“Be Angry but Do Not Sin”
Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-32 (Proverbs 15:1, 16:31, 25:28)
About five years ago I did a sermon series on the “Seven Deadly Sins.” When I came to the topic of anger, I observed that people seemed to be angrier than they used to be – when I said angry, I primarily meant irritable, touchy, and quick to take offense. It’s true that there have always been crimes of passion as a reaction to real or perceived slights or betrayals – these are as old as the human race. These extremes were not my subject: I was talking about the everyday, more garden-variety anger that we were witnessing more and more: people who make obscene gestures at other drivers, who yell at store clerks and waiters who don’t render service efficiently enough, who leave nasty notes on their neighbors’ cars or in their mailboxes. I theorized that maybe we were seeing more anger because it is easier than it used to be to get away with being bad-tempered. In the old days, you would have to walk down the street or into a bar to pick a fight with a man, and you’d have to deal with his words right in your face or his fist right in your mouth. Now you can vent your ire on the Internet or in the air-conditioned bubble. The other person seems less real, and is certainly less dangerous that way.
That was five years ago. I had no idea how bad things could get. To say that many people nowadays are touchy, irritable, and quick to take offense is an understatement. There are public displays of incivility over the wearing of face masks – every day there are new stories about restaurant or retail workers being threatened, spit on, or assaulted for asking patrons to cover their face. Earlier this summer, a senior community in Florida became the scene of a nasty confrontation between supporters and detractors of the president, with a large dose of white supremacist taunts thrown in. People in Congress attack their colleagues who disagree with them not with reasoned arguments but with insults, obscenities, and sexist slurs.
We seem to be living in an age of hyper-sensitivity. Our seemingly insurmountable political and ideological divisions, which had already taken a nasty turn over the last three years, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Where slights or challenges are perceived, there seems to be little inclination to respond with humor or just let something go, much less consider the other person’s viewpoint. If your view doesn’t line up with my view, the thinking goes, then it is an affront to me. The pandemic has brought out the best in many people, and so we also hear daily reports of supreme generosity and bravery – but it has also brought out the worst in many others.
Anger itself is not a sin. It is a normal emotion, and without it we wouldn’t be quite human. If we have any compassion, the sight of another human being or an animal being neglected or treated unkindly or unjustly should rouse us to anger. The only story in the Gospels in which Jesus is actually described as being angry is when he heals a man on the Sabbath. The appointed guardians of “proper” religion are offended by this Sabbath-day labor, and Jesus is angered by their hardheartedness (Mark 3:1-6). Sometimes anger goes along with love of the neighbor. The Hebrew prophets, in their writings, are angry quite a bit of the time: anger is the reason for their writing. They condemned, on behalf of God, the mistreatment and neglect of the poor and the false worship they saw going on.
So there is a difference between being angry in appropriate ways and being an angry person. Anger is an emotion that is easily disordered and becomes sinful. Thomas Aquinas identified three ways anger can go wrong: getting angry too easily, or having a quick temper; staying angry too long, or holding a grudge; and getting angry out of proportion to the offense.
The first kind of disordered anger may be seen in the person whose anger flares up at the slightest provocation. This is the person everyone else is a little afraid of, the one who makes us feel like we’re walking on eggs to be around her. This person may be someone who never stays part of any group for very long – she’ll join enthusiastically, but as soon as someone offends her in some small thing, she’ll drop out. This kind of person takes the joy out of things for everyone. The main person they hurt, though, is themselves. Always suspicious that someone is going to take advantage of them or disrespect them, they are perpetually disappointed by life and feel that someone ought to pay.
The second kind of disordered anger is staying angry too long, being unwilling or unable to forgive. An example might be the siblings who haven’t spoken to each other for years. With the passage of time, whatever they fought about has faded in significance, but it is coaxed alive again with each reminder of the other person. The important thing is the other person’s intransigence, and neither one is willing to let go of the anger to make the first move toward reconciliation.
The third kind of disordered anger can be seen in the person who gets angry out of all proportion to the offense. He is likely to be a slammer of doors, thrower of objects or kicker of dogs as his rage gets out of control. Sometimes this person’s anger is truly dangerous: he (or she) may inflict physical harm on a spouse or children. It’s not uncommon for this person to feel great remorse and sorrow after losing control that way, but then they do it again. This person is genuinely to be feared; if people stay with him, it is because he has taken such control of their lives that they are afraid to leave and he has convinced them that they have nowhere else to go.
There may also be a fourth type, not mentioned by Aquinas: the person who feels entitled to express his discontent or displeasure as a sign of his “authenticity.” “This is who I am!” this person shouts, or snarls. “Take it or leave it.” Other people’s feelings are not allowed to stand in the way of his personal expression.
Disordered anger is almost always a form of self-indulgence, a way of asserting control over others and trying to bend them to our will. Whether it manifests itself in sulks or rages, the rant or the silent treatment, the person giving free rein to her anger is hoping to manipulate others into doing what she wants. Perpetually angry people, whether they express themselves in hair-trigger explosions or suspicious reserve, are a menace to the people closest to them and can at least ruin the day of people who are more peripherally associated with them.
Almost all of us have given vent to disordered anger at one time or another. A common cause of anger is anything that causes disruption of the routines and practices that are comfortable for us – so it’s not surprising that the disruptions and restrictions of the covid-19 pandemic have put almost everyone on edge. Other trip points are perceived insults to our sense of honor, status, or place. Many offenses that threaten to put us over the edge may not seem so offending if we can imagine ourselves in the offender’s place: did that driver cut you off because of rudeness and arrogance, or simple miscalculation in changing lanes?
How can we tell whether our anger is healthy or unhealthy? Generally speaking, if our expression of anger is intended primarily to make someone feel guilty for treating us this way, to force them into doing what we want, or to bring attention back to ourselves, it is not healthy. If it is intended to draw attention to injustice, unkindness, neglect or endangerment of another, and to bring about a change in that situation, it is probably healthy. Of course, there are times when anger against genuine injustice to ourselves is also appropriate; we don’t need to be punching bags for others to vent their anger on.
If we are using anger to control other people, the one we really need to control is ourselves. The classical Christian writers understood that we damage our own souls through indulgence of our angry emotions. One classical theologian, Basil the Great, said anger was a “sickness of the soul, a darkening of thought, an estrangement from God…a cause of conflict, a fullness of misfortune.”[i] This reflects the thinking of the Proverbs writers, who linked much of human calamity to uncontrolled anger. The real menace of anger is that it pushes out every other emotion that might moderate our response to an offense.
When we begin to judge that our anger is unhealthy, how do we get control of ourselves? Perhaps the simplest way – though probably not the easiest way, there is a difference – is to imagine ourselves in the place of the other person. What motives might he have had for acting the way he did? Was he deliberately provoking me, or might there have been something else going on? Was the remark I heard really an insult, or was the speaker just clumsy with her speech? And finally…am I completely innocent in this matter? We often justify our anger by saying “I can’t help what I feel” – which is true – but we can use our reason to put our feelings into perspective.
In our passage from Ephesians, the writer points us to the example of Christ. “Be angry but do not sin…Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” This is a Scripture for our troubled times. It seems that we in the church are called to be especially gentle and forgiving now, as rage, bitterness, and malice seem to be getting the upper hand in so much of public life. Now more than ever the counter-example of a Christian church that actually acts Christian is urgently needed.
To learn to keep anger under control is to live gently on the earth, after the example of Jesus Christ. This surely can be no sin.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
August 9, 2020
[i] Quoted in Rebecca Konyndyk deYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 118.