Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Holy Spirit and Anger

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

It may be shocking to see Jesus angry in this scene in the Temple: angry and acting with force. Don’t we usually use words like gently, meek, and mild for Jesus?

Yes, we do, but we also very firmly use the word “human” for him as well. And, if Jesus was fully human than he had to have experienced every human emotion, including anger.

So let’s talk about anger. We are talking about living the Life of the Spirit during this Season of Lent. Can anger play any part in the Life of the Spirit? Apparently the answer is “yes,” because here we have Jesus doing it. But how can this be so?

Let’s deal with some misconceptions right up front. First and foremost, anger as an emotional response is not an automatically bad thing. It is not, of course, automatically a good thing either. As a feeling it is morally neutral.

This means that anger is not automatically sinful. I think we church folk often seem to think that it is, and give one another the impression that the only correct response to anger is suppression.

In truth, nothing could be worse. More than psychology, it is simple common sense that if you suppress anger it will fester, and it will get uglier and uglier and uglier. It will grow like a cancer and it may very well consume you or someone else.

Unfortunately some of us were taught to feel guilty or even ashamed when we got angry. Lord, have mercy, anger and guilt make a particularly nasty cocktail that can mess people up something fierce.

What about the anger of God? God is frequently angry in the Bible, and occasionally it is not a pretty sight. Break those commandments and you are going to piss God off.

It’s tempting to trump all that with the First Letter of John. “God is love.” But do we really want a God who is incapable of anger? OK, I see your point, you might be saying, so long as it’s not directed at me.

We have to admit that the anger of God, and the violence of God, is a stubborn question that cannot be easily explained away, although many certainly try to do so. But how could it be otherwise? Do we really expect God to be any less complicated than we are? How many of us understand the complexity of human emotions, our own or others? Is there anyone?

What matters, of course, is not whether we are ever angry, but what we do with it when we are.

First of all, as I have already said, we do not suppress it, pretend it isn’t there, or be dishonest about it. Denying anger in a relationship has got to be in the top five reasons why relationships shipwreck. I know, it is a natural inclination to avoid dealing with the problem, but if you make that choice you are going to pay for it. Trust me, as one who has paid out a mountain of hurt.

Honesty, as they rightly say, is the best policy. I know, however, how difficult that is in this throw-away society. It feels like honesty is only going to get me rejection, or labeled one of those “angry women,” “angry blacks” or “angry gays.”

One of the answers to this dilemma is for us to stop giving anger so much power. If someone is angry at me, it is only anger. It’s not pleasant, but neither is going to the dentist. Some things in life just have to be done because we are better for it when we do them even if they involve momentary unpleasantness.

Is my spouse angry with me (of course, I have never personally experienced this)? OK, we can deal with that, can’t we? What are marriage vows for, after all? What did we think “for better, for worse” meant? And we have at our disposal all the tools to get on the other side of anger, the chief among them being the process of reconciliation. We know how to say, “I’m sorry,” and we know how to say, “I forgive you.”

It’s the same dynamic with God. Is God ever angry with me? How could he not be? I am a wildly imperfect person. If you haven’t noticed, so are you. We are all a freaking mess! Of course God is angry with us! To paraphrase Groucho Marx, would we want a God who would be happy with our messed-up behavior?

But it’s only anger! It does not negate the words that have been spoken, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” God’s anger may be real and we may need seriously to deal with it, but it is never going to trump God’s love. That, my friends, is the gospel Jesus taught and lived out right through his death.

But, of course, we need to do a bit more with our anger if we are going to see our way through this with all our relationships and body parts intact. I can’t, of course, shoot you between the eyes and say, “It was only anger!”

So in order to be able to be honest about my anger, what do I have to do? Two skills that are among the most important we can learn to exercise, so important that they themselves can be called “spiritual practices.” These two things are detachment and offering, and they usually have to both be done and in that order.

The problem with anger is that when I get angry I tend to feel like I need to be in control and that what is at stake is every ounce of my integrity, and I quickly appoint myself as my own personal savior and sometimes the savior of someone else, or the whole damn world.

Detachment does not mean that I convince myself not to care anymore or lose my resolve for something (whatever has made me angry) to be different. Detachment means my ego letting go. Detachment means letting go of my need to be in control. It is so, so, so hard to do when we are angry and feeling threatened but we absolutely have to do it.

If we can let go, detach, relax our grip even just a bit, then we might be able to turn our hand over and slowly open the fingers and do the other spiritual practice: offer. Give it to God.

Now that is not just another way to suppress it. It is rarely ever true that God just “takes it away,” makes it disappear so that I can say, “Wow! I don’t even remember what I was angry about!” I think it does happen that way sometimes, but not all the time, and not even most of the time. I think that is not how God tends to work with us. God does not want to take away the struggle. God does want to walk with us through it.

This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. The Holy Spirit’s job description is to be our companion in the struggle of life, and as our companion, to be an agent of transformation.

And that is what happens if we can let go, and accept God’s companionship in whatever is sticking in our craw. The spiritual energy that has amassed around that thing can be transformed from anger into passion into compassion.

It was not anger that overturned those tables in the Temple. Oh, I have no doubt that is where it started, but it was compassion that overturned those tables. Jesus was so moved by the sight of God’s people having to buy pure animals because their own were not acceptable to make their sacrifice to God, and he was so angered by the religious authorities making money off of the exchange of coin, that he had to do something. And notice what he did. He drove out the animals who were to be sold for sacrifice (that’s what the whip of cords was for) and he overturned the moneychangers’ tables. But it is not said that he harmed a single human being. He disturbed them, but he did not do violence to them.

It’s an example of what we can do with our anger, in this case our anger at injustice. It is so easy in such a situation to let our anger get the best of us so that we do not care who gets hurt and our actions have far more to do with making us feel better than actually solving the injustice about which we are angry.

That doesn’t mean we don’t act. It means we get our ego as far out of the equation as possible, let the Holy Spirit be our companion and guide, and let compassion dictate what we must do.

How it changes my conflict with another human being, if my anger with them is accompanied by my compassion for them! Arguments then change from being about my winning or losing to being about us being transformed by the Holy Spirit to be in an ever greater state of love.


Virtual PA 4 U said...

If ones anger is about another's neglect,or about another's abuse of power, is this Pride? I have a problem with priests. They are our shepherds but yet they are like farmers with no knowledge of sheep. They herd us but they don't understand us or have any knowledge of how to counsel. It's like at priest school they teach you to ignore most of the flock and pay attention to a few. They seem to just prod and poke their sheep, ensuring the field is good for grazing but not worry about the animal whilst they do this. I am sure that wasn't what Jesus wanted. I imagine that he knew his sheep well and was keen to not just guide them but keep them healthy too. A sheep with a limp I presume would be checked to see if he/she was ok. A noisy sheep would be checked out to see if it had broken away from it's herd and was stuck some place. A quiet and lonely sheep would be encouraged to join the others and bossy and badly behaved sheep would be severely dealt with. So, why is it I feel that I am amongst sheep that are being left to fend for themselves and their shepherd is constantly in another field with the other sheep and not paying attention to all in all fields. This makes me angry.

msdnga said...

Wow thank you so much for your reply. You absolutely nailed it! This is exactly how I have been feeling in my search for a church home. It seems that far too many of our American churches are too focused on the message and not the hearers of the message. Far too many churches do not reach out to their members, to their sheep, to check on them to see how they're doing outside of Sunday morning if you even get that on Sunday morning. It does seem to be a sickness.