You maybe heard the story about the little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail into the fence. The first day the boy had driven thirty-seven nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it, and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day he was able to hold his temper.
The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a person and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say “I’m sorry”, the wound is still there.”
Our scripture from the letter of James this morning reminds us how much our words matter. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”
These are words we can understand. There is no one here who has not been the recipient of pain through something someone has said to us or about us. Words that are spoken in anger are the ones that cut particularly deep.
I learned this young. My father was a good man, but he had a temper. It was rarely directed at mom or us kids but it’s sad that when I remember him, I cannot remember him apart from his anger. He was so angry about many things – mostly the things he felt powerless to control in his life. His health was so bad that he wasn’t able to work and this truth cut at him. He was in chronic pain most of his life and suffered from a head injury as a child that contributed to his anger also in many ways. Sometimes he would be sullen and stew for days and weeks at a time – that was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as when he would explode. He would start yelling – raging at the air seemingly. Because it wouldn’t matter if we were in the house to listen to him or not, he would just keep yelling. He would rage about the injustices he felt the world had given him. He would turn on the television and then rage about something happening there. Our house was very small and there was nowhere to go in it where we could escape listening to him. So I would walk up our country road, even on bitter cold winter days to breathe and see how far I could get away from the house so that I would not hear the yelling anymore.
This was a long time ago, of course and even though all this was hard for me to understand as a kid – I don’t harbor any bad feelings toward my dad because of this – I believe he hated his temper. I really think his temper was something he never learned how to control. It was like a beast that came to visit and it was too big for him to easily keep out. The problem was, his rage didn’t just torment him. It tormented all of us. It damaged our family. Children cannot help but be hurt by harsh words that are flung through the air. Spouses, no matter how understanding, cannot help but receive scars from living with someone with uncontrolled anger.
Anger hurts. We know it. But what can we do about it?
I’ve been reading about this lately and I have found some helpful wisdom here and there. I thought it would be especially helpful for us to look at what the Bible says about anger as we consider how to give it as small a place in our lives as possible.
First, it is important to remember that the emotion of anger is normal. Even Jesus himself acknowledged it. He felt it – I remember Jesus in the temple when he threw over the tables because he was angry that people had lost sight of the purpose of the temple. In Ephesians 4:26 it reads, “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” As long as we are human beings we are subject to feeling anger. We can’t be free of that and we don’t need to feel guilty for experiencing anger if someone hurts us or someone we love or shows us an injustice.
The sin comes in letting the anger have power over us and have a say in our thoughts and our words. The emotion of anger can be so sneaky – because after the initial shock or pain wears off, sometimes we can almost come to enjoy our anger – but that anger is no less harmful to us or to others. Taking a bit of pleasure in your enemy going through a difficulty of some sort, the bit of gossip about them that does not shine a good light on them and you get to pass it on. We’ve all been guilty of relishing and rolling around a bit in our anger sometimes. You know what I’m talking about. The conversations that usually start with something like, “I know I shouldn’t say this but…” or “I know it’s not very Christian but…” or does this sound familiar, “Oh, I just hate to say this about so and so…but it’s true!” – we all do this – and we put that disclaimer at the front or at the end because we know – even if what we are spreading is true – we shouldn’t be saying anything to hurt the reputation of another person. That simply isn’t the kind of behavior our God calls us to. That behavior doesn’t speak well of us or the One in whom we believe. I like how Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the eighth commandment. He writes, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only encourages us to not speak badly about those who have hurt us, but tells us to take one step farther – and search for ways to speak kindly about them.
Oh man, that is so hard!
But Christ calls us to not let our emotions rule us. Anger can come so quickly and no matter how faithful we like to think we are, we are never beyond the temptation to get angry or to hold on to grudges. But God is slow to anger and we need to work to be the same way. Psalm 78:38 says “God turned his anger away and did not stir up wrath.” “Turned away” means God controlled it. Remember, self-control is a fruit of the spirit. It is an aspect of God’s character that God has shared with us.
One of the best ways to learn to control the flare-up of anger is the tried but true – counting to ten. Or counting to 100. Count to 1000 if you need to count that high to calm down. Let emotions subside and then decide.
Breathe deeply. Pause and focus on your breathing. It can be helpful to remember that the word in Hebrew for the Holy Spirit , Ruah, can also be translated as “breath” – picture the Holy Spirit’s presence filling you and granting you peace in that moment.
If your anger is about something big – write about it and get your feelings out, talk about it with someone you trust, if it is a long-term anger, pour energy into something constructive – train for a marathon, spend time doing an activity where you find real joy and with people who energize you.
If your anger is about something small – try to let go of who is right and who is wrong. I Corinthians teaches us that love doesn’t keep track of things like that anyway.
And remember that as Christians we cannot talk about anger without also talking about forgiveness. We are commanded by Christ to forgive one another because God has forgiven us.
How do we do this? First, we desire to do it. We know that desire motivates us to go through whatever we need to go through to reach our goal – but the desire will probably not come immediately. Our gut reaction after being hurt is not to forgive – but that’s when we must dig deep into God’s word which reminds us over and over of the importance of forgiveness – and the desire to be free of the poison of anger comes. When we are fed by God’s word it becomes easier to remember that we are to be people of forgiveness – it doesn’t mean we will change the way we feel right away every time we are hurt – but if we have decided to be people of forgiveness and gentleness and not people of anger, we slowly are shaped and molded into a more Christ-like form.
Another step in forgiveness is to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you do what you have decided to do. Deciding is important, but then we also need God’s help to do something as big as forgiving.
And finally – what do you think the final step in true forgiveness is? It’s this: Matthew 5:44-45 reads, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you to show that you are the children of your Father who is in heaven.”
Scripture is clear that we pray for blessing on our enemies. Oh, this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It demands so much of us! Keep in mind, it does not ask us to stay in relationship with those who have hurt us deeply or continuously – but it does ask us to pray for them. And in doing so, the damage that our anger has done to us begins to mend. As we learn how to lift all of it – that person, that relationship, that pain into God’s care – the poison seeps out of us and we are free.
Anger is something it is hard to talk about and even more difficult to feel. But we must choose to let go of it. And the good news is that we can do that. God will help us to do that if we keep turning to God’s word and turning to God in prayers for the well-being of our enemies, and the healing of our brokenness.
In the Harry Potter books, one of my favorite moments comes when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all the time and he had dark feelings. Sirius Black tells Harry to listen to him very carefully and said, “You’re not a bad person. You are a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That is who we really are.”
May we choose the Light today and every day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.