This past weekend, I had a moment where I got P.O.’d. If you’re human, you can probably relate. It was over something that wasn’t even a big deal, yet my blood started boiling and I felt like hitting a wall. But then I realized that such an action would let anger win. So I sat in my devotional chair and started the process of “cooling off.” Jesus says:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
Jesus takes an external commandment and makes it an internal reality. It would be easy to look at this portion of the Sermon on the Mount and decide that Jesus is here, giving us a new Law. Kind of like he’s saying: “Back in the day it was wrong to murder somebody, but now it’s even wrong to be P.O.’d.” Then, add to this the warning about being subject to judgment (in this life and potentially in the next) and what we have is a scary commandment. A new Law. I want to suggest that Jesus doesn’t give us any kind of Law. He digs down to the deepest part of us, the inward realities that shape our external behavior. His invitation is to become the transformed kind of person that doesn’t even come close to the point of being so angry that our natural reaction is to act in violence. Murder, for Jesus, is the result of knowing a Law but not becoming more fully human by the power of the Spirit and thus, failing to keep our anger in check.
As a child, I witnessed and endured the violence of untamed anger in the form of physical abuse. I’m certainly glad this never led to anything worse. Many households aren’t so lucky as that sort of anger sometimes results in murder. Violent homes never lead to anything good. Maybe this sort of anger doesn’t lead most to be abusive to humans, but what about those who take their anger out on their pets. You head home after the boss just told you your doing a crappy job… get cut off on the freeway almost getting into a collision… try to park in the garage of your home but your clicker wont work… finally get into the house knowing that your baby is sleeping… and that’s when it happens… the dog barks at the noise made by the keys in your hand. Enraged by this series of unfortunate events you tell the dog “shut up!” Yet the pup continues to yelp and bark. Anger escalates into uncontrollable rage that must be released, and your 15-pound dog becomes the victim of a poorly managed inner life. The violence within becomes the suffering of an innocent pup.
When you want to kick the desk or throw the phone and shout, Here’s a little damn it doll you cannot do without, Just grasp it firmly by the legs, and find a place to slam it, And as you whack it’s stuffing out, yell, damn it, damn it, damn it!
Beating the stuffing out of a doll allows the anger to disappear as all returns to emotional equilibrium, or so the assumption goes. The problem lies in that scientific studies indicate exactly the opposite truth. One source states: “when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.”
If finding an alternative outlet for rage only adds to the problem of anger, how are we to deal with it? The point of this passage in the Sermon on the Mount is that we are invited to give God lordship over our emotions. I’m in no way claiming that all forms of anger are wrong or that “good Christians” ought to suppress anger. Both of these suggestions cause equal harm. Rather, it seems that Jesus invites us into the journey of character formation that only happens as we allow the Scriptures and the Spirit to transform who we are in this moment, and who we are becoming. The more we get to know the One who chose non-retaliation, the more anger’s escalation will lose in the weakest moments of our lives! Paul, in continuity with Jesus’ anger tradition, states:
26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4.26-27
At the end of each day an evaluative inner life question we are invited to ask is: Am I angry in this moment? Paul picks up on this question knowing full well that anger is part of life and isn’t wrong, in and of itself. It’s when we allow anger to take on a life of its own that sin enters the picture, with the potential to yield various forms of violence. May we become the kind of people that give up our anger as the Spirit transforms our inner life. Only through the work of God in our internal space, the deep crevasses of our hearts, will anger not have the final word in our relationships. May we commit to not letting the sun go down while we are P.O.’d!