Love, not Anger

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from January 14, 2018, on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. This is part of our second series this year on the Sermon on the Mount, this one focused on “Love as the Fulfillment of the Law.”

And here’s a written excerpt, setting this teaching on anger within the wider biblical witness:

Jesus’ teaching here is not the full and final word on anger. The Bible itself, in fact, gives a variety of perspectives on anger.

For example, Jesus himself got angry, a reality which the Gospels describe on at least two occasions.

One is the well-known story of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courts. You bet Jesus was angry—angry at the rich and powerful for exploiting the poor and vulnerable, angry at the Temple insiders for keeping the outsiders out.

The other is the story in Mark 3, where Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. Jesus “looked around at [the religious leaders] with anger,” Mark says, because of the “hardness of their heart”: they were insistent that keeping the Law was more important than showing mercy.

In other words, Jesus got angry at injustice against the most vulnerable people. Jesus got angry at zealous religious folks who refused to show mercy. There is, indeed, a place for righteous anger. It can motivate us to a holy discontent with the way things are, a burning desire to see injustice overturned.

There is also a wider recognition in the Bible that anger in itself is not necessarily wrong. Ephesians 4:26 makes this quite plain: “Be angry, but do not sin,” it says. In other words, there is such a thing as a sinless anger, an anger that is not harmful but can even be helpful. And I don’t think this is just talking about that “righteous anger” against injustice or cruelty. It suggests the broader reality we’ve already recognized: that anger is a normal human emotion.

There are in fact appropriate times to be angry, and healthy ways to be angry. There are also inappropriate times to be angry and unhealthy or harmful ways to be angry. Wisdom—the way of love, the way of Jesus—is knowing which is which, and knowing how to deal with that anger when we experience it.

When you see injustice or cruelty in the world—on the news, on the playground, in the office, wherever it is—and you feel angry, don’t push that away. Allow that anger to motivate you, to spark you to do something—to pray at the very least, to reach out in compassion to the victim if you can, to seek change in the situation if you are able.

But beware: even “righteous anger” can stew until it festers, and then it only brings pain, not peace. At some point the fuel for that desire for change has to switch from anger to something else—compassion, hope, or simple resolve. If you don’t switch that fuel, if you keep burning your fight for justice on anger alone, you will be consumed and the problems will only be perpetuated.

And when you feel anger for less noble reasons—some pain you experience, some frustration or annoyance, out of fear perhaps, or for reasons you can’t figure out—allow yourself to experience that anger so that you can understand it, so that you can release it. Explore your heart in the midst of that anger, and try to put your finger on what it is that’s causing it. Talk to someone about it if you can. And find a healthy, non-harmful way to release that pent-up emotion. Be angry, but do not sin.

But again, beware: if you bury your anger, if you don’t try to understand it or to release it in some way, you risk that anger eating away at your soul, burning your spirit down to bitterness, resentment, and simmering rage, mixed with guilt and shame at where your heart has gone.

For more on the disordered desires and fear that are often at the heart of our anger and conflict, see Pastor Michael’s sermon on “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

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