There is a story about a little boy who got into a fight with his older brother. Somewhat outmatched, he took quite a beating. The whole experience left him feeling mad and bitter. In fact, he refused to talk to his brother all day.
Bedtime came, and their mother, very much wanting to see the two make up, said to the younger, “Don’t you think you should forgive your brother before you go to sleep? Remember, the Bible says, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.’”
The youngster looked perplexed. He thought for a few moments and then blurted out, “But, Mommy, how can I keep the sun from going down?”
For some of us, it is easier to fight the sun from going down then to resolve the conflict eating at our hearts.
According to many different polls, Americans are a very angry people.
A whopping 84 percent of Americans are dissatisfied "with the way this country’s political system is working".
The country erupted into the worst civil unrest in decades after the death of George Floyd. At the same time, we’re dealing with anger provoked by the coronavirus pandemic: anger at public officials because they’ve shut down parts of society, or anger because they aren’t doing enough to curb the virus. Anger about being required to wear a mask, or anger toward people who refuse to wear a mask. Anger at anyone who doesn’t see things the “right” way. In many cases anger spilled over in actual physical attacks.
“We’re living, in effect, in a big anger incubator,” said Raymond Novaco, a psychology professor. According to psychiatrist Joshua Morganstein, the country is now dealing with “three disasters superimposed on top of one another”: the pandemic, the economic fallout and civil unrest. That’s a lot of anger being stirred up.
Anger is not an easy emotion to understand or to deal with. Most people raised in the Western reformed tradition are taught that expressing anger is unseemly, unspiritual. Compounding the problem are the conflicting biblical images of God and anger. On one hand God has no problem wiping out creation with a flood, who issues all sorts of murderous threats through the prophets and sends devastating plagues when hid degrees aren’t’ followed. On the other hand, we have images of God who never forgets us even if our own mother did. Who is loving and compassionate. We have a God who has collected every tear you have shed in a bottle. We have a God who calls us to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven.
How do we reconcile these conflicting images of a loving God and a wrathful deity? How do we integrate the love and anger residing in our hearts?
There is nothing wrong about anger. Live long enough, there is bound to be a mistake, a misunderstanding, or conflict with someone else. It is inevitable. Anger is a signal to us that something has gone wrong, off-balance, and needs correcting. Anger is not the problem, really. It’s how we respond to it that creates the mess and can cause us to sin.
Aristotle observed: “It is easy to be angry. What is not easy, it to be angry at the right person, in the right way, at the right time.”
Some of us may have been fortunate to have been raised in families or churches where expressing anger to the right person, in the right way, in the right time, was modeled. Gospel order was followed – gossip was avoided. People didn’t attack as they expressed their anger and upset. There was trust to give voice to the hurt, anger or sadness in a open and non-defensive way.
Not all of us have been so lucky. In many of our homes anger was avoided or disowned. Passive-aggressiveness encouraged. Anger was drowned in alcohol or other drugs and medications – even food. Anger was expressed by either being stuffed and hidden away or by blowing up. Gossip was the main form of communication, creating bitterness and malice in its aftermath.
Our Hebrew Scriptures lesson today from 2nd Samuel, tells us of the tragedy of anger gone wrong in the death of Absalom, the son of David. We need some of the background story to understand not only David’s sorrow, but the calamity that results from anger that goes unaddressed and becomes anger that results in sin.
Absalom was David’s third oldest son out of 17 children named in the bible. Absalom was David’s heir apparent. But Absalom also was the son who killed David’s first-born, Ammon. Absalom lied and deceived David. Absalom incited a rebellion against David that ultimately led to Absalom's death.
The first time we heard from Absalom is when his sister Tamar, was raped by Ammon, and then cruelly disregarded. This is right after the incident when David himself takes Bathsheba, and has her husband, Uriah, killed. When David found out about Tamar, he did nothing to secure justice or help for her. Tamar was sent to live in seclusion in Absalom's house. The scriptures say Absalom hated his half-brother Ammon for what he did to Tamar. In a traditional society, such a rape would have been an affront on Absalom as well.
Absalom's anger was not addressed, Tamar’s anger and hurt was never acknowledged. Injustice was met with silence for years. David let the incident be swept under the rug. This put Absalom on a path of violence, deceit, and bloodshed. Through treachery he finally had Ammon murdered. He mistreats those helped him. He rapes his father’s concubines. Eventually he plots to gain the favor of the people, and begins a insurrection against David. All these years, from the time Ammon raped Tamar to when Absalom led the rebellion against David, David failed to address the Absalom's rage and growing distain and contempt. Absalom's anger, as it became twisted away from justice to blind ambition, grew to sin.
All these scriptural images and stories of anger need to be seen through the lens of Jesus, who shows us how to be angry, in the right way. When Jesus got angry he didn’t mince words. He told parables about very angry people. He got angry at religious leaders who did not want people healed on the Sabbath. He addressed Peter as Satan and groaned in frustration at the lack of faith of his disciples. “how much longer must I put up with you?” He overturned the money lender tables in the Temple, spilled the money on the ground and set their animals free. What made Jesus angry? Seeing people use their power to harm others, and blocking access to God’s mercy, justice and love.
What is even more striking to see is when Jesus does not get angry. When he is betrayed. Deserted. Denied. When he is stripped and flogged and spat upon. When made an object of ridicule by Pilate and Herod. When crucified, jeered and taunted by thieves, soldiers and bystanders. When you and I would be full of hate and rage,
cursing God, Jesus did not get angry. In his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus restores our anger to its original function, to serve the purposes of love and trust.
There’s a story about an American named Terry Dobson who went to Tokyo to study Aikido, a martial art that teaches reconciliation in its training. On day on the train, a belligerent drunk laborer got on. Screaming, he nearly hit a woman with a baby. People moved away. Terry, feeling disgusted, thought he could put his practice into training. He threw the drunk an insolent kiss. “A foreigner!” he roared. “You need a lesson in Japanese manners.” Before the drunk could make a move, a beaming old man waved the drunk over. “Come here and talk with me!” The drunk cursed, “Why should I talk with you?” but the drunk sat down. “Whatcha drinking,” the old man said? “I’m drinking sake, and it’s none of your business!” shouted the drunk. Not missing a beat, the old man said, “Oh that’s wonderful! I like sake too!” The old man became to talk calmly to the drunk – while Terry was waiting for his moment to pulverize this guy. Suddenly the laborer burst into sobs. “My wife died. I don’t got a home. I don’t have a job. I’m so ashamed of myself!” When Terry got off the train, the drunk man had his head in the lap of the old man, sobbing, and the old man was stroking his filthy hair, encouraging him to talk. Terry felt convicted – of the unrighteous anger he was harboring, now dissolved by the old man’s peaceful, caring words. How quickly we jump to anger instead of trying to understand a situation and respond accordingly.
If only David had taken the time to talk to Absalom and to Tamar. With the grace of God, perhaps we can help each other out of anger. Not to stuff it. Not to blow up. Not to run away. Not to give in to sin. But to listen and make room for kindness. Forbearance. Mercy. Right action. If we can do this, perhaps then together in Christ, we can watch God’s sun go down on our peace. Amen.