LIFE CHOICES: ANGER OR SELF-CONTROL?
Proverbs 15: 1-4; Galatians 5: 16-23
Today I have been married for 29 years and have already made plans to celebrate our 30th next year! One of the things I have learned over the years is to change or re-direct angry responses to situations. In 1991, for example, I preached a Mother’s Day sermon that I called “Hallmarks of a Healthy Home.” It started something like this: “The car pulls into the driveway. The expected joy of having this significant person come home is now replaced by anxiety and silence. Only the dog dares to come to the door, greeting his master with the undaunted hope that the man will be glad to see him. The children’s stomachs start to tie in knots; the wife’s heart races a little faster. He reaches the door, opens the door, and then slams the door. Dad is home, and everyone knows it. With fire in his eyes, he ignores man’s best friends and the children hide in their rooms. His wife comes out to greet him trying to soften any verbal attacks from their children’s ears. And so, the evening begins.” Such is a scenario not just found in family abuse cases; it happens all the time in homes where incomes are high, middle, or low. When I told that story in ’91, two people who heard the message saw themselves in the story, changed their ways, and are now still happily married. I have told people who get ballistically angry that when they do, they become clinically insane, but only a fictional story like the one I just told helps them recognize how they must look to their children or their wife. Their face gets red, veins may pop out on their forehead, or instead, with calculated coldness they cut a swath of fear like a tornado. Of course, anger can pour out like a volcano from women or teenagers as well. What do we do with this emotion called anger? Do we try to clamp the lid on a boiling pot to keep it from boiling over? Do we hope that flammable mixtures do not explode when we create sparks? Or do we let our anger go, like a lava flow, cooking and hardening everything in its path? If people in this world expect to be effective parents or grandparents, mentors or examples, life choices between anger and self-control must be made.
Last week I started this series on Life Choices with the subject: “Enmity (making enemies) or Kindness.” Today’s list also comes from Galatians 5, when Paul the Apostle heard that grown people in the Galatian Church he founded were acting more like carnal Christians than spiritual ones. The list that was called “works of the flesh” included “anger;” the list that was called “fruits of the Spirit” included “self-control.” He even cut right to the chase in writing the letter, doing away with ordinary salutations because things were so out of hand. One might conclude that anger is always wrong. But if we turn to the Gospels, there are clearly times that Jesus gets angry, yet he was without sin, wasn’t he? Therefore, there must be some ways that anger can be productive instead of destructive. Let’s consider them today. The most famous account that looks like anger is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. We find simmering anger in Jesus’ words also when he addresses Pharisees, King Herod and the Chief Priest. He sometimes displays passive anger, sometimes aggressive anger. What can we learn about anger and self-control from Jesus? First, anger is not needed for the trivial, but for the tremendous. There were times when clearly crowds tugged on his robe and hung on his arms and followed him relentlessly. He could have gotten angry at them; instead he used self-control and directed anger at the people in political and religious power, who could have but didn’t make conditions better for women, children, beggars, and invalids. Many a justice issue would never have been accomplished if one or two good people had not decided that they were mad as could be and were not going to take it any more. Jesus set a standard that only a few over the years have grasped. Most of us let a frivolous incident draw power and focus away from our day, instead of saving our anger to fight injustice. A car cuts a man off in traffic and he tailgates and flashes lights or blasts the horn. (I used to do that; what a waste of energy.) One time I imagined the driver in front of me was some punk kid; I started to get mad, but on closer inspection found that she was an old, confused woman from the church! (Don’t start guessing, this was years ago!) I decided to picture rude drivers as being in crisis, oblivious, or senile, none of whom should be given the power to ruin my day by their actions, but that was exactly what I HAD been doing. So, by and large, I have stopped giving them the power to do that. I slip up sometimes, especially when I feel drained. You too can try to save your anger for causes that matter. That leads me to the next point: “Anger can be used to change unjust laws and actions instead of making withering attacks on loved ones or strangers. In this passage, I am confident that the Sadducees had already been told by Jesus that the Temple was a House of Prayer for all Nations. As they ignored his warning, he turns over the merchant’s tables, cooking his own hide in the process. That often happens when anger is unleashed: we get fired, we get divorced, we get emotional turmoil, or we get killed. But Jesus does the work that fits into his Father’s bigger plan. Did you also notice that Jesus could have gotten angry with the crowds who hounded him, or at the invalid who never had the help or speed to be first in the Pool of Bethsaida for healing (they believed only the first ones got healed.) But instead Jesus uses self-control, just asking the man if he wanted to be well, and he healed him. You may also recall the woman caught in adultery. Jesus told her to sin no more and he let her go, knowing that it took two to have a relationship, but in those days there was no law to condemn a married man of the crime, just a law against the woman. If he had had more time, would Jesus have worked to change that law? Too many spend their anger energy on daily occurrences that inconvenience or startle them. I know persons who, because they are in a slow check out line or the store has a cumbersome system of price checks or returns, who have said harsh or thoughtless things to cashiers. (Even I have done that, before I worked to change those foolish and hurtful actions.)
Third, write letters to legislators instead of graffiti on someone’s house, car, or anonymous notes. Made famous by American Idol, country star Carrie Underwood, sings “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up 4 wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats,” to get back at a cheating man. The world of the flesh cheers such a nervy and destructive way to get back at a jerk. But the fruit of the Spirit asks how much destruction is healthy for us to leave in the wake of a broken relationship? Relationship specialist Dr. Greg Baer, the author of the book REAL LOVE, is now on his second marriage because he was so good at destroying his first one. Now he says, “I have learned that anger is always wrong.” I might amend that to say almost always wrong. Angry people can channel their energy into passionate feelings. Anger is destructive, but when it becomes passion, then funds are raised to help cure diseases, laws are changed to help accommodate those with disabilities; rules are put into place to make the world a more just place, and rights to those who have earned them. Well-channeled anger has given men the right to work, women the right to vote, people of color the right to enter a business through the same door as others, and passion-driven leaders have brought down tyrants from their thrones. Channeled anger becomes productive, not destructive.
Finally, and now I’m especially talking to the fathers: deal with your anger in appropriate ways. If a sale goes bad, don’t blame your wife. If your boss makes you mad, don’t blame your kids. If a driver in traffic is thoughtless, self-centered, or distracted, don’t punish your pet. How ironic that we treat the ones we supposedly love most with our misdirected anger. Take note and make the changes. Find the right outlets to deal with your work frustrations, even if you need to talk with a counselor or do something physical—like sports—to direct your anger into action. Our well-being as men and fathers, and the well-being of our families, both depend heavily on us. Remember Paul’s words in Galatians; remember Jesus, the pioneer of the faith, as ones who took anger out of the driver’s seat and put self-control in. It is life giving and life changing to make that change I know. May you trust good divine and human guidance in this tough and important work.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 17, 2007