The Proper Use of Your Anger

Lent 3B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

St. Paul wrote to Christians living in Ephesus to “…be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).  He made a list of rules for new life in Christ. He advised them to “…[put] away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:25-27).

Let’s review: 1) Speak the truth. 2) Don’t sin, and 3) be angry. Did you know there was this bible command to be angry? Be angry. That’s an order.  What on earth was Paul getting at? Is there a constructive and necessary purpose for our anger?

 Jesus fashioned a whip of cords He scattered the coins of the money changers and knocked over their tables in the temple. He told the dove dealers, sheep sellers, and cattle wranglers to get out!  And what a time to make a scene! 300,000 people had crammed into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The temple complex was the center of Jewish faith and the symbolic heart of the Jewish nation—one place that held together crowds of worshippers, bustling commercial activity, nationalist aspirations, political identity, historical memory, architectural splendor, and religious affiliation.

It couldn’t have been a surprise to see people selling animals. They were needed for the temple to function as a place to make sacrifice to God. Jesus brought everything in the temple to an absolute stop!  Let’s freeze the story here to focus on the still shot of Jesus being angry.  (We could talk about Jesus’ temple tantrum in the context of the second temple and about why this story does not mean Jesus made Judaism or the Jews expendable. That idea has a bloody legacy in Western history and is terrible, unchristian a mistake—but that would take up all our time.)

Anger is a powerful emotion which blinds us and makes us vulnerable to manipulation; and/or anger is a powerful teacher which yields important insights about ourselves and the world around us. Anger can lead to compassionate action. How can we avoid the first (blindness and manipulation) and steer into more of the second (insight and compassionate action)?

 St. Augustine wrote that Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger, so that what must not be cannot be; and Courage, so that what can be will be.  More than most emotions, anger shows us what we really care about. Anger is often the first indication that something ain’t right.  Anger can re-negotiate boundaries in unhealthy systems.  Cold anger (as opposed to hot), emptied of its will to violence and aggression, can be empathetic, powerful, and creative.

“Destroy this temple,” Jesus said, “and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The mighty and glorious temple of Jerusalem for us is now the temple of his body—not limited to any specific geographical place or time. This new temple is not a building but a way of life into which we are built. We have become a temple of Living Stones –to create the beloved community and to reach for a better world for everyone.  We can’t get there from here without anger transformed by the Spirit into fuel that drives us toward beloved community and justice.

We help each other to learn the proper use of our anger if the beloved community and social justice are ever to become more than pie in the sky wishes and dreams. Anger, and even rage, can be great teachers if we listen to them. They are powerfully revealing of our deepest self to ourselves and to others, yet we tend to consider them negatively. Anger can lead bring conversion, humility, and honesty.

Faced with an outrage, anger is the price we pay for paying attention. It is the rage that ought to come out, because, when faced with an outrage, it is a sin not to be angry. And yet, confusion about the proper use anger has made Americans vulnerable to the worse type of cynical manipulation and is a threat to the future of our democracy.

Righteous anger is turned around and used against us by those who seek to sustain their own power. Political fundraisers have a secret. Fear and anger are what brings the money in. Stoking fear and anger over years and decades among our evangelical siblings in Christ gave birth to Christian nationalism, which is neither Christian nor patriotic. The righteous anger of rural Americans mourning the loss of jobs and the dignity that comes with them is the result of technology that enables just one-third of farmers to produce five times the food, and 20% of miners to double the production of coal. Yet their anger is channeled for political effect, not toward the effects of technology and how to creatively respond to it, but against the fake enemy of illegal immigrants, wokeness and the deep state. (Paul Krugman, “The Mystery of White Rural Rage,” NYT, 2/26/24)

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers wisdom for softening our anger by letting it “cook.” Your anger is like a flower. In the beginning you may not understand the nature of your anger, or why it has come up. But if you sit with it, it will begin to open….You need to sustain your mindfulness for a certain amount of time in order for the flower of anger to open herself. It’s like when you cook potatoes; you put the potatoes in the pot, cover it, and put it on the fire…. You have to keep the fire burning for at least fifteen or twenty minutes in order for the potatoes to cook. After that, you open the lid, and you smell the wonderful aroma of cooked potatoes.

Anger is like that—it needs to be cooked. In the beginning it is raw. You cannot eat raw potatoes. Your anger is very difficult to enjoy, but if you know how to take care of it, to cook it, then the negative energy of your anger will become the positive energy of understanding and compassion.  (Richard Rohr, “When Anger Meets Love,” Daily Meditations, 3/2/24)

Metabolized anger points in the direction of creating the beloved community and social justice.  Anger, like pain, helps us recognize what is wrong and where we hurt, so we can attend to the hurt and begin to heal it.  The conditions giving rise to anger must be treated with the medicine of the abiding and abundant love of God. This is what we call the way of the cross. It is how we take shelter in the living sanctuary of one another, and also, how we become living members of that sanctuary in the body of Christ.

This is what it means to “take up our cross” in a way that doesn’t become pathological or destructive but generative and compassionate.  It comes from cooking our anger until it opens like a flower. We’ve seen a profound example this month in life of Alexei Navalny. Navalny’s decision to return to Russia after two failed attempts to poison him, was animated his Christian faith.  Three years before his death, on February 20, 2021, Navalny spoke about his faith during the closing statement at his trial. His final public words included this surprising bible quote: ‘Blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’ Navalny expected to die in service of his nation’s hunger and thirst for justice. Navalny chose to sacrifice himself for a greater truth, a political idea that was also a biblical one.

The consequence was both shocking and moving to people across the globe. The funeral for Alexei Navalny was Friday in Moscow. Despite the risk of arrest many thousands turned out for the funeral and the procession, throwing flowers at the hearse as it made its way to the cemetery. A woman at Navalny’s funeral compared Navalny and Putin. “One sacrificed himself to save the country, the other one sacrificed the country to save himself.” (Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, 3/1/24)

Jesus overturned the workings of the temple. In our grief, we have in Jesus one who listens, and mourns with us and one who fights and struggles with us for the beloved community and a better world. Be angry, but do not sin. Learn to speak the truth in love. Do not let the sun go down on your anger so you do not make room for the devil and his manipulation. Whenever two or three are gathered in his name, God is there. Let the Holy Spirit turn us from what’s wrong toward what’s right. Become part of the temple not made with hands, a living sanctuary of hope and grace.