I read a news article recently about the grievances of prisoners, and some of the things they're suing the system for. They are being served chunky peanut butter instead of smooth. Mail deliveries are sometimes scheduled while they're napping. And they're being forced to listen to country music. Over 39,000 lawsuits last year were filed from behind bars complaining about cruel and unusual punishment.
Everybody's angry about something. Some social commentators are referring to today's era as the Age of Rage. Quite possibly this is the most prevalent of the seven deadly sins.
Dr. Les Carter writes in Good and Angry, "Because of the sophistication of our language, people are able to use all kinds of words to describe anger so that it doesn't sound like anger. People aren't afraid to say that they're anxious or bored or depressed or frustrated. They will say that they are anything but angry."
I read an interview in U.S News & World Report with this 102 artist who had painted alongside Claude Monet. She described the spiritual side of her life: "My spiritual vision means everything to me. I am against all war. It doesn't solve anything. I have this great interest in the world and in people." Then she added, "And it annoys me so that as I sit here, a little old lady, I, who do not believe in violence, would like to have cannons shooting all the people I don't approve of."
"In your anger, do not sin."
Do you ever get angry? Maybe it doesn't seem like such a severe moral transgression to you, but the Bible makes clear why it's such a serious offense. Ephesians 4 offers us six truths from this Scripture.
Ephesians 4:26 says, "In your anger, do not sin."
Anger in and of itself is not necessarily a sin. The Bible tells us that even God gets angry. "But watch out," says Paul. You'd better find out what lies behind your anger before it leads to something else.
My Ford Taurus has this little warning light that lights up whenever I get down to below a quarter of a tank of gas. Sometimes that little light really bugs me. It has a habit of coming on when I'm in the middle of nowhere, just after I've passed the gas station on the interstate and the next exit's fifty miles away. So what would you think if I told you I'm going to take my car to Ford and have them remove that little light? You would say that's ridiculous. My problem is not the little red light. My problem is the empty gas tank.
For many of us, our problem is not anger. Our problem is what lies behind the anger. Some psychologists refer to anger as a secondary emotion, it's often brought on by something else.
First, there's hurt. It may be physical pain or emotional suffering. It may be relational conflict, like when you feel rejected by somebody else. Dr. Carter says that if we'll look closely, we will detect a fair amount of grandiosity behind a lot of our anger. We just can't believe what's happening to us. We deserve so much better, don't we?
The second root cause behind anger is frustration. Things aren't going my way. My schedule is tyrannizing me, or the shopping checkout line hasn't moved in five minutes, or my kids never do what I tell them to do. I feel helpless, frustrated, angry.
Fear can trigger anger. Do you remember when Jesus and his disciples get caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee? What was Jesus doing? Sleeping. Mark 4:38 tells us that Jesus' disciples wake him up with angry voices demanding, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"
How does Jesus deal with their anger? Does he ask "Why are you so angry?" No. He asks, "Why are you so afraid?"
We're grumpy as we're paying the bills. Why? Because we're fearful we may not have enough to make ends meet. We ream out our teenage son because he gets the car home fifteen minutes late. We're fearful he was in an accident. We resent our bosses, because we're worried that his or her arbitrary decision could eliminate our jobs. Fear.
When you're angry, ask the question: What's the real issue here? Because whatever is behind the anger is what you need to deal with God's help.
"Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."
Go back to verse 26: "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."
Sue and I had been married just a couple of months when we had an argument one night, in bed no less. So I stomped out of the room to the guest room. I slammed that door so hard that the little plaque on the outside flew off and tumbled down the stairs. It was one of those "Bless This Home" sort of plaques. How appropriate.
When we go to bed angry, we wake up angrier because our anger has become a settled disposition.
You're watching a football game, your favorite team. We'll assume it's the Bears. It's a close game. In the final minutes, the officials make a lousy call, and the Bears lose. You're angry.
To make matters worse, they replay it ten times from five different angles. And every time you see it replayed, the hair raises on the back of your neck. You get angrier. In the post game show, what clip do they show? That bad call. You turn on the ten o'clock news. What do they replay? Sports Illustrated comes in the mailbox. There's a cover story on the game with a photo of this same lousy call.
This is exactly what our mind does with a situation that's caused anger. If we fall asleep thinking about it, you can bet we'll still be ruminating on it in the shower the next morning.
If this sort of behavior persists in our lives, we become angry people. It's not just that we get angry; we are angry. Anger becomes a characteristic attitude. Do you ever find yourself to be a walking time bomb just looking for a place to explode?
Maybe that's the mood you came home from work with. Maybe your angry disposition isn't turned out on others; maybe it's turned inward. Dr. Paul Meier, a psychiatrist and best selling author, says that anger is probably responsible for 95 percent of psychological depressions.
Remember Jonah? God asked Jonah to preach his message to the wicked people of Ninevah, and Jonah refused initially. God got his attention in the deep, blue sea. So Jonah eventually went to Ninevah, the people repented and turned to God. And everybody was Jonah.
The Scripture tells us that Jonah didn't like the Ninevites, so he was angry with God for not nuking them. Jonah's anger became a settled disposition. Jonah became a pouting prophet. The Old Testament story concludes with Jonah asking God to let him die. Now that's depression. That is anger turned inward.
Don't sleep with anger. Don't linger unresolved in your life. Don't let it become a disposition.
"And do not give the devil a foothold."
In verse 27 Paul says: "And do not give the devil a foothold."
Anger in and of itself may not be sinful, but it gives the devil a foot in the door of our lives. When that door is cracked open, there's no telling what will follow anger in.
Do you remember the first story of anger in the Bible? It's the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel. They both brought sacrifices, gifts to God. God accepted Abel's; he rejected Cain's. God rejected the offering because of Cain's attitude. He said, "Cain, if you'll change your attitude, I'll accept your gift." But then God added this warning: "Cain, right now anger is crouching at your door." Cain opened that door, and when anger came into Cain's life, what followed? Cain murdered his brother Abel.
Richard Walters is a psychiatrist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He writes: "People will be murdered today because of someone's anger. Others will die from physical ailments resulting from or aggravated by their angry feelings. Many people die in auto accidents. While others carry out the angriest act of all, suicide. Countless relationships die little by little as resentment gnaws away at the foundations of love and trust. Anger is a devastating force, and its consequences should sicken us."
This psychiatrist closes with these words: "Anger related destruction of the human life and spirit is the incredible national disaster. It's a personal tragedy in the lives of millions."
Proverbs 14:17 says, "An angry person does foolish things." A few chapters later Proverbs 29:22 says, "A hot tempered man commits many sins."
Erwin Lutzer in his book, Managing Your Emotions, writes: "We all know that Alexander the Great conquered the world. But what few people know is that this mighty general could not conquer himself. Cletus, a dear friend of Alexander's and a general in his army, became intoxicated and ridiculed the emperor in front of his men. Blinded by anger, quick as lightning, Alexander snatched a spear from the hand of a soldier and hurled it at Cletus. Though he had only intended to scare the drunken general, his aim was true and the spear took the life of his childhood friend. Deep remorse followed his anger. Overcome with guilt, Alexander tried to take his own life with the same spear, but was stopped by his men. For days he lay sick calling for his friend Cletus, chiding himself as a murderer." Lutzer concludes by saying, "Alexander the Great conquered many cities. He conquered many countries, but he failed miserably to conquer his own self."
Alexander opened the door; when anger came through, other things followed. Satan gained a foothold.
"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths . . ."
Verse 29 says: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
Unwholesome talk can be used like a weapon in the life of an angry person. Proverbs 12:18 says that sometimes our words are like sword thrusts. We could destroy them with our language.
Some of you have seen the movie The Indian in the Cupboard. A young boy has a magic cupboard; it transforms his plastic cowboys and Indians into real people who are three inches people from a different era. His Indian friend, Little Bear, is an Iroquois warrior from the time of the French and Indian Wars. He's a good guy fighting on the side of the British. The little boy wants to help Little Bear fight his enemies, so he takes some modern day army men, puts them in the cupboard, and brings them to life. He borrows their machine guns and grenade launchers, and gives them to the Indians to use. Then he sends Little Bear back to his time.
Little Bear and company soon surround their enemy with a circle about fifty yards across, then open fire. The only trouble is they're used to bows and arrows that shoot short distances, not twentieth century weapons. And some of them are killed by friendly fire.
Angry words are like that. We underestimate their destructive capability. It's critical that we begin to guard our words carefully. A mouth can neutralize anger. Proverbs 15:1 says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." Our words either cool down or steam up an angry situation.
"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God . . ."
Verse 30 says: "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."
Let's imagine that you want to become a great tennis player. You hire a professional coach. Every day he works with you, and your whole game gets better. Now you're ready for some competition. You take your place on the court while your coach beams his support from the sidelines.
Early in the match, a close call goes against you, and you get angry. Now that you're angry, you start forgetting everything your coach has drilled into you. Your play goes from bad to worse, and you eventually lose the match.
Afterwards, you apologize to the coach and he forgives you. It's back to practicing for the next match. But the next match is a repeat of the first contest. You lose your temper and forget everything your coach has taught you. If this sort of behavior happens again and again, how long do you think you'll keep your coach?
The Bible describes God's Spirit as a sort of resident coach in our lives. When we humble ourselves before God, acknowledging our sin and our need for a savior, the Holy Spirit comes to reside in our hearts. His main mission is to dramatically "improve our game," to play like Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, every time we get angry we forget everything he's taught us. Our anger causes us to turn a deaf ear to his counsel.
The Holy Spirit speaks to us though God's Word. This is his coaching manual. But when anger begins to control our lives, we stop listening.
It distances him from our lives. This is one friend we can't afford to alienate.
Most of what we learned about anger this morning has come in the form of negative warnings. Don't do this; don't do that. But the apostle Paul is going to send us out on a positive note.
Some of us have been taught from childhood that the way to deal with anger is to suppress it. Act unruffled even if you're raging inside. Trying to suppress anger is almost as impossible as trying to hold a beachball under the water. It keeps popping back up.
At the other extreme, some therapists are telling us to express our anger. Scream if it helps to ventilate your feelings.
I watched the MTV special on the seven deadly sins. In the segment on anger, they focused on a woman who had, as a young girl, been abused by her stepfather. Today she's an angry poet. She recites intensely hostile verses to an audience in poetry nightclubs. From the looks and sounds of it I would say it's not helping.
Expressing anger only intensifies it. We get angrier. Suppress it? No. Express it? No. The only way to deal with it is to replace it with something far better, like Christlike qualities.
In verse 31 Paul says: "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice."
Some people say anger is far too complex a problem to be addressed so simply. Dr Carter says, "Anyone who lives a life of anger is choosing to do so."
Paul says, "Don't choose it. Get rid of anger." What do you replace it with? Look at verse 32. "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."
A historian is making a study of the diaries of teenage girls from the past 150 years. As she compares the differences between the older diaries and the ones from today, the big difference is that in the past the girls were more likely to put their personal struggles in a spiritual context. They were more likely to call upon God for his help in their character development. But today, she discovered, girls are counting on themselves.
There are two benefits that knowing Christ can contribute to your life.
The first is humility. Paul tells us in his closing verse that if we've experienced the forgiveness of God, if we've humbled ourselves before him, it's almost impossible to be angry with others. I don't think I've ever known a truly humble person who had a problem with anger.
The other benefit that Christ brings to our lives is power. You think about everything you've learned about anger today. Where else are you going to get the strength to apply it?
Jim Nicodem is senior pastor of Christ Community Church in St. Charles, Illinois.