Maybe this is controversial for a pastor to say, but every time I come to scripture and read something like “do not fear” or “don’t be anxious” or “be slow to grow angry,” I don’t love it. I certainly don’t mean to argue with scripture, but one thing I know about myself is that you can tell me all day long not to be afraid, but I’m wired to be a fearful person. It’s just who I am. I’m not controlled by it, thanks to some good therapy, but fear is just part of my fabric. In a very real sense, telling me not to fear is about as effective as telling me to turn purple and grow a tail. It’s just not going to happen.
Or take this passage from the Epistle of James, certainly a beloved book in the New Testament. I bet many of us can quote its most famous line, “faith without works is dead,” which is both well-said and true. The command here to be slow to anger though, while nice, is harder than it sounds. It’s one thing to tell me to be quick to listen. I can always do better on that front. It’s fine to tell me to be slow to speak; like many preachers, I have some room to grow in that department. But even though I’m not a particularly angry guy, I bristle when I read scripture that tries to tell me how I am supposed to feel. The Bible doesn’t get to decide how I feel. I don’t even always get to decide how I feel. How I feel is how I feel. That’s what feelings are, right?
Now, none of this means that ignoring this passage is the right move; I mean, it is in the Bible, after all. And there are some things we can do about the anger thing. But before I get to that, it’s probably worth asking: What is anger? Why does it exist?
Anger, of course, is a struggle in many families. Many of us carry with us the experiences of our childhood. Maybe your family expressed anger too much; maybe anger was continually present in your home. Maybe your family was afraid of anger, as many are, and you never learned how to express it properly. Many of us struggle with anger in one way or another, but I don’t think avoiding anger altogether is the right move. Jesus got angry, you know, so angry at one point in the Gospels that he turned over the tables of the moneychangers! And besides, this passage in the Epistle of James doesn’t say you should never get angry. It says you should be slow to anger.
So, what is anger anyway? Now, I’m sure there are as many definitions of anger as there are people listening to this message. But in my own life, anger is made manifest most often when what is does not line up with what ought to be. When someone cuts me off in traffic, instead of minding their own business, I can get a little angry. What is does not line up with what I think ought to be. When my kids stall and stall and stall at bed time, when all I want to do is get under the covers and go to sleep, I am liable to get a little angry. What is does not line up with what I think ought to be. When I inevitably step on the toy car that was supposed to have been put away after I asked fourteen times, thank you very much, I am liable to get a little angry. What is does not line up with what I think ought to be.
These are small things, of course. Silly, even. Sometimes the thing that is, is much bigger and much more difficult. When people have trouble finding well-paying work because of a disability or the color of their skin, I can understand their anger. What is does not line up with what ought to be. When churches exclude people made in God’s image, as if it were the church’s job to be God’s bouncer, I can understand the anger. What is does not line up with what ought to be. When whole classes of people feel ignored; when people do the best they can but never seem to be able to get ahead; when society expects you to move on quickly from grief, as if such a thing were possible; when racism, or sexism, or ablism, or homophobia, or ageism run rampant; when cruelty is rewarded; when bullies flourish; when hypocrisy reigns; when the widow and the orphan are left to fend for themselves, well, I can understand the anger. I mean, good grief, it makes me angry, and I’m rarely on the receiving end of this sort of thing. I think it’s supposed to make me angry. What is, in each of these circumstances, does not line up with what ought to be.
And so it is that the writer of the Epistle of James says that everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry, but he doesn’t say that you should never be angry. I’ll say it more strongly than James does: If you look around at the state of the world and don’t get angry sometimes at how things are going, you ought to check your pulse!
Be slow to grow angry, but be angry about the right things. Being inconvenienced is not the same thing as being marginalized. In fact, much of the message of the entire Bible is that we are to look out for one another, to do as Jesus said in the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love others. And a big part of loving others is about finding the places where what is does not line up with what ought to be!
It ought not to be, in a world of abundance, that children go hungry. It ought not be, in a world set apart as the creation of God, that Christians would get lost in the weeds, missing out on God’s grand vision of the beloved community, for everybody, I mean everybody. And, crucially, it ought not be that those who have lost spouses or parents should face great difficulties through no fault of their own, if we as Christians do the fundamental work of justice and care and love.
“True devotion,” the writer of the Epistle of James writes, “the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” These words, this advice, is especially important for Christians in the 21st Century, as we find ourselves enmeshed in what I have heard described as “the outrage industrial complex.” It is true that there are plenty of things out there designed to make you mad. And in its own perverse way, being angry can be fun, at least for a little while. But it is likewise true that anger for its own sake is unfaithful.
Just the other day, a friend was telling me about what happens to certain trees in the midst of wildfires. The fire begins at the roots, and in some species the fire burns the tree from the inside, such that you can’t tell much is wrong with the tree until you take a whack at it, and you see the flames licking out from within. Dealing with anger is very much like dealing with fire in this way. If you aren’t careful, it will burn you up from the inside.
And so, if you are looking for some feedback as to whether your anger is righteous or whether it serves no purpose other than to burn you up and leave you hollow, you could do worse than this little passage in the Epistle of James. You could call it the Anger Test, or the orphans-and-widows test, maybe. Ask yourself: Have you been quick to listen? Slow to speak? Has your anger come about slowly, deliberately, and upon reflection? Does your anger have a direction? Does it face outward, towards the needs of others, rather than your own comfort? Does your anger cause you to act in love, rather than in self-defense? Does it cause you to welcome the word planted deep inside you, rather than to burn you up from the inside?
It's not easy, this work. It is much easier to go along with the masses and get angry about whatever the controversy of the day happens to be. It’s much, much easier to go along with the masses when you find yourself feeling tweaked, or called to account, or challenged in your approach to work or family or life or faith. But when I look at scripture, when I look at the writings of the prophets, or of Paul, when I look at the sayings of Jesus, I don’t see them lifting up selfish stubbornness as a virtue. I don’t see them holding up self-righteousness as a virtue. I see them lifting up virtues like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
When I look to scripture, I see our fore-parents telling us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry - and what’s more, to be angry about the right things.
It’s not easy, this work. Some days it feels a bit like a fool’s errand, and I find myself wondering whether I’m up for the job. But then I come across teachings like this little passage in the Epistle of James, and I am reminded that it may not be easy, but that “every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from God, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. God chose to give us birth by God’s true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything God created.”
It is not easy, this work. But it is the very work for which you were created, you beloved child of God. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, teach us to be gracious like you: quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry - and then, angry about the right things. Allow our hearts to be broken by the things that break yours, and spur us toward the kind of true devotion that makes us agents of your healing in this world. Amen.