Braking Anger

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The title is not misspelled.  I recently wrote a blog entitled “Breaking Anger.”  The intent there was to express a biblical concern from James 1:20 that states, A person’s “anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”  It was a simple recognition that we are living in increasingly angry and violent times and that perhaps some confuse “living angry” with some kind of virtuous life that expresses passion for justice and vicarious frustration for the maligned of this world.  My point is simply that the gospel is good news; not hateful, screaming, yelling, vitriolic and antipathetic news.  It will always defend the poor, marginalized and hurting.  It will always strive to rid the world of evil.  Good news has always and will always speak justice and defend those who need defending.  But, that has also always been achieved best when people don’t use guns or violence to achieve that.  The theology of revolution has tried that without success.  It just doesn’t seem loving to live angry.  I have never met anyone who is simultaneously known by others as loving and angry.

Perhaps “Braking Anger” might speak more specifically to some.  If anger arises, there must be a way to put the brakes on it or it will consume.  In fact, we use the expression about people “consumed by anger.”  It is never an expression of fondness or appreciation.  That is a fitting expression as that is what internalized and sustained anger does.  It consumes.  Braking anger is like breaking judgmentalism.  We refer to people who make right judgments as objective and discerning.  When a person lives a life exercising judgment upon others, they are known as judgmental people.  The first may have merit and even virtue (John 7:24).  The second, judgmentalism has nothing good in it.  Jesus spent a great deal of time (Matthew 23 et. al.) aggressively confronting judgmentalism which is a bent to find fault or condemn.  Paul was a person of sound judgment but condemned judgmentalism as well (Corinthians 1 and 2, Galatians and Colossians).

Some are quick to point to Jesus in the temple (Mark 11:15-17; John 2:13-16) and say, “He was angry.”  Two quick things.  First, the word anger never appears here.  So, we do not know what kind of emotion he expressed though it may look angry.  Second, if anger was his response, it would not be a lifestyle expression matching his general reputation.  The only place where the word is associated with Jesus in a positive way is in Mark 3:5 which was momentary and didn’t seem to spill over into anything that came next or before.  It was targeted and temporary.  In other words, Jesus didn’t dwell there.  No serious Bible scholar would conclude from the texts of Scripture that Jesus was predominantly an angry person.  That is just not a character trait by which he is known.  Instead, love and grace seem to dominate the landscape of Jesus’ character descriptions.

The church at its best has always been one where redemption, healing, reconciliation and forgiveness are common experiences in and through the believing community.  Anger does not produce any of these.  It is just not in the Bible.  Perhaps that is why Paul includes anger in his shopping list of traits to discard (2 Corinthians 12:20; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8) along with jealousy, wrath, malice, filthy language, sexual immorality and a host of other traits that no one is lining up to defend in the church.  It is odd that some would pick anger as one to defend when the others are easily jettisoned as indefensible.  As with James, Paul coaches several churches that these things must not be in the Christians’ trait expressions.

Instead, Paul tells us to abide in love and peace.  I have never seen anyone simultaneously abide in peace and anger.  I know of peaceful people who have been incited in a moment for one reason or another.  But, the moment they take on anger as a badge of honor and dwell there, they lose the peace that surpasses understanding in a deep and abiding way.  One person responded to me that perhaps I don’t understand that anger goes hand in hand with confronting injustice.  I just don’t see that necessary link.  Mother Theresa dealt with perhaps the most egregious injustice known to humanity- people being abandoned and left to die without the dignity of love or care in the most vulnerable state.  That is injustice on steroids, much worse than someone losing a job for questionable reasons or experiencing neighborhood tiffs.  And yet, I don’t know of anyone who has ever described her as an angry person.  I travel to India yearly and have heard my friends there speak fondly of her love for the most vulnerable.  I have personally worked with folks dealing with some of the greatest injustices around the world.  Virtually all of these leaders with whom I work are loving people who are working feverishly to rid the world of evil without it consuming them in anger.  In a conversation I had with Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, he said, “I don’t think a person can deal with injustice for very long with anger their primary motivation or sentiment.”

I had some interesting responses to my previous blog.  One person asked, “Is anger always wrong?”  That is an interesting question and one that someone else can answer but which I alluded to above.  The Bible does say, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26a).  It may not be wrong in every situation.  However, the rest of the sentence makes it clear that it must not remain.  “Do not let the sun go down while you are angry.”  That is the end of the same verse.  There might be a time and place for anger.  But, it cannot stay or even spend the night.  As we see even in Jesus’ expression of it, it is not a defining, sustained characteristic.  It seems that people keep quoting half of a verse (as above) or half of the story such as the Psalms where the anger is expressed by we don’t see God’s approval or rejection of it on the backside.  So, it is impossible to make it virtuous.

I do not know a Kingdom expression that is healthy where anger is freely and regularly expressed and considered virtuous.  Churches that live in anger are never known as loving churches.  I just don’t see that.  I don’t think the world does either.  Westboro Baptist Church is not heralded as a healthy church by anyone I know.  Their anger is openly expressed as a virtue.  On the other hand, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is held up in high esteem among all I know.  Why?  They epitomize what it means to be a loving church.  One person inferred that the perspective I have expressed is racially biased.  I just don’t think so.  I believe the response of the above noted churches’ and the tenor of Scripture highlight that love is Kingdom behavior and anger is not.  My hope and prayer is that the Free Methodist Church is known as a loving church that confronts injustice and works to redeem the broken and hurting as well as the breaking and hurtful.

Others have said to me, “Parents get angry from time to time.  Is that always wrong?”  Again, I will be a bit of a stuck record here.  I would say the same thing.  Perhaps there might be a time when anger is fitting, protective and helpful.  I will leave that to the psychologists to analyze.  For me personally, my deepest regret as a parent includes an outburst that was excessive given the gravity of the offense.  I am optimistic and hopeful that I will be known by my children as a loving parent rather than an angry one.  I am certain, however, that I have never seen a parent who was known by their anger (a dominant character trait) where the children grow up appreciating their parent’s abiding and widespread anger.  I have seen lots of children who were raised by angry parents (abiding in their anger) who are in therapy.  We love our children.  If that is so, and if Paul is correct that love is not easily angered (I Corinthians 13:5), then it will follow that spouses and parents will treat their family in ways that are not easily provoked to anger.

I write this to express my sadness that the church at times mirrors the world’s response to injustice, pain and frustration.  The world uses what is in it’s arsenal and anger is one of those tools.  It is understandable that the world behaves that way.  It is unredeemed, human nature.  The church is different.  It is tempting to rant, hate or condemn.  It is understandable that the world behaves that way.  That is not the calling of the church.

Some still want me, as a bishop, to make an official statement about when it might be suitable to be angry.  I just cannot do that.  I will simply ask you to ask the Spirit.  Warning:  anger is not in the list of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).  But, contrary attitudes are.  So, if the Spirit does not incite anger, please don’t hold onto it.  I am confident that you will never receive the answer that it is good to live your life as an angry person, regardless of the cause or injustice you seek to rid.  My prayer is that we are known as loving people who take sin seriously and work redemptively to see salvation and wholeness come in this world; that His Kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew Thomas
By Matthew Thomas

In my sixth decade of seeing God work simply increases my faith. Born in California, raised in Washington, ministered in Washington, Oregon, Canada, Philippines, Idaho and now all over the world has given me reason to believe and praise. My wife, Marlene and four children (Luke, Mitch, Samuel and Charese) give me reason to give deep thanks. My eight beautiful grandchildren (Jalen, Jordan, Katelin, Andrew, Eli, Callia, Asher and Mikaela) give me reason to see that grace reaches beyond our immediate present into our un-conceived future. Serving with a great team in the Free Methodist Church makes me a blessed person in a blessed place, serving with blessed people.

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