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Based on the Scripture readings:
Exodus 34:1-7
Luke 19:41-48

2004 March 14
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Why Are You Angry?

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with the Internal Revenue Service. I had made it through the telephone prompts and listened to the repeated warnings not to hang up since calls were answered in the order that they arrived. After ten minutes an operator asked the nature of my call, and I described it: a question about my personal clergy annuity, and she put me on hold. I listened to the warnings about hanging up again, and perhaps fifteen minutes later an agent came on the line. He listened to my question and said, "So this is your personal annuity, you're not a business right?" "Yes," I said. "Wrong department," he said, and put me on hold. Twenty minutes passed with warnings in English and Spanish. And a pleasant woman came on. "You're clergy?" she asked. "Yes," I said. "Tell me your question," she said. I did, and we spoke for ten minutes but got nowhere. "Listen," she said, "I need to talk to my supervisor," and she pressed that button which might say hold but also increases client counts, and I heard a dial tone and watched as about an hour of my life disappeared into the abyss, and I was frustrated.

A friend of mine, a clergyman, was in a diner in Maine some years ago with his four-year-old daughter. It's an average restaurant in an average town. But that day at lunch someone was upset about something, and at a table near my friend words began to be exchanged, and then all of a sudden two men were standing and throwing punches. My friend said that he stood immediately and put his body in front of his daughter's while at the same time he took a knife from the table and held it ready in his hand. Most fistfights don't last long in real life, and this one was over in a moment, but my friend was shaking, staring at what he held in his hand and his instant, primitive reaction.

God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt with clouds and fire and manna and parted waters, and God's agent, Moses, asked them to wait a bit while he went to receive the Ten Commandments. But Moses was delayed on the mountain, and the Hebrews grew restless, and they created a golden calf and began to dance and worship it, which is how Moses found them when he came down to camp. He found them ignoring, renouncing, and insulting God. God saw this too. And God said, "My wrath will burn hot against you for you are stiff-necked, Back to topand I will consume you." Although Moses talked him out of it.

What makes you angry or even ready to fight? What frustrates you, annoys you, or, as they say, drives you crazy? Is your anger instinctive, righteous, justifiable, or daily? Is your anger constructive or destructive? Or do you never get angry?

People have had a funny relationship with anger over the past several thousand years. God gets angry on numerous occasions. Jesus got angry himself and spoke in parables about the anger of kings whose feast invitations are ignored. But God also likes to say, "I am slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy." And Jesus said, "You have heard it said you shall not kill, but I say anyone who is angry is in danger." And Paul put anger in a list with fornication, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, selfishness, dissension, and other bad things to keep us from expressing it. We have had a funny relationship with anger for a long time. Generally stated, it is OK for God and Jesus, but don't try this at home. Anger appeared as the third worst sin of the seven deadly ones, on the ancient list behind pride and envy, but does it really belong there?

What makes you angry, and is that a good thing or a bad one?

The ten root words for anger appear 259 times in the Bible, and if you add in the references to rage or violence or other synonyms, you are well over 400 references in no time at all. One of the Hebrew root words means nostril or nose, so when it says God is slow to anger it literally says God is long of nose. Other words refer to heat like the sun's heat or to the poison of serpents. In the Bible, anger is a smelly, nasty thing.

But don't we also know anger as a normal human emotion? Isn't it a logical reaction to pain or injury and perhaps to fear and even danger? Aren't there gender issues with the expression of anger? Men are allowed to show it and women not so much so. Or in some contexts is it the exact opposite? Aren't there also victim and perpetrator issues with this emotion? That is, doesn't the appropriate anger that reacts to the pain of injury help a victim to Back to topbecome a survivor in many instances? Doesn't anger equalize imbalanced power situations?

You could add a whole list of questions to the ones I've asked. And you could notice that in my words and in our culture, the lines between anger, outrage, rage, and violence get blurred, or perhaps I should say that in addition to getting blurred, they exist on a continuum that is not always clearly marked. Anger appears in many forms, and it means many things.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," said Paddy Cheyevsky. I'm fed up with what my culture has forced upon me, and I'm motivated for change. That sounds good. "Bomb them all. Let God sort out the bodies," reads the bumper sticker. I saw it during the first Gulf War and the second one too. Can't we agree that goes a little too far? So where do we find the line between healthy and unhealthy anger, or is it still always a sin?

Well, the answer to the first question could come during our conversation with Dr. Jensen after worship. At least that is part of its purpose. The answer to the second one might come from the Bible. And it goes back to our previous definitions of sin.

Over the past three weeks we have been considering the ideas of this theologian Ted Peters and his modern sins of unfaith, self-justification, and cruelty, among others. Peters says that in some ways all of these find their root in anxiety. Now anxiety is not a sin. It is a normal human experience. But it is the springboard or gateway point that can open us to sin, small and large. As another writer has pointed out, anxiety, angst, and anger all share a similar root. Part of the reason for that is that they all respond to fear, doubt, uncertainty, and even the injury that can be common to the human experience. For example, Peters says frustration often leads to anxiety. I can't get through to the IRS. Tax returns are due soon. What if I am late? Anxiety can lead to humiliation. I've done this wrong. I can't ask for help. I am in trouble. Humiliation diminishes self-worth, our sense of well-being, and if that leads to helplessness it can lead to anger or even rage. Maybe taxes aren't the best example here. And not all rage comes from frustration, but it can, and when it does, especially between armed nations or even people with strong fists, it leads to injury. It leads beyond anxiety to broken behavior or sin.

What the Bible says about this is, God is angry, Jesus is angry, but we don't have to be angry on the same level. Now this can get tricky, but you know that old saying, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord?" We don't quote that a lot, but it is at the root of the issue here. That is, the sin of anger, if there is one, is putting ourselves in place of God in the analysis and resolution of ultimate issues. Or, what Jesus is asking us not to do is execute God-displacing behavior with our anger. Don't condemn and punish entire groups of people saying, "This is God's will". Don't judge and attack those Godless others, saying you are doing so for your national faith. Don't put yourself in God's place, presuming, concluding, maintaining that God can't take that place at any appropriate time. The sin in anger is taking God's place.

Should we be angry when the vulnerable are injured? Back to topYes, absolutely. Should we say God has ordained us to punish the perpetrators? I don't think so.

Should we acknowledge the fear, pain, or anxiety of the oppressed? Without doubt. Should our anger justify breaking the sixth commandment? I don't think so.

Often in the Bible there is a pattern to anger. In the story of the Golden Calf and in the account of Jesus' approach to Jerusalem, each of which can be read in a few verses, there are four identical stages for God and Jesus: pain, anger, reflection, and repair. So in those two events pain is the trigger, but anger is not the end. Neither, in any of its expressions, should ours be.

This is such an enormous topic, and all I have done is scratch its surface. It leads to other considerations such as the role of violence in history and faith, the role of other emotions in faith, and the challenges of Christian behavior that, even on a progressive stage, are still sometimes counter to instinctual human behavior, among many other issues.

But I started all this by introducing three stories of frustration, fear, and theological injury. And by asking, "What role does anger play in your life?" Which is the right place to end, too.

If you look at your own anger, does it have an extraordinary role in your life? As the fourth step of the twelve steps implies, why? Is long-held anger, fear, or resentment playing a large role in your life? If you look at your own life, are you in touch with the anger that is appropriate? When you contemplate all this, do you leave God to do God's stuff, and retain to yourself the tasks and roles that are yours?

These aren't simple questions. They are Lenten questions. Cleaning spiritual house for the fresh winds of the Spirit at hand. And they are community questions, regarding how we treat each other, how we express ourselves in faith, and whether our emotional expressions include love, thankfulness, joy, and grief, as well as anger.

Yesterday someone visiting in my office, knowing that I was working on all this, simply said, "There is so much anger in our world right now. Can't we do anything about it?" That's the question for ministry. That's the question to answer together. Amen.Back to top

Copyright 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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