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November 15th, 2015

“Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, ESV)

Proverbs 14:29; 15:1; 15:18; 19:3; 19:11; 20:22; 25:15

Anger issues big and small

Today let’s talk about your anger. I know you get mad. I know this because I’m your pastor. So don’t try to hide it.

Big things and small things make us angry. Big things include the senseless terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, killing well over 100 people. I’m very angry with ISIS. Big things include the death of Luke Garrison, 24, also Friday. I’m not necessarily angry at God, but I’m angry at death. I’m particularly angry at death for attacking children and youth. Over the past three years, I’ve preached ten funerals where at least one parent was sitting in front of me.

Anger at death is normal, even for “the most devout persons,” according to Granger E. Westberg in Good Grief. “When we have something precious taken from us, we inevitably go through a stage when we are very critical of everything and everyone who was related to the loss” (48).

But sometimes my anger is not about big things. It’s about things that at the end of the day are not that important. I don’t think of myself (nor do I think others think of me) as a hotheaded person, but I have had my moments. I confessed one of them in a 2002 sermon.

Ever since I was called here as pastor in 1993, the church has provided an automobile for me as part of my compensation. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the reason for this is that when I interviewed as pastor here, our family car was a hand-me-down with 160,000 miles on it and the felt drooping from the ceiling. The Search Committee probably said among themselves, “He is not leading our funeral processions with that car. Let’s buy him one.” They made it clear we could use the car as a family.

In recent years, the Everett Chevrolet family has generously and graciously made the car selection process easy for me. But for about the first 15 years, it was up to me to go looking. In 2002, we decided to change from a minivan to an SUV, so I spent a week narrowing down options and negotiating with reputable dealers.

Then on a Saturday morning Linda spotted an ad in the paper for a price and a deal on a Ford Explorer that was hard to believe. I didn’t believe it, so I called the dealer who insisted he would honor the ad – but he had had a number of calls on that car and I better get out there that day. I told him I was a minister and I needed to focus on sermon prep, so I didn’t want to waste time. If the deal was real, I’d come up to Granite Falls and get it done. The salesman was nice and seemed credible. We both crunched numbers with calculators and came up with the same payment.

So I headed up 321, drove a car with leather seats and all the bells and whistles, pleased with myself for saving the church money and getting our family a great car to drive. I started getting more and more restless as I filled out paperwork for two hours. Then we sat down for the final numbers. Only at that point did I learn that I couldn’t have that car for that price with a rebate and zero financing.

Here’s what I wrote in the sermon a week later –

The next five minutes or so were not pretty. As I had promised, I was, to put it mildly, angry. I won’t go into details, though I should say I used no profanity and made no physical threats. Other than that, you wouldn’t have known I was a minister, and wouldn’t have been proud that I was yours. I stormed off the lot and called Linda to tell her what had happened and how angry I was.

Honestly, I don’t ever remember being that angry in a public setting in my entire life. But can we change the subject from my anger outbursts to yours?

Questions for anger

Proverbs, as you know by now, is a very practical book of principles, not promises. The individual sayings tend to be stated as absolutes, but usually they’re not. You can think of exceptions to most proverbs, but as you’ve often heard, the exception only proves the rules. Proverbs is full of that kind of “rule.”

But don’t dismiss the rules. These are time-tested wisdom sayings. Discernment about exceptions might be Wisdom 401. But you’re not ready for that course until you pass the prerequisite, Wisdom 101. That’s Proverbs. When we read proverbs on anger and patience, we get some basic questions answered.

  1. What is anger? Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Notice two synonyms in the parallelism, “wrath” and “anger.” The first one in Hebrew originally meant “nose” or “face,” so it’s really a word picture of flaring nostrils or a crinkled up nose. The second Hebrew word originally meant “heat,” so this time we picture a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. Proverbs 15:18 uses the phrase, “a hot-tempered person” for one who is angry.

I will define anger the way it’s used in the Bible this way: a physiological response to something wrong or bad. The dictionary defines anger as a feeling. But what’s a feeling? It’s a physical response. With anger, your face probably shows it. Not everyone’s nose flares, but people know when you’re ticked off. I wear a Fitbit, and the other week I was watching the Carolina Panthers. It was the fourth quarter, and we were up by 17 points. I checked my pulse, and it was 55 beats per minute. In the fourth quarter! “We got this one.” Then everything changed, and when the Colts tied the game my pulse was 95. The good thing is that I was burning fat sitting on the couch.

I realized more about anger while watching Luke Garrison’s monitors this week. Doctors said the only part of his brain that was functioning was his brain stem, the lower part of his brain that we have in common with even the lowest forms of animal life. He wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t feeling pain. But when he was rolled over or in some other way agitated, his pulse and blood pressure shot up. (By the way, when we called in the elders of the church to pray for him just prior to disconnecting him from life support, his pulse and blood pressure were the lowest we saw it all week.)

Anger happens in your body. Sometimes it’s very obvious and everyone knows. Sometimes you successfully mask it, but those hormones are still raging through your veins and your stomach is still churning. This is important to understand, and it’s why you can’t turn anger off like a switch. Your prefrontal cortex is not saying to your stomach, “Turn that hamburger into diarrhea!” You’re not consciously thinking, “Flush my face now.” There’s a series of involuntary physiological changes happening.

  1. How does anger show? Proverbs 14:29 says, “One who is quick-tempered displays folly.” The physiological changes are happening on the inside, but anger “displays” itself. How?

Proverbs 15:1 mentions “a harsh word”; 15:18, “conflict”; 20:22, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!” So anger displays itself in thoughts, words and actions that damage or destroy relationships. Anger creates relational distance. It might have a mild and temporary effect, such as “I don’t want to talk to you right now.” You move away. In its most severe form, anger seeks to harm or kill. And, as you know, there are groups of people in the world today – there always have been – who reinforce one another’s anger toward the rest of the world, at least those who are not like them. So anger can be a group response to another group – Republicans v. Democrats, whites v. blacks, ISIS v. French – or it can be individual response to another person.

We can get angry with God. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but God can get angry with us. There’s a break, there’s a distance, there’s a rupture in the relationship between two people or groups.

  1. Why do we get angry? My definition suggested anger is a physiological response to “something wrong or bad.” I borrowed that part of my definition from Merriam Webster. But Proverbs has another answer to why we get angry: “folly.” It’s the opposite of wisdom.

Proverbs 14:29 says, “One who is quick-tempered displays folly.” Proverbs 19:3 says, “A person’s own folly leads to their ruin, yet their heart rages against the LORD.” In both these verses, “folly” comes from the root word transliterated “evil.” This is a morally bankrupt person, a person who loves damaging and destroying relationships. The word “fool” in Proverbs sometimes translates a word that only means “silly” or “gullible,” but here the fool is someone who loves creating relational havoc. I was all of that in the car buying incident – gullible, silly, and reckless about destroying people with words.

This is a key point of reflection, then, when I’m angry. Why am I angry? Is it really what someone else did to me, or is the problem within me? I sometimes say to people (and more often think it), and try to remind myself, “If everyone around is being a jerk, maybe it’s not them.” You’ve had those days when your co-workers don’t do their job, the waitress is rude, the other drivers on the road are idiots… then low and behold you come home and your spouse won’t listen, the kids are disrespectful, and even the dog is just extra whiny today. “If everyone else is being a jerk, maybe it’s not them.”

The same introspection applies to life itself. If I go from one marriage to another, from one job to another, from one church to another, from one restaurant to another, from one friendship to another, and everywhere I go there are the same behaviors that tick me off, maybe I need to look in the mirror to see where the folly is.

  1. Is anger a sin? The short answer is no. Or at least, anger is not necessarily a sin. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin.” The first part of the verse is actually not a command, “Be angry,” but a participle in Greek. “Being angry, do not sin” or “When you’re angry, do not sin.” More to the point, the Bible describes Jesus as being angry (Mark 3:5, for example) and God being angry (Exodus 4:14; Revelation 14:10) in both Old and New Testaments, although more often in the Old.

I’m going to argue that the picture of God being angry, the way we’ve defined anger, is anthropomorphic, which means applying human attributes to God. If anger is a physiological response – blood pressure going up, face getting hot, and so on – that’s not something we would say of God. But God does distance himself from sinners out of anger. Hell is essentially the ultimate and eternal distance from God.

I can’t point to a specific proverb that says the same thing as Ephesians 4:26, which is actually a quotation from Psalm 4:4. But the frequency of the idea of anger in Proverbs at least suggests we’re dealing with a commonplace response to what’s bad or wrong. The problem is not that we get angry. Remember that our physical responses are involuntary. The issue is what we do with that anger.

In my story of anger, I was justifiably angry at the dishonesty of the dealer. But I became hot and my words were out of control. This leads to the next question.

  1. What should we do when we feel anger? The sermon title is “anger and patience,” and what we’re trying to do is see the contrast in Proverbs. According to Proverbs patience is not the opposite of anger, but it is the polar opposite of displaying a quick or hot temper.

Proverbs 14:29 says, “Whoever is patient has great understanding.” Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” Proverbs 15:18 says, “The one who is patient calms a quarrel.” Proverbs 19:11 says, “A person’s wisdom yields patience.” Proverbs 25:15 says, “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded.”

In several of these passages, the word “patience” doesn’t occur. What’s there is the phrase “slow to anger.” Isn’t it interesting that the word “patience” requires “anger” in the definition? This is where we return to the idea that anger is not always wrong. Hasty anger is almost always wrong. Even if the physiological anger is out of your control, what you do about it definitely not out of your control.

Look at the second quote on the front of your bulletin. John Chrysostom was a fourth century Christian bishop, who said, “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices.”

Hmmm. According to Chrysostom, even patience can be a sin. But that’s the exception pointing back to the rule.

The rule is, if your face flushes at what you hear, wait before answering. If you’re furious at your child’s irresponsibility or disobedience, wait before meting out punishment. If the e-mail rubs you the wrong way, wait 24 hours before you answer. You’ll have more influence if patience allows your brain stem reflexes to return to normal before you decide what to do next.

  1. Is there ultimate healing for anger? In last week’s sermon I talked about the lesson I learned from my son about prayer, that prayer is waiting contentedly on God without expecting results.

One of the passages in the Bible, and there are many, that talk about waiting on the Lord, is here in our list of proverbs on anger. Proverbs 20:22: “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you.”

Waiting is not doing nothing. Praying is not doing nothing. When you wait on the Lord, you are being changed. Physically, you are allowing those primal impulses to wane. Spiritually, you are trusting that God can handle that impossible situation, that difficult person, that struggle you are facing. Your worldview is being displayed on your face and in your heart. “I don’t have to fix this. I don’t have to repay this.”

But what if that person truly wronged me? What does my biblical worldview do then? Just let them get by with it?

Maybe, but this is where we turn to the gospel.

I loved the message on anger that Paul Cummings found this week from New York City pastor Tim Keller.

Jesus told us the truth and absorbed our disordered rage without paying back. And he didn’t just take our disordered anger, he also took the anger we deserved. Jesus not only took the anger he did not deserve, he took the anger we deserved without paying back. The gentlest word: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

If you see Jesus Christ taking our disordered rage at ultimate cost to himself, then you see the ultimate surgical strike. He forgave our sin so he could embrace the sinner. The ultimate surgical strike!

If you are stunned into silence by how he responded to our disordered rage, then when other people wrong you, you can do the same. You can say, “I’ve been wronged, but I wronged God and at infinite cost he responded with consummate gentleness and I can’t do anything else.”

To that I can only say, “Amen!”

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