The rule of Christ is far from being some useless imposition. The more deeply personal it becomes, the more it prevents us from ruining our lives.
In my last years of high school, my family bought a big house. It had a formal front room with plate mirrors on the far wall, a fancy dining table, a white baby grand piano, and a couple of semi-comfortable couches. That’s what we wanted visitors to see, and how we wanted them to think of us.
But if you walked through the center of the house and down the stairs, you found our den. That’s where the real Myer experience was—comfy couches, television, video movies, bookshelves, fire place, and a coin operated gumball machine that we kids managed to rob of its gumballs without paying.
The Potential Crisis in Your Den
Every Christian has a front room and a den. The front room is the “you” you want everybody to see. The den is the “true you.” Hopefully these aren’t too different from each other. Unfortunately though, only the most serious believers place an emphasis on their interior life. The remaining ranks of casual Christianity tend to focus on behavioral alteration—mostly the things other people can see.
A lot of private things though, need attention, especially our emotions.
Emotions are a legitimate part of our God-created makeup, but when they’re not under the lordship of Christ, they can become like a loaded pistol in the hands of a child. For instance, fear is healthy until it paralyzes. A little anxiety—concern—is normal until it becomes a disorder. Happiness is great until it turns irresponsible and narcissistic. Sadness is appropriate until it becomes a trap of hopeless depression.
The Most Dangerous Item in Your Emotional Inventory
For now, we’ll concentrate on anger, since it is potentially the most dangerous emotion human beings have. That’s why our world is full of road rage incidents , ruined relationships, estranged families, marital troubles, church splits, and homicide. Those are some of the places anger can go when it’s turned loose. As the Apostles talk about it, rather than merely offering tips on how to manage anger, they call us to submit it under the lordship of Christ.
Before he became a Christian, the Apostle Paul had a bit of an anger problem himself. Recall how the book of Acts describes him—“breathing threats and murder against the disciples” (9:1). Once he was on the other side of salvation though, he wrote this:
Eph. 4:26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.
Anger is often defined as “temporary displeasure.” We can see Jesus angry several places in the gospels and God many other places in the surrounding Bible. It’s a legitimate emotion, and normal. That’s why when I hear about someone never getting angry, I wonder if that’s healthy. At times, we should be angry about some things. When a man, for instance, doesn’t mind if his wife flirts with other men, it tells me something might be wrong with the marriage.
We’re told to be angry and not sin, so anger and sin are separate items. Yet our anger is supposed to have an expiration date. The sun isn’t to go down on it. Strictly speaking, that means it needs to be resolved within a solar day. Don’t sleep on it, have nightmares, then get up for round two.
Paul warns in verse 27, that if you hold onto your anger, at some point the devil will have opportunities in your life he never had before.
For one thing, unresolved anger and unforgiveness always turn into something else. Anger becomes bitterness (smoldering resentment), then judgment (a permanent displeasure upon someone), and then hate. When hate is present, it usually expresses itself in either slander or physical violence. These are exactly the opportunities the devil hopes for.
Back in the days when I didn’t know better, I put a potato in a microwave oven for 25 minutes and then went outside to do some chores. When I came back, and had fanned all the smoke out of the house, I found that the potato, due to overcooking, had basically become a coconut. Be aware that when anger appears, a clock starts ticking. The longer it cooks, the more it evolves into something else.
What’s an Angry Person to Do?
Paul sounds like he’s giving orders to take out the trash:
31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
We’re told to let it be put away, implying we often want to keep it. We feel entitled to our anger. Someone else is wrong and you don’t want to let them off the hook. You want to punish them for a while. Although it seems like this is an effective way to inflict pain on the offending party, doing it can be costly for you.
Matt Woodley recounts a conversation between himself and a man named Steve:
Nineteen years ago this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled. After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire court hearing. When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week, I have a 32-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him I will kill him.” Then he chillingly concluded, “I’ve thought all about it. I’m 63-years-old. I will get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical and dental and a warm bed and three meals a day. All of this bitterness and resentment feels so right; forgiveness seems weird.
After Steve told me this story, I paused for a long time before I finally stammered, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail, because you’re already in jail. The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. That guy is free, but you’re a prisoner of your own hate; and you’re slowly killing yourself. And unless you forgive, you’ll remain trapped for the rest of your life.”
A week later he called me and said, “You know, I get your point. I put the gun away. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail or enslaved to my own hate. Will you pray for me that Jesus will release me?”
Some folks gain a weird sort of strength, focus, passion, and articulation when they’re angry. I’ve seen it in church members who were barely involved in the Christian life, but became “missionaries” when they were angered by something in the church. Suddenly they were visiting the homes of other members several nights a week, sowing discord under the guise of “being concerned.”
But along with this energy comes a burden of darkness. This is why we so often feel a sense of relief, a load, coming off our shoulders when we forgive someone else. Because according to Jesus in Matthew 18, a person who refuses forgiveness ends up in a personal jail, paying huge spiritual and emotional costs.
Keep Grace in Your Face
Naturally, forgiveness is easier said than done, and all but impossible when we’re in the heat of anger. Where does the strength come for it? The apostle further writes,
32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
This verse not only tells us how we should forgive—”As God in Christ forgave you”—but calls us to the remembrance of our own forgiveness. Therein lies the secret to forgiveness power. Thankfully, we’re not told to make excuses for the other person (mind games) or to lecture ourselves on being a better person (moralism). It comes through holding on to the vivid knowledge that God forgave you.
You’re called to remember afresh that bloody, horrible death on the cross for things you did, and how that death extends to your dirty thoughts and motives and wrong deeds every day, allowing God to cheerfully accept you in His Son.
We’re supposed to look at the offending party through the scene of our personal redemption. Never let that other person get in between you and the cross, otherwise they’re liable to eclipse it. What they did to you will start looking larger than what Jesus did for you. Make sure your sins and the payment for them is in your face, with nothing blocking your view. That’s where the grace for forgiveness proceeds.
One day while frying bacon, I had a grease fire in the kitchen. My first reaction was to throw water on it. The resulting explosion was worse than the fire. Likewise, you can try to do things to put out the fire of your anger, like suppress it. It might save you from embarrassing yourself in some public situation.
Then again, you might be simply setting the stage for a larger explosion in the future. At any rate, don’t settle for appearances in the front room. The fire is in the den. Bring the power of the gospel there, to the core of your being.
Preach to the Person in the Mirror
Learn to preach the gospel to yourself:
“God. In Christ. Forgave. Me.”
Dwell on this theme in prayer until it leads to a devotional experience. Meditate upon the work of Christ on the cross, until the Holy Spirit gets involved and freshly applies that truth to your heart.
I like to think of myself as happy, funny, light, and breezy. But the truth is, I often become upset and disappointed with people to the extent I despair of ever getting over it. These last years haven’t been easy for me, either. I’ve found myself angry about the moral and social trajectory of our country. Some issues have felt so backward as to defy the imagination.
I’ve been angry at government, sometimes at the media, but mostly with the nameless, faceless masses that seem to go along with all of it. Though democracy thrives on speaking up, the kind of anger I’m talking about creates attitudes and thoughts that aren’t good for anything. I’ve had to go back repeatedly and drink afresh from the deep well of the gospel.
I’m going to suggest you do the same, especially if you easily gravitate to anger and unforgiveness. I’ve provided a suggested list of verses on my Facebook writer page for your prayer and consideration (Look in the right-hand margin of this blog; there’s a hyperlink graphic to the page).
Take a look. Put out a fire.
Part 2 of a 4-part series
Photo credit: Alberto Cerriteno