A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 14, 2016
Ephesians 4:25-26, 31-32 GNT
Witnessing a public fit of anger can be an unsettling experience. I have witnessed a few fits of anger over the years, and no doubt you have as well.
To give an example, the day we were scheduled to return from our vacation, I received a 4:15 am text informing us that our flight had been cancelled. That is not the kind of wake-up call you like to get. But we still had to jump up and pack up, return our rental car, catch a shuttle four miles to the airport, and then stand in line at the ticket counter to get re-booked. When we finally arrived at the airport ticket counter, there were hundreds of other stranded passengers standing in line ahead of us. After about three hours of standing in line, we finally were booked on an early morning flight for the following day and given a hotel voucher to spend the night. But then we had to lug all of our luggage to the other side of the airport to catch a shuttle to our hotel. We were warned that the shuttle could only carry so many passengers, and if the number standing in line exceeded the number of seats, those who were left would have to arrange their own transportation.
Another couple on our same flight happened to be the first ones in line for the hotel shuttle. They only had one small carry-on bag each, which they thought would be a plus for them. But unbeknownst to all of us, the shuttle driver was counting bodies as he loaded checked bags into the back of the van. So when it came time to get on the shuttle, this couple who arrived first were told they had not been counted and might not get to board. Well, they were quite upset, as you might imagine, as most of us would be. And what ensued was a fit of anger toward the shuttle driver which proved to be an unsettling and embarrassing situation for everyone standing there.
Anger—what do we make of it? What do we do with it? Is anger (or wrath as it was also called) a deadly sin, as it was long ago characterized as being? Is anger always wrong? Or is anger sometimes justified?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that unchecked anger can lead to all kinds of trouble, pain, and disaster. One of the most obvious results of anger can be violence against another, murder, or mass murder, or even terrorism. We hear of it in the news practically every day. And all of us are familiar with the term “going postal.” Loss of a job, an unfaithful spouse, being a victim of a crime such as robbery or rape, being passed over for a promotion, having your flight cancelled and being stranded when you need and want to go home—such things and more can result in anger that might manifest itself in a fit of rage, violence, or even murder. So it is easy to see why there are so many warnings against anger in the Bible and other places of well.
Speaking of the Bible, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians left us a classic—and somewhat enlightening—passage on the subject of anger. I checked and compared a number of different Bible translations so as to see different shades of meaning.
The old King James Version renders Ephesians 4:26: “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”
The English Standard Version: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
The Common English Bible: “Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.”
And the Good News Translation, which I liked best and served as today’s reading: “If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day.”
The import behind this verse seems to be that sometimes it is okay to be angry, but just don’t let your anger lead you to doing something reckless, foolish, sinful, or violent!
But what about Jesus? What was his opinion and teachings about anger? Curiously enough, there are only two verses in the four gospels really connecting Jesus with the word “anger.” The first is in Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment” (Matthew 5:22 CEB). A curious thing is some ancient manuscripts add the words “without cause,” so the verse would read, “everyone who is angry with their brother or sister without cause will be in danger of judgment.”
And the other gospel reference connecting Jesus with the word “anger” or “angry” is the story, as recorded by Mark, about when Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and healed a man with a paralyzed hand. The authorities were hoping to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing—healing or working on the Sabbath Day. So it says that “Jesus was angry as he looked around at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong” (Mark 3:5 GNT). (There is the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple, but that story doesn’t actually use the word “anger” or “angry.”)
A recent newspaper article on anger got my attention that might hold some wisdom for us. The article is titled “It’s okay for Christians to be angry. What matters is what you do with that anger.”1 The article notes “how central anger has become in American politics,” revealing itself at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The author says, “There’s a widespread idea that anger is unsuitable for followers of Jesus Christ. That’s plausible: Anger is dangerous. It can twist our motivations and cloud our decision-making. Worse, it can lead us to harm others. In the public arena, unbridled anger can fuel gross injustice.
“But in fact, Christian tradition endorses anger. Scripture teaches us that anger is a natural and necessary emotion. It’s not a sin to be angry. It’s what you do with your anger that counts.
“All anger has an object. We get angry about something or at someone. . . It’s crucial to ask what the object of our anger is.” He notes that if we are not careful, we may “direct that anger toward people who are not significantly to blame.” He suggests that when we are angry for a good cause, we must not let our anger override our respect for others.
The article goes on to suggest that if we just sit on our anger and let it simmer, it is likely to turn into “slow-burning resentment.” But anger can be used as a motivator to spur us to action to bring about needed change or something good. If we handle anger correctly, it can transition in problem-solving.
The author concludes and summarizes the article by saying, “Christians are called to examine the objects of our anger critically and honestly. Christians are called to refrain from unjustly seeking vengeance on the ones we blame for our ills. Christians are called not to dwell in anger, but to move through it toward constructive actions. Christians are called to respect even those with whom we are angry.”
The truth is, there are many things in the world that might rightly lead us to be angry: a matter of injustice, against us personally or against another individual or against some group of society in general; acts of violence; cases of oppression; incidents of abuse. To name just a few examples, some of the issues that should make all of us angry are child sexual abuse and exploitation, including child prostitution; human trafficking and human slavery; mass genocide by deranged and corrupt dictators. These all-too-common realities of our world should make all of us angry. The question is this: What can we do to channel our anger in such a way that we can make a positive difference in the world? It is a difficult question to answer, isn’t it?
But then the anger that most of need help dealing with results from the frustrations and challenges of our everyday lives: that insensitive person at work, the gym, or maybe in our family that seems to go out of their way to frustrate us; the person who loses our medical records or other important paperwork; that cancelled flight; and you can fill in your own blank. Can we at such times transform our anger into problem-solving or constructive action or turn it into a positive outcome?
Well, returning to that fit of anger that we witnessed at that hotel shuttle stop, we felt that the shuttle driver handled the situation wonderfully. Never once did he raise his voice in return. Throughout the whole ordeal he remained calm, polite, respectful and continued to smile. And he went above and beyond the call of duty to get the couple on the shuttle bus by asking a father to hold a child on his lap, freeing up one seat for the husband, and pulling out the emergency seat behind the driver’s seat for the wife. There was a sigh of relief and applause by the other 21 persons on the bus that the incident had been resolved and peace had been restored. But had the shuttle driver dug in his heels and responded with anger in kind, the outcome could have been much different.
No, it is not necessarily wrong or a sin to get angry. Even Jesus did so on at least one or two occasions. The question is, What do we do with that anger? And can we use our anger as a motivator to transform a situation and turn it into something good? May such be an example for all of us. Amen.
1Ryan McAnnally-Linz, ”It’s okay for Christians to be angry. What matters is what you do with that anger.” The Washington Post, July 26, 2016.