Good morning saints! Good morning sinners!
So – Has anyone here ever been angry?
Really? I didn’t think Christians got angry.
Remember the TV series The Incredible Hulk? It ran from 1978 until 1982 and starred Bill Bixby as David Banner, and Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk. Most of the time Dr Banner was a nice guy. But when someone got in his face – and it seemed to happen every week – he would utter those famous words, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” But if the person ignored this warning and made him angry – which also seemed to happen every week – Banner would transform into a big, green, angry monster called the Incredible Hulk, and destroy things.
Have you have ever been so angry at someone that, if you could get away with it, you would transform into the Hulk and settle things?
Oh, wait a sec, I forgot who my audience is. We are all good church folks. None of us has ever felt that way — have we?
Oh, we have, haven’t we! Truth is, we have all been angry.
Sometimes anger can be irritation. It really doesn’t bother us that much, and it quickly disappears, is forgotten, and we go on. When I get angry, I can mutter under my breath in the moment and make noise when I get alone. I can wallow in it for hours, or even weeks. But when some people get angry, they become like the Hulk. They literally lose control of their thinking, their words, and their actions. They destroy things, like relationships. To destroy a relationship in anger is probably the worst, yet it happens way too often.
This all raises an important question, even if we don’t get Hulk-angry: what purpose does our anger serve? Broadly speaking, don’t we tend to think that, besides making us feel better, expressing our anger will make the other person feel bad, see the error of their way for not agreeing with us, and come over to our side. Sound about right? But does it ever do that? Think about it – when someone got angry at you did you ever think, “Oh silly me, I am so happy they got angry and showed me the error of my ways so I might repent and follow them!” Nope. You’ve never done that.
I think we live in a culture in which more people become Hulks more often. Pick a topic and you can find stories and videos of people getting angry and then getting into fights. And it seems to me at least that more and more of those conflicts involve weapons of some kind. The use of guns doesn’t surprise us anymore. People use vehicles. Early last month a guy in Norway used a bow and arrow to kill 5 people. Parents fight with, and even kill, each other and referees over a bad call at elementary age sporting events.
Today blacks are angry with whites; republicans are angry with democrats; women are angry with men; police are angry with the crowd; straight with gay; rich with poor; pro-masker/pro-vaxers with anti-masker anti-vaxers. It’s Sunday, and I guarantee you, this afternoon football players and fans will get angry with each other. On a related note, if you are coming here this afternoon to watch the Eagles vs Broncos game, you better not get angry!
And perhaps the worst part is, it’s not just people “out there,” in the world, who are getting angry and fighting. It’s us, in the church, too.
I read about a fight in a Memphis, TN church that broke out between two women during a Sunday morning communion service. Police had to be called, and when they arrived, they had to forcibly separate the women.
In one church I served as pastor, the kid’s Sunday school leaders repainted the white classroom walls with bright, colorful paint. Shortly thereafter I got a visit from a woman who had nothing to do with Kid’s Ministry but who was very angry that they repainted the walls. She stayed angry at me for years over that.
Church people get angry over what kind of filing cabinet to buy, what kind of coffee to serve, even which photo of Jesus to put in the foyer. And worse.
About 25 years ago I attended a conference at a downtown church in Houston. The church had just completed building a second campus in a developing part of the city in order to reach the people there, and the pastor was telling us the story of all that happened to bring that second campus to reality. Most of it was exciting and made you think “Wow, that’s so cool.” But there were parts of the story that weren’t so cool. Like the part where people loudly left the church because they didn’t want the new campus. Like the part where someone threw rocks through the windows of the houses of church leaders who supported the new campus. Like the part where people against the new campus got in fistfights in the parking lot with people who supported it. Like the part where the pastor got death threats from people in the church.
Even today, so-called Christians bring knives, Tasers, and guns to worship on Sunday morning, intending to use them against fellow worshipers.
They’ll know we are Christians by our love!
If you have a Bible, open it up to chapter 4 of James. If you don’t know where that is, start flipping from the back of your Bible. You’ll see Revelation, three letters from John, two letters from Peter, and then James. As you are making that journey, I’ll give you some background.
Between 1993 and 2002 Eugene Peterson wrote a paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. It’s a very colorful, modern English version that many of you have read. In his intro to James, Peterson wrote, “When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does. Christian churches are not, as a rule, model communities of good behavior. It seems as if Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. We’ve all seen it, and perhaps we’ve all participated at one time or another.”
Haven’t we all had our moments of not being models of good behavior. Sadly, I certainly have. We’ve seen people get hurt and leave the church. Maybe you’re here because you got hurt and left another church; or maybe you are one who caused the hurting.
So anyway, James was Jesus’ half-brother – same mom but different dad. About 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection, James wrote this letter to offer some practical instruction on how to live life as a follower of Jesus.
Now, James is a very practical guy, and I like that. He may have known his theology frontwards and backwards, and he was one of the top leaders of the early church, but he didn’t spend a lot of time theologizing in this letter. Instead, he filled it with hands-on, practical applications to help the rubber of Christian faith get traction on the road of daily life. Here is some of what he wrote about anger:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?
So – James’ readers were arguing and physically fighting with each other. Why? Because some of them want red carpet, but some want blue. Some of them want an organ and hymns, but some want a band. Some want everyone to wear a mask and get vaccinated, but some don’t think either of those are necessary. Some thought black lives matter but some thought all lives matter.
The modern desires that battle within us are a bit different than the desires in James’ day, but still we argue and come to blows because of our competing desires. And when we get angry, we can become the Hulk and destroy our relationships with one another. No matter who is involved or what the situation is, nothing good comes from human anger. Take a look.
You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Wow! Jesus followers are not just arguing and punching with each other – they are killing each other, because they can’t get their way!
See that word “covet.” One Bible translation says “lust.” Lust usually has to do with a strong sexual desire. That’s not the case here, but the idea is a very strong, out of the ordinary, unbridled desire. You want that so bad, so strongly, that you are willing to kill to get it.
Then James explains that we do not have because we do not ask God. Hmm. If we are not asking God, who are we asking? Politicians maybe? If we can just get Trump back into the White House, all our problems will be solved. If we can just keep Biden in the White House, all our problems will be solved. If they will just build that wall, all our problems will be solved. If they will just tear down that wall, all our problems will be solved. If we can just tax the wealthy, if we can just reduce taxes, all our problems will be solved. Come on Washington, solve our problems!
Which raised the question who might you be asking instead of God?
James goes on: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
We are good church folks, right? We pray, and in our prayers, we ask God to intervene. But, according to James, God may not answer our prayers because we are more interested in satisfying our own desires than we are in building the kingdom of God.
Think about it for a moment. God may not give us what we ask for because we are more interested in satisfying our own desires than we are in building the kingdom of God. (look)
If we could put your prayers or my prayers up on the screen, what would we be asking for?
Let’s look at something else James said about anger in chapter one. “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
When do you tell someone to “take note of” something? When it’s important and you don’t want them to miss it. James wants his readers to be sure to catch this, that “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Everyone. Everyone doesn’t leave anyone out, does it? Everyone includes leaders and followers, liberal and conservative, vaxers and anti-vaxers, straight and gay, republicans and democrats, believer and unbeliever, black and white and brown and yellow, and perhaps most importantly, it includes you and me.
James wants us to be, “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
Those are important adjectives, so James wants us to take note of them.
I don’t know about you but I’ve been working most of my Christian life to follow this advice. Most times, now, I succeed. But not always.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak and get angry is hard work. For starters it takes confession. I have to confess that I am more interested in expressing my position and getting my way than I am interested in them.
That’s an important distinction to make, I think. I’m not just not interested in what they have to say; I’m not interested in them.
Being quick and slow takes preparation. Sometimes we know we’re headed into a situation where we will be challenged not to become Hulk, so we have to plan not to. We need to be ready to take a deep breath, and turn up my self-control. You’ve heard of self-control, right? It’s part of the fruit of the spirit, you can learn more in chapter five of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Did you know there are different ways we listen? One is simply waiting until they are done, assuming we don’t cut them off, so we can speak. We don’t even try to consider them or their words, we just wanna talk. You’ve never done that though, right? Me either.
Another way we listen is to fuel our position. We take what they say and then turn it against them. You’ve never done that either, right? Me neither.
But I think the kind of listening James is talking about is listening.
Back in 1989 Steven Covey published a book called the seven habits of highly effective people. Habit number five is seek first to understand, then to be understood. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, right?
To really understand someone, we have to learn their back story, because there is always a back story. And even though you may still not agree, you can understand why they think and feel and act the way they do. You may not agree with their logic but at least you can understand it.
This came home to me years ago in my relationship with my mom. Without giving all the details, when I finally learned how my grandpa, who I never knew, treated my grandma and my mom, I understood why my mom and I can still into such fights over things that didn’t matter to me.
When we listen, we admit that the other person might just maybe possibly know something we don’t.
When we listen, we admit that we might be wr… Wro…. Not be right.
Admitting that this other person, who we think is so far wrong they may never recover, might actually know something, is humbling.
How are you doing at being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry? It’s hard, isn’t it? Take a look at Proverbs 4:7. It says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” That’s what happens when we listen to listen.
Did you know it’s scientific fact that emotions precede thought? We feel before we think. And when our emotions run high, they change the way our brain functions, interfering our ability to reason and make decision and get along with others. And when we get emotional, our voice volume and key tends to go up. You’ve experienced this, don’t tell me you haven’t. But if I can keep my voice down, we all stay calmer, and at least some of our anger will dissipate. Isn’t that cool what God did?
Proverbs 15:1 says it like this: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word – a loud, argumentative word – stirs up anger.
In them, and in us.
Why be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger? Take note: because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
Righteousness means the quality of being morally right, and we all want to be right, don’t we! But does our anger ever really get us there? Does it make you righteous? Does it ever bring anyone together? Does it exemplify the kingdom of God? No. Anger does not make us righteous. Anger pushes people apart. It makes us dig in our heals and resist and stop listening. Did anger ever make anyone say, “If that’s what being a Jesus follower is like, I want to be one!” No. So James says to stop being angry.
How are you doing with that? No matter if you think of yourself as a calm person who hardly ever gets angry – and that’s how I think of myself – or if you could show the Hulk a thing or two about anger, how are you doing at dealing with your anger?
In Ephesians 4:26, Paul offers us some good advice about dealing with our anger. He says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
In my experience, we often apply that to marriage. We say don’t go to bed angry – and that’s good advice. But what about our other relationships? Do we go to bed still angry with our boss, or our kids, our neighbors, or our fellow Christians? My experience is that human beings, Jesus followers or not, are not good at dealing with their anger or the damage that comes from it. We know we are supposed to, but we are not good at being humble and asking for, or giving forgiveness, even when it costs us what had been up to that point a valuable, important relationship.
See, at the end of the day Jesus does not need us to be right. He does not need us to win. He wants us to be peacemakers – that’s straight from one of his sermons; you can check it out in Matthew 5. Jesus wants us to love one another because that’s how people will know we are his followers – that’s from John 13, you can look it up. This is what brings people together.
Years ago, when I was a pastor in Utah, there was a woman in our church who knew exactly how to push my anger buttons, and she did it regularly. Sometimes I would get so angry with her that, if Jesus would just turn his head for a moment, I would have happily transformed into the Hulk and clearly expressed my anger to her. Thankfully Jesus never did and I never did, but the desire was there.
Well, one day I was with another pastor who was a psychiatrist in a previous life, and I told him what was going on and asked what I could do. I was hoping he would give me some psychological tools I could use to make this woman see the error of her unreasonable ways. So, he listened to my story, thought for a moment and said, “Dan, you need to let go of the rope.” (Quizzical shrug)
He said, “You’ve been in a tug of war before, right? What is the goal? You hold tightly to a rope and pull so you can drag the other team into the mud. But what happens if one side lets go of the rope? The obvious answer is the other side falls down. But two more not so obvious answers are, they can’t jerk you around anymore, and two no one gets dragged into the mud. Dan, you have to learn to let go of the rope when you deal with this woman.”
I have to say, his advice was life transforming for me, and I continue to follow it. When I, in my mind, let go of the rope, it was literally a physical sensation of relief. My anger disappeared and I was able to be in an appropriate relationship with her.
I confess two things here. One, sometimes I reach down and pick that rope up again in the hope I might pull them into the mud. And two, when I imagine letting go of the rope, I never warn them; I just let go because it’s kind of satisfying to see the surprise on their face as they stumble back and fall on their bum!
So – don’t he angry. Instead, be humble. Prepare. Forgive. Take a breath. Listen. Deal with it sooner than later. Keep your voice down. And let go of the rope.