Disciplines That Free: Harnessing Your Anger
[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, Amelia, Ohio, March 23, 2003]
I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to our teenage daughter’s magazine purchases. And I guess that I could have passed over the latest issue of YM with its cover picture of recording artist Nelly and the feature article, “Is That Boy Worth Your Time?: Nine Ways to Tell.” But one item on the cover caught my attention: “Chill Out! Take Our Anger Quiz.” I flipped to page 122 and found eight multiple choice questions. I’m going to try a couple of them on you. If you’re not a teenage girl, pretend that you are for just a second and consider how you might answer:
1) Your dad won’t let you go see Dashboard Confessional in concert. When you ask why, the answer is, “Because I said so.” You: a. scowl and request a better explanation. b. hurl the TV remote at his head and stomp upstairs. c. shrug.
8) A really bad cold has your brother laid up in bed for two days. You happen to walk by his room, and he demands in a pompous tone that you get him a glass of orange juice. You: a. tell him that saying please doesn’t hurt, and then head to the kitchen. b. immediately walk to the garage and slash both of the tires on his bike. c. rush to see if there’s any fresh-squeezed in the fridge.
At the end of this quiz, you’re supposed to know whether your anger is too tepid, medium heat, or boiling over. While we can quibble with the accuracy of a magazine quiz, this little exercise is based on a reality written into us as human beings. It’s this: the capacity for anger is something God has built into us and there are times when it’s right and times when it’s wrong to be angry! Our call as followers of Jesus Christ is to harness our anger, putting it at the service of God.
Someone has said that, “Anger is an emotional reaction to your interpretation of a life experience in which your expectations are not met or are violated.” A wife comes home from work expecting a quiet evening alone with her husband and kids only to learn that her husband has invited buddies over to watch the NCAA basketball tournament. An employee gets good reviews for three years in a row and is promised a promotion, but the promotion never comes. Our lives are filled with a hundred potential flash points each day. Anger happens. We need to learn to manage it, harness it, and use it creatively. The Institute for Mental Health Initiatives has developed a method for coping or controlling our anger built on the acronym RETHINK: Recognize when you’re angry and what’s causing it; Empathize, trying to see the other person’s point of view; Think of other ways you might be able to interpret the situation making you angry; Hear what the other person is saying; Integrate love and respect into the way you deal with your anger; Notice your body’s reaction to anger and find ways to calm down; Keep your attention focused on the present and don’t bring up past offenses.
In His Word, the Bible, God doesn’t condemn anger itself. In the New Testament, for example, the apostle Paul advises, “Be angry; but do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” In other words, it’s okay for us to get mad as long as we don’t let our anger turn into spitefulness or hate. And by all means, if we’re angry with someone, we should try to resolve our disputes right away. Unresolved disputes inevitably cause us to sin.
I must confess that anger doesn’t come easily to me. I would probably lean toward the tepid end by the YM quiz’s reckoning. My son and I were talking about this the other night. Getting angry is so foreign to me that when I do get mad, I look silly. That makes people laugh and that makes me angrier. There may be others in this room today who tilt toward the boiling over end of the spectrum. Either place is unhealthy. But if we can find a way to use our anger, putting it under the discipline of God, it can become a force for good.
Our Bible lesson for this morning recounts a famous incident in which Jesus, visiting the temple in Jerusalem, gave full vent to holy anger. You see, in those days, people would go to the temple to offer sacrifices to God. Wealthy folks could afford to sacrifice cattle and sheep. Poorer people sacrificed doves or even grain. In the outer court, the place where non-Jews allowed to be, the temple featured a kind of shopping mall. At the temple, you could only use temple money to buy the animals that were used for sacrificing. But out on the streets of Jerusalem, Roman money was used. If you came to the temple to offer a sacrifice then, the first thing you had to do was exchange your Roman coins for temple coins. You did this with a person called a moneychanger. These moneychangers were notorious gougers. They didn’t care what the exchange rate was. They were the only game in town, so to speak. So they got away with charging the worshipers exorbitant service charges. The same gouging was practiced by those who sold the animals to be sacrificed. Jesus was enraged! We’re told that:
Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves, “Take these things out of here!...”
Jesus showed “holy anger.” He let loose with what forest firefighters might call a “controlled burn.”
As followers of Jesus, the only legitimate kind of anger is Jesus’ brand of holy anger. We see what holy anger is in our Bible lesson. First: Holy anger has to do with zeal for God. After Jesus’ followers saw His temple tantrum, they remembered words from the Old Testament’s Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” Jesus was zealous for the things that makes God the Father zealous. Mother Teresa was zealous for loving and cherishing life. That’s why she took care of the dying on the streets of Calcutta. It’s also why she spoke out with firmness and fierceness against abortion as a form of birth control. As Lutheran Pastor Dan Anderson puts it, “Holy anger is righteous indignation that leads to action.”
Holy anger is also about love for others. Jesus didn’t give vent to rage because somebody had cut him off in traffic or because somebody took the last scoop of black walnut crunch ice cream that He’d wanted. Jesus was upset that the merchants at the Temple Mall had put a price tag on God’s love and forgiveness. You and I know that these are gifts that God offers to all through Jesus Christ. When we see others being hurt, our call is clear. Holy love demands that we get angry for our neighbor’s sake.
Holy anger is productive and useful. Much of our anger is unproductive and useless and ultimately, paralyzying. Ann and I have been married nearly twenty-nine years. The angriest she has ever seen me was one spring day back when we lived in northwest Ohio. She’d had a rough week, mostly confined to the house with our two then-little kids. On a Friday, we arranged for me to spend the afternoon with the kids while she ran some errands and got some personal down time. That evening, I was to do a wedding at a neighboring church which was without a pastor at the time, a little country congregation that didn’t even have a phone. Long story short: Ann completely forgot when I needed for her to be home so that I could do the wedding. I had no way of contacting her or the church and no way of getting out of the house to do the wedding. I couldn’t even find a person to watch the kids for me so that I could do the ceremony. The wedding was to take place at 7:00 and Ann sauntered in at 6:55. I was in a frenzy. For a few seconds, I was paralyzed with anger, jumping up and down in place while I yelled. That was unproductive anger!
But holy anger, anger rooted in what upsets God, can be productive. Martin Luther, the founder of the movement of which Friendship is a part, knew this. “When I am angry,” Luther said. “I can write, pray, and preach well, for my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.”# Luther’s holy anger compelled him to do the right thing as he sought to give all people personal access to the God we know through Jesus Christ.
Anger is an inevitable element of our humanity. But God calls us to harness our anger for His purposes. In 1979, on a Maryland street, the car in which five-and-a-half month old Laura Lamb and her mother, Cindi were riding was hit head-on by a drunk driver traveling at 120 miles per hour. Laura became the world’s youngest quadriplegic. In California less than a year later, thirteen year old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver. Just two days earlier, he had been released on bail for a hit-and-run drunk driving crash and already had two drunk driving convictions behind him. Cari’s mother Candace formed an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and soon linked her efforts with those of Cindi Lamb, who had already undertaken similar efforts in Maryland. Twenty-three years later, MADD is still a controlled burn, translating the anger and rage of parents who have seen the pain inflicted by drunk drivers into positive actions. MADD has heightened our awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol and of the need for designated drivers. They’ve gotten laws passed that get drunks off of our roads and highways and make all of us safer.
What holy anger do you feel today? I myself am angry that the devil has so fogged our minds—inside and outside the Church—that the Church holds Jesus captive behind a wall of obscure liturgy, churchy words, and indecipherable rites and clothing. That’s why Friendship features “relaxed reverence,” seeking to welcome all people with the same grace that Jesus has given to us. Jesus’ action in today’s Bible lesson this morning suggests that you not ignore your holy anger, but use it to share His love with the world. Maybe you’re angry over child abuse. Or maybe it’s the inability of individuals and nations to resolve their conflicts peacefully. Or maybe you, like Jesus, are ticked off by the sin that keeps people enslaved and unable to experience the joy, peace, and hope that Jesus gives. Today, commit yourself to harnessing your holy anger and using it in positive, productive, proactive, loving ways. Burn for God and let the world see the glow of Jesus’ love at the core of your being!
[The description of anger and the first two descriptors of holy anger come from a sermon by Pastor Dan Anderson; the anger survey comes from the April, 2003 issue of YM magazine; the quote from Martin Luther appears in The Friendship Factor by Alan Loy McGinnis; the story of MADD appears on that organization's web site.]