in other ways? Going even further, who would want interpersonal relationships in which anger was not in some sense expressed – when someone hurts us, when someone is unfair to us, when someone seeks our harm? Then certainly anger has its place. What good is apathetic silence in such situations?
But from this other angle, from the particular point of view taken in the book of Proverbs also, it needs to be said: “Oh, be careful with your anger. Be so very careful with your anger. Restrain your anger. Pull it back. Because anger so easily drags relationships further down. Anger so easily betrays the love in which the God of covenant and creation has invited us to live. Anger so easily leads to destructiveness and bitterness, even when it starts from a position of wanting to right wrongs or overcome injustices. Oh, be careful with your anger.”
What we need in our daily living are narratives that show us the beauty of lives and relationships in which courage is married to grace – where strength is married with forgiveness – where, through the pain of life, fortitude is married to mercy.
In a very real sense, being a Christian – being a follower of the risen Jesus – is simply a matter of telling certain kinds of stories. Above all, being a follower of the risen Jesus means telling one particular story. It means letting his story define us and shape us and determine who we are and how we live.
In Mark’s gospel, chapter 3 we read a story that gives us a glimpse into the kind of story that Jesus’ story is. We read:
Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. The religious authorities watched Jesus to see whether he would cure the man on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to the religious leaders, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
When Jesus gets angry, and expresses his anger, it is in service of the kingdom of healing and forgiveness that he brings. When Jesus gets angry, it is at those who oppose the dramatic new thing that God is doing through himself – drawing women and men into a deeper life with God and into service to one another. When Jesus gets angry it is never because he wants to diminish someone, or get back at someone, or do harm to their reputation or person.
In fact, the passion narrative – the narrative of his suffering and death reveals Jesus as a person who simply does not give in to the destructive tendencies and possibilities of anger. When Peter lashes out with a sword to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus rebukes him: “No more of this,” he says, healing the servant’s ear.
Jesus himself is never merely a victim – never merely rolled over by the wheel of history or by political forces around him. As he is arrested, as he is beaten, as he is crucified, he perfectly marries
courage with grace
strength with forgiveness.
He perfectly marries fortitude with mercy.
As we walk in his way – as we walk in his living presence – we are to allow his story to shape our story – to let his person inform our person – to put let his Spirit shape our emotional lives and interactions with others. We are invited to encourage and support one another in his way – putting anger in its place. May God answer our prayer. Amen.