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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Be ye angry, and sin not...

Note: This post was triggered by my a personal experience that I blogged about here.

In the NIV, Ephesians 4:26 says, "'In your anger, do not sin': do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." This is one of those verses in Scripture that puzzles me. Paul says we are to be angry but in our anger not to sin. So, there is a difference between being angry and sinning in anger.

We all know that anger is an emotion. As I mentioned
before, according to my counselor, anger is our protective angel. When we are threatened--when our buttons are pushed or when something happens to us triggers the angry response--the angel appears so that our inner child might hide behind her. The angel stands up and wields her sword so that no one might hurt the inner child again. This is the response that our adult selves have learned to come up with at times like these to protect that hurt inner child. It is an emotional response to external stimuli. Often this is because we have associated that kind of stimuli to some hurt or disappointment or some upsetting event in the past. Our adult selves have internalized that feeling as harmful and painful and that our inner child needs protection. Hence, we respond with anger as a form of self-preservation.

But, how exactly do we get angry and not sin?

Sin we already know is more than just an act of defiance against God. According to Jesus' teaching, if we harbor hatred or lust in our hearts we have already transgressed the full measure of the law. That is pretty serious. We sin not only by committing the transfression but also by our thoughts. If that is the case, how can we be angry, and not sin? I guess one might point out that Jesus was talking about hatred and not anger. There is a lot of difference between the two, of course. Yet, how can one be angry without sinning? Where do we draw the line? Often people point out the actions of Jesus when he drove the traders and money changers out of the Temple courtyards. Put in that position, I won't know where the line is between angry without sinning and crossing the line to anger and sinning. I mean, in the heat of the moment, while I am whipping and carrying on, overturning tables and chasing people out of the temple, I cannot guarantee what the adrenaline rush would cause me to do or react, and how that would be on the sin meter, if there were such a thing. I bet when I am in the heat of the moment, the sheer emotional high I get out of such a raucous incident, all the ugly parts of me would easily surface and ruin it all for everyone concerned.

People also talk about "righteous anger" in relation to this passage, but I am not sure again how that cashes out in terms of actually practising it. I once attended a service during which a fiery preacher was preaching. This preacher had a reputation for having a hot head well known for his outbursts of "righteous anger". He was preaching in a packed church on a hot, humid day. Someone suddenly rose from his seat and started walking out the church. One can tell the man is not your regular church-goer type. He wasn't dressed conservatively, and his mannerism showed that he probably wasn't too interested in the sermon nor awed by the church atmosphere.

"You!" the preacher roared, pointing his accusing finger at the man.

"What?!" the defiant man demanded.

"Don't you dare walk around while I am preaching! Don't you know that this is hard work?" the Preacher cried. "I have enough distractions with all these people fanning themselves with the bulletin." Most of those who were frantically fanning themselves with their bulletin stopped abruptly.

The Preacher continued, "I don't need people to be getting up and walking around half way through my sermon!"

The man started yelling back at him, gesticulating wildly. The Preacher thundered back, furious. I didn't get the rest of the exchanges between the preacher and the obstinate church-don't-want-to-goer. I found out later that he was an inmate at a Christian rehab center and attending that church service was part of the program he was signed up for. I am not sure, but looking at the scene, I didn't think it was drawing him closer to the kingdom, unless you insist that for an addict a little bit of discipline might be in order.

Now, if that was a demonstration of righteous anger, I don't think I would be able to practice it in similar circumstances. I know from my own experience that once I get angry and act upon it, I will spiral downward. I might start off by truly being righteously angry-whatever that means-but if I were to speak my mind, act on impulse and start to press home the issue, I will soon slide down to self-righteous anger, or worse.

So how can I put this "be angry and not sin" principle to practice?

Let's see if we can find the clues in the scripture passage. Reading a little further in Ephesians, it goes on to say "Do not let the sun go down on your anger." According to some scholars, this passage is a quotation of Psalm 4:4. The passage in the Psalms reads, "In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the LORD".

This passage may very well offer a guide on how to deal with emotions of anger, sexual arousal, sadness, grief and a myriad of other emotional responses we have that are triggered by the normal day-to-day life experiences.

According to this passage, the first step in dealing with anger, is to contemplate on it before we let the day pass by. We respond in anger all the time. For some of us, any little thing can trigger the anger response. I find that by being more aware of how I am responding to my day-to-day events and to the incidents that I come across daily, I am more aware of what ticks me off, or what pushes my button. Then I am able to find alternative means of responding to similar situations. Often my responses are guided by my attitudes and assumptions. And, many times, I have found my assumptions to be wrong.

For instance, one of the things that used to bother me quite a bit was the bickering between two of my children. When they fight with one another, I find it irritated me to the point that the only thing I could do was yell at them. When reflecting on this insidious repetitious broken record of stimulus/response (children fighting over non-essential things and my yelling at them), I realized what was going on in my mind. When they started to bicker, I got frustrated that when in the past they had done so, I had tried intervening, only ending up with me not being able to help. Instead, I got them not only mad with each other, but also with me. So, my frustration made me feel helpless. Since my mental vision of a perfect dad was that he would be one who would be able to solve every one of his children's problems, my inability to help them resolve their disagreement caused me to be frustrated with them fighting in the first place. This sense of helplessness and frustration results in my wanting to quelch their squabble immediately. So I take the short cut of trying to put the fear of God in them by yelling authoritarianly, which of course, is counter productive. Having had the chance to reflect on why I reacted in such a way, I am able to clarify my thinking. A good father need not resolve all his children's problems. And, having reflected on alternative ways of responding, next time the the trigger gets turned on, I am able to fall back upon my reflections and remember to use the alternative ways of dealing with the problem, or simply not response at the moment of heightened emotionality, waiting for passions to subside before saying anything. So, this first step is reflection. The passage says something about searching your hearts on the bed, but it may not be necessarily done on the bed. The idea that comes to mind is to reflect on the events of the day when you are getting ready for bed. The emphasis is to reflect and to do so as soon as possible, preferably while it is still fresh in your mind before the end of the day.

I once used to think that "not letting the sun go down on your anger" meant saying "sorry" before the end of the day. But it became too superficial and too convenient to do so. I remember as a younger married couple, when one of us would get angry with the other for some silly or foolish thing that the other did, and remembering the injunction about not letting the sun go down on one's anger, we would try to rush to make up before the end of the day. Knowing that to be the case, sometimes we try to "punish" the other party by not letting them have a chance to say "Sorry" by going to bed earlier than usual! Nonetheless, the principle of making sure one always made up before the end of the day may have been a good way to keep short accounts with each other, and not let the anger seethe and be suppressed by not dealing with the issue over a long term. Yet, the injunction in Psalms to reflect over the incident and process why the triggered response got there in the first place is the key to recovery. For if all we do is to get angry and then try to compromise or make up before the end of the day, and if we never reflect on why we respond the way we do, we will only continue to repeat these responses and not able to get out of the vicious cycle. So, in order to get out of the cycle, reflection and putting into practice alternative responses is the key.

The next step that the Psalmist offers as a way to get out of the deadly spiral of anger response is to offer right sacrifices to God. In the Old Testament, offering sacrifices to the Lord was part of a ritual of atonement and restoration of right relationship with God, culminating in the annual Day of Atonement. It acknowledges at least two things: our sinfulness - and thus our dire need for God's grace, and it acknowledges God's mercy - that He stands ready to forgive and to restore our relationship with Him. In the New Testament, we are to confess our sins regularly and acknowledge God's grace and forgiveness. That was the culminating thought in the Ephesians passage in its call for mutual forgiveness and acknowledgement of our forgiveness in Christ Jesus. It is also the message of 1 John 1:9 - to confess our sins and accept God's forgiveness and His cleansing in Christ Jesus.

This posture also underscore a very important truth: we mere humans may never be able to completely be free of the "being angry and sinning" cycle. While it was possible for the Lord to go through the temple with his whip and chasing the unscrupulous traders who had turned his Father's house into a house of robbers, yet without sinning, none of us would be able to control the adrenaline rush and emotional high not to overstep the boundary. That is why we need to come before God and humbly acknowledge our frailty in this matter, and to realize that as we walk with Him, although we may stumble or fall, we are forgiven and we have access to His boundless grace. We can also have the confidence that as we walk with Him and continue to let His Spirit teach us, we will begin to exhibit His grace and mercy in our lives so that we will begin to see the result of changed behavior and changed character in us. It may take a long, long time, but it will happen. Which leads us to the final point.

And that is to trust God. At the end of the day, that is all we can do. When we encounter moments of weakness and helplessness. When we are triggered to respond in our normal, human selfish manner, all we can do is to throw ourselves back into God's hands and say to Him, "Lord I trust you and rely on your Spirit to strengthen me so that I may be an instrument of Your peace to the people around me." I know I need God when I get unrighteously angry - when my anger is a result of my own frustrations, my own stupidity and my own arrogance. But when I get righteously angry - when I am triggered to emotions of anger at injustice, sin and ungodliness - then I need Him more than before. This is because I need Him to show me not only how to be angry, but also to have the courage to respond appropriately to uphold justice, promote peace, love people, while all the time, pointing them to the Cross.