Week 4 - Learning to live without anger
Read: Matthew 5:1-12, 21-22
So far we have explored the awful reality of the opposite to the Good and Beautiful life as described by Paul in Romans 1:18-32. We’ve looked closely at the good news that Jesus proclaimed and noted the centrality of the kingdom of God in the Gospel message, and we've thought about the grand invitation that Christ issues to enter this way of life in the here and now.
In this session we’re thinking about the first of a number of very practical ways in which we can live the good and beautiful life as we engage with the issue of anger.
Anger the is flavour of the month isn’t it – well actually it’s the flavour of the last 10 years or so. Do you notice it, everywhere…
I was watching Question time a few weeks ago, and the one common response from both audience and panelists alike usually began with ‘I think it’s a disgrace’ or ‘I think it’s disgusting’ or ‘I think it’s totally unacceptable’ followed by a more or less controlled rant about whatever the particular topic may be. It’s as though the Jeremy Vine phone in on Radio 2 has become the script for our national life.
Of course as well as anger being ever present in our national life, be it on TV, radio, or in print, anger is also it seems, ever present in our own lives. In this session we’re going to explore anger, it’s root causes and effects, and look at some of Jesus teaching on the subject. We’re also going to suggest a path from anger towards a life that is good and beautiful.
Anger can be ok:
Sometimes anger is acceptable. It’d be very wrong to suggest that the Christian ideal is a never angered, constantly placid and smiling happy drone.
We all know Jesus got angry and in one such recorded instance his anger found a physical expression that if we were to immitate would probably be called criminal damage.
Jesus was without sin and yet he also got angry, therefore we conclude that anger is not always sinful. It is right to be angry about some things, and it is right that this anger should be given voice and dare I say it, lead to action. Anger, directed at the right things, injustice, cruelty, oppression, etc, is a motivator of change.
Sometimes as Christians we sin not by being angry, but we sin by not getting angry at the things we ought to. Why are we not furious at the exploitation of the poor? Why do we not rant about the injustice and cruelty under which so many live?
Reflect: What are the things that require a response of ‘righteous anger’? Are there any causes close to your heart in which anger is an important motivator to action? Why not spend some time sharing or praying about these and ask God to help ensure that your anger is a ‘righteous anger’ and directed towards the things that anger him.
But, the reality is, that very often the anger which we experience is not of the ‘good and appropriate’ variety.
Instead it is often destructive, misplaced, and contra to the good and beautiful life which we are invited to make our own.
Because we’re really good at rationalizing this, we often think that our anger isn’t that much of a problem. Everyone gets angry, everyone looses it, that much is true –anger is probably one of the defining cultural markers of our age – often lurking beneath the surface, ready to spring out at the slightest provocation – but this doesn’t serve as a justification for our own anger.
It seems that Jesus sees some anger as a real problem – widespread, common perhaps, but a problem all the same. Listen to Jesus words further in to the sermon on the mount:
In these two verses Jesus says we all know we’re not allowed to murder. If we do, we’re judged for it. So, we think, I haven’t murdered so I’m not liable to judgment. But says Jesus, we are – we may not have committed murder, but if we nurture anger or hatred towards a brother or sister – we’ll sit under judgment.
Inner and outer – nothing to do with belly-buttons…
The Pharisees as we know were concerned more with the outward action than the inner state of heart. For Jesus it was the other way round. His concern was with the inner state, because from the inner heart come our actions. And so he says that actually murder is simply the outworking of hatred, and hatred has its roots in anger. The point he’s making is simple but deeply challenging for us, and it’s this: The heart full of anger, the heart that hates, is not far from the heart that would murder. In fact, it’s the same inner condition.
We sometimes believe that the anger that wells up within, and the hatred that it leads to, is simply internal. Something that we can keep inside, and so long as it doesn’t manifest itself in anything too serious, like violence, or murder, it’s ok – natural, part of being human and something we can live with.
But I don’t think that’s true. Even if it doesn’t find an outward expression that is socially unacceptable, the inner condition is not one that we want to live with.
Reflect: We all live with anger, there is no denying it. Why not spend some time, individually or as a group reflecting on your own condition of heart? Do you harbour anger towards a particular person or persons? Do you have a residue of anger towards previous hurts or situations? Ask the Holy Spirit to shine his light into the darker corners of your heart and bring to light anything that needs to be dealt with.
It’s possible to live another way…
We can change. Jesus says ‘don’t be angry’ so he must think we can actually do it.
But how do we go about addressing this inner condition? How do we move from a place of ugliness and brokenness to a place of goodness and beauty? How do we affect the change and live in the place we’re invited in to?
As with all inner change, the work of the Holy Spirit of God is half the story. The wonderful working of the spirit that convicts us, empowers us to change, and leads us to a new place of increasing holiness.
And as in all things, alongside the deep and powerful work of God within us, we are called to partner in the change, to be active participants rather than passive receivers. And this often involves changing the way we think.
Fear and anger – the chain reaction…
In the Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan-Smith’s basic thesis is that we often don’t live the good and beautiful life to which we’re invited because we believe the narrative of the world rather than Jesus’ narrative. The narrative of the world he says, where it opposes the narrative of Christ, is fundamentally an unreality and therefore leads us to a place of destruction rather than life.
So within this framework let me suggest a handful of false narratives that are often behind our response of anger, and also the tendency to anger quickly which is so corrosive in our society.
False narratives rooted in fear, that lead to angry outbursts and the fostering of anger in the heart:
- I am alone
- Things always need to work out as i’ve planned them
- Something terrible will happen if I make a mistake
- I must be in control all of the time
- Life must always be fair and just
- I need to be perfect all of the time
All of these false narratives have at their heart fear. And these narratives are lived by us individually and as a wider culture.
For example: On a personal level, if we feel alone and afraid, vulnerable, we’re quick to strike out in anger if we feel threatened. Multiplied across a society it means that vast swathes of a population live ‘on the edge’. If we are not alone, in a group, there is less cause to lash out because we have safety and security in numbers.
Another example: ‘I need to be in control’: We think, if I’m not in control all hell will break loose. If we’re not ‘in charge’ our world will fall apart and we fear that. We then rely upon our own resources to try and establish what is a fundamentally false reality. It fails, of course, and we’re aggrieved, fearful, and we lash out in anger at the people or situations that have caused our downfall or shattered our self induced illusion of control.
When society as a whole is neurotically paranoid about control, (which it is) we expect others to be in control and respond in anger when they quite naturally fail to maintain the illusion.
On a recent edition of question time the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer made reference to this very illusion saying effectively that there is nothing beyond man’s control and that she had absolute faith in mankind’s ability to control and manipulate any situation or crisis in which we find ourselves. With such high, and false, expectations, she’s likely to be pretty angry when the ‘mankind’ in which she places her hope fails and looses control.
Jesus narrative is different:
But Jesus narrative for life is different. The narrative of the reality of the kingdom, or life with God, is one in which we move from a place of fear to a place of trust. We anchor ourselves in the reality of the presence and power of God, and we find that his perfect loves drives out fear, and where fear is no longer present, anger cannot take hold.
Here are those false narratives again but this time with Jesus narrative addressing them:
- I am alone. No you’re not, Jesus is with you always.
- I must be in control all the time. We’re never in control, God is in control.
- Something terrible will happen if I make a mistake. In Christ there is always forgiveness and restoration.
- Life must always be fair and just. It isn’t, but God gets the last word.
- I need to be perfect all of the time. Jesus accepts you as you are, with your imperfections.
Jesus’ narrative is one in which trust rather than fear is the dominant sentiment.
So, the first step in learning to live without anger is moving from fear to trust, from a place of insecurity to a place of security. When we are secure and established in Christ, when fear is replaced by love, the inclination to anger is diluted and our response to the situations in which we find ourselves is rooted in love, grace, forgiveness, and importantly – reality.
This is of great importance for us as individuals, as a church, and as part of our wider society. None of us like the anger that seems to characterize our life, individually or communally. We’d all rather do without it, but we often feel dragged along by it. Anger breeds anger and it grows and grows. As a church community, it’s simply not acceptable. In our individual lives, there is a better way to live. And as a society we must find a way to change. We are the change. As individuals and a church community, in learning to live without anger we have the potential to radically improve our personal lives and our church life, and impact the culture in which we live in a profound manner. Can you imagine if the culture of our nation were to shift from thinly veiled anger to generous and gracious love?
Reflect: What are the reasons for the widespread societal anger that seems to lurk so close to the surface. Why is it that people flare up so quickly? Why is it that our culture is so often ‘outraged’ or ‘furious’? What is it about life and the way we do it that, what is it about our cultural philosophy and communal structures, that seems to lead us to this place?