Tag Archives: anger

Talk damage

There is an unresolved issue about how to deal with hate speech on social media. People say online what they would not say in person, whatever the situation. Yet free speech is an important freedom, and once you begin to limit it beyond provable slander or clear misinformation, the road to big brother control is open.

It is not only hate speech. Much racism is encouraged, even taught by things said. Similarly body shaming relies on what is said. There is no doubt that what people say can, and does, cause a great deal of harm.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that James, with his insistence on practical, down-to-earth faith, talks repeatedly about good, and bad, speech. In James 3:1-12 he seems almost despairing: Words may seem small, but have a power almost beyond imagining, and we so easily make mistakes with them. The tongue seems untamable, in a way which ought not to be.

He has already hinted that the wise way is to speak less readily (James 1:19: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”), and that genuine faith has to tackle the issue of what is said. He will go on to give instructions about avoiding slander (James 4:11) and telling the truth (James 5:12). He makes it clear that there are no shortcuts. The only way to sort our speech is to let our lives be sorted. When God has worked over our attitudes, ambitions, jealousies – and all the rest – only then will our words be reliably loving and patient. Of course, it is not a fast process, and none of us can claim to have finished, but it is encouraging to know that it is part of the agenda.

And, working backwards, that is why becoming a teacher of the faith is dangerous. Teachers will be judged more severely. The more they know, the more they should show progress in their lives – and not only when they know they are “in public”. It is a sobering thought for anyone who has ever led a Christian group or preached a sermon. They know the theory that explaining the gospel should help some come closer to God, even though some will find the cost of discipleship too great. The should also be aware that those who see and hear may end up saying (I think like Ghandi) “I like your Christ, but not your Christians”.

Words can be wonderful, words can be terrible. Only when the words, and the person speaking them, are fully directed by the Holy Spirit can they fail to show the faults of the speaker alongside the best of the message. This isn’t big brother control, it is a willing partnership to show the love of God.

James the Practical

Over the next 5 weeks, we shall be reading James’ letter. Today we start with James 1:17-27 (or read the whole chapter?) and begin to discover a practical faith which has much to offer.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above” verse 17. God is good, and that is something to celebrate. But what do you mean, can you justify that? Well James points the way. v19 Everyone should be quick to listen and v25 “whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it”. We need to listen, to pay attention, to go on learning. In what ways is God good, what has he done – what is he doing now, what is he like, would you want to know (and could you avoid him if you didn’t)?

I wonder, does every Christian go on learning; do I remember that I need to?

It’s not enough just to listen, you must also SPEAK. Not too fast – let what you understand shape your words. v26, and there is a warning about anger v19b,20 There is a lot of anger around, often from wrong expectations (the obsession with me and my way, rather than a concern for all the community). Anger can motivate us to put things right for other people, but too often, like so much speech, it is just selfish. (If you also read the lesson from Deuteronomy, you will have heard about the need to pass on God’s Law, another aspect of the need to speak). James will have more to say about speaking , but let’s remember our need to speak well, and use speech to help us learn the way of Christ.

Listen, and then speak, and then DO. We have a problem today: some Christians want to do as they like (not listening), some get deeply into theological argument (and don’t act). But when we do something, we find out how good our understanding and motivation really are. James lays it out for us. Don’t just “go to Church”; Listen, so that you can learn and grow closer to God; Speak – speak well, to help your learning, and to help the people you speak to; and act on what you learn.

Christians have been observed over the years; the present generation has found us wanting. They do not believe, from the evidence of our lives, that God is good. It is a fair challenge, which we need to answer in practical ways.

Patience

There are some things you can’t buy – and patience is one. James in his letter commends it to Christians (James 5:7-10), but you might wonder why we read that now. While Advent is about getting ready, it reminds us of what we have not yet got – and thus the need for patience. It fits very well with the hopeful words of Isaiah 35, the good times had not yet arrived. Life for that community, as well as the one James addresses, may have been hard, so patience is needed.

Patience is a gift (it is included in the fruit of Spirit: Galatians 5:22), the opposite of anger or short-temperedness. But, apart from saying we need it and its nice if you’ve got it, what can we do about it? James talks about farmers, and perhaps we should take the hint to look forward. His reason is that Jesus return will sort everything (and everybody) out. We talk about the Kingdom, begun among us but not yet complete.

Put it another way: it is tempting to want the last word, but less so when we realise God will have it – on everything. Or perhaps we need to go back to parables like the Wheat and the Weeds / Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), to realise the danger of wanting everything sorted out too soon, before the time is right. So we commend patience, reinforced with the reminder that it is not for us to get everything in order, but for God to do so at the right time.

But how does that fit with the urgency of John the Baptist? Are we urging patience while his call is to decisive action? Certainly John had an urgency as he told people to engage with God – but James is talking to Christians who have done that, and need to persist. We can see in John the Baptist (and especially in prison) some of the pain behind his question – “Are you the one?”. He, like many prophets before him, would die before his words were proved. But he was right – history, and the perspective of heaven, would justify what he had said.

So it is important for the Christian community to whom James writes that they should be patient. He does not mean their faith is any less vital, or that taking opportunities to share it is anything but urgent and important, but behind that is the awareness that God will sort things out when he comes, and that can be left to him. It is important for us, too. Our situation and difficulties are not the same – though grumbling seems to survive across the centuries. We are also trying to be part of our wider community, but with a different lifestyle, and set of values. Our Christian way may not be used, accepted or understood by the majority, and we need patience to follow it steadily and successfully.

Anger

Is God allowed to be Angry?  [I wonder if there is an age difference here; I guess older people might say “yes”, younger “why should he?”]

Certainly when Jesus clears the temple (John 2:13-22), it is energetic, and I would see it as an act of anger – not temper, or selfish tantrum, or violence even, but anger.

There is a proper use of anger. I think it exists, not essentially as a flaw in human makeup, but as a motivation for good. If this is wrong, and you care about that, do something! Do the work to put it right, make an effort . . Of course, anger is often selfish, because it is lazy, or reacts to being shown up, or loses patience. (James 1:20 says “Human anger does not achieve God’s righteous purpose.” But it does not say anger is always wrong).

At any rate, Jesus is not “losing it”; in fact, he is claiming it. We are told the disciples remembered:
Psalm 69:9 “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” – though perhaps there is also
Malachi 3:1-3 ” the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  But who can endure the day of his coming . . . he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”.

His claim is not recognised, they ask “What right have you . .?” What would we say? Perhaps:

  • the right of Creator, to control, expect obedience
  • the right of the Redeemer, God who brought Israel out of slavery
  • the right of the Saviour, the Son of God, bringing salvation

He chooses to prophesy his death and resurrection – hopeful, for this is a sign of his love and our redemtion, not of destructive anger.

So, is God allowed to be Angry? Yes, of course he is. Not only is there nobody to control him, he has rights of ownership by creation, and good reason to think that wrong has been done. We are reminded not to call for justice – for strict justice would see each of us called to account, and in very deep trouble.

But ask the question another way: Is God an Angry God?  Look again at Jesus. He can be moved to anger. He has destructive power – remember the Fig tree he cursed and it withered (Mark 11:13-28), or the herd of pigs that drowned (Mark 5:11-13)? But he doesn’t go round condemning people, causing pain, striking down – quite the opposite. He offers forgiveness, brings relief, and raises people up.

God is allowed to be Angry, he has reason to be Angry, – and he is like Jesus. For that, we should be enormously grateful and relieved – but not complacent and taking advantage.

I suggest that Jesus anger in the Temple was real, directed at people who not only failed to accept the love and mercy of God, but were preventing others understanding and receiving it. We are God’s temple – not our building, but the Church which is people. It is meant to receive God’s love and share it, to learn the ways of holiness and faithful discipleship, so that others may see what it means in practice.

If we are nothing more that a club, doing what its members enjoy, gossiping and squabbling – are we not every bit as guilty as the money changers and animal sellers of preventing access to God? It’s a disturbing thought that the Jesus who gives so much in love, might see us as his enemies.

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.

Is that better?

“Nice people don’t do things like that”.  I wonder how many of us were brought up to avoid the bad manners of childhood with such words – and grew to apply them to adult crimes.  Murder, adultery, lying for advantage are often spoken against.  Most religions forbid such things in one way or another, and the ten commandments of the Old Testament are no exception.  (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

In today’s gospel (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus seems to want more.  He is not content that we should avoid the action, but reaches further for the underlying motive.  Anger, lust, and self-centredness are the problem, whether or not the opportunity for action is present.  The idea that these (and other) attitudes might be replaced by the love, justice and mercy of God is wonderful, and very demanding.

In other places, Jesus will speak words of hope that murder, adultery, fraud and bitterness (as well as their underlying attitudes) are forgivable.  But he will not suggest that the sins can be combined with the holiness of character which is important to God, and to the life of God’s people.  The disciples he gathers will not all be exemplary characters, but cannot be content with their failures. We find hope in the fact that they continue to need grace and forgiveness, if the patience needed by the community is more difficult.

So how do we hear Jesus words?  We need to deal with our anger and disrespect of other people.  It doesn’t only become offensive if we are able to hurt them physically – the attitude is already a falling short of God’s standard – a sin.  Similarly with dishonorable relationships, whether unfaithful, or simply manipulative; and words which do not tell the truth in love (as in Ephesians 4:14-16).  This is something we shall fail constantly.  Yet this standard helps us remember the difference for those of different family background and life experience.  Christians are not called to be “nice”, but to become like God in our attitudes to all sorts of people and situations.

Reality Check (Advent 4a)

The Disnification of Christmas is almost complete.  I don’t want to be rude to the Disney franchise – I like being entertained, but you know what I mean.  The Nativity story has become a fairy story, scrubbed clean, with cute angels, a baby, and all the editing to suggest that it belongs to the world of make-believe to be fed to small children and left behind by grown-ups.  It’s not real, it doesn’t belong in the world of work, politics, adult relationships, or anything serious.

But Matthew insists on telling the story as happening to real people, with difficult decisions and painful moral battles to fight.  His nativity focusses on Joseph, (Matthew 1:18-25), a man with a problem.  He is betrothed to a girl, Mary.  Betrothal is a serious commitment, yet she has become pregnant, and not by him.  We are not told of his feelings – we could imagine a roller coaster of anger, betrayal, doubt, compounded by a story of an angel visiting her.  What we are told is that, despite this upset, he decides to do the “right” thing.  He will divorce her (betrothal was that serious!), but without making a big fuss.

He has just made up his mind when, in a dream, an angel appeared to him.  The angel is no comic figure, nor even a romantic support, but a messenger with instructions.  He is to go ahead with the marriage, and support and protect the child who will be “Saviour”.  Does that make everything all right?  Again, we are not told of his feelings.  He does as he is told.  No doubt he endures many snide comments, unfair allegations about his behaviour.  He may even have been glad to leave Nazareth, though the journey to Bethlehem was a serious challenge.

The gospel writers do not record in detail how Joseph, or even Mary (who carries more disapproval), react to this.  What effect does it have on their relationship?  How do they deal with the burden of unfair criticism, innuendo, exclusion?  We don’t know.  Or rather, we aren’t given a dramatic account of their struggles.  What we do know is here: Joseph was a righteous man (v19), and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded (v24).  Jesus was born, and protected as a child, and learnt love, and faith, and the ways of God from his parents first.  I cannot believe he was brought up by people bitter at their past, untrusting of each other, with a permanent grudge against society.

So perhaps we need to listen the the story Matthew tells with such restraint.  As a story for grown-ups, who struggle with injustice, and being judged, and having a hard time – a story for real people, a little like us.  We may wonder why God doesn’t make life easier for us, but here it seems there was a reason.  Perhaps there will be more reasons when we look back.

Entertainment for the young?  Looked at like this, it seems almost unsuitable.