Sunday, August 12, 2012

All The Rage

The Scripture being examined is Ephesians 4:25-5:2, with a reference to John 6:35, 41-51.

When I do my marriage preparation classes with couples, the first part consists of what we can learn from the Bible and the second part is what we can learn from all the scientific research on marriage. And what's remarkable is how much of the latter is consistent with the former. There's a reason why people still find the wisdom contained in a 2000 year old compilation of Ancient Near Eastern books compelling and relevant. And while I cover the 4 main issues that couples tend to get into major fights about, namely sex, money, children and in-laws, I really stress communication skills. To deal with any major issue in a relationship you need to be able to discuss it in as reasonable and sensitive a fashion as possible. You have to listen and you can't clam up. You have to learn to fight fair.

A lot of the principles, both psychological and theological, that apply to marriage apply to any community. And in our passage from Ephesians, Paul masterfully lays out just what we need to do and not do if the church is to function as Christ's body in the world.                  

He starts by emphasizing the need to be honest. We need to put away any lies. The last role I played for the Marathon Community Theatre was George in Edward Albee's excoriating play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" As the play unfolds you realize that the 2 couples' marriages are based on lies. In the case of George and Martha, it is an imaginary son onto whom each originally projected their dreams but which they now use as a weapon against each other. When Martha goes too far, George decides to kill off the illusion. At the end of the play the characters face the possibility of building a marriage based on truth and the audience is left to wonder if they can make it.

Dishonesty poisons relationships. Mutually agreed upon fictions can work in the short term but if not dealt with, they can eat away at the trust that must underlie any enduring relationship. So Paul, quoting Zechariah 8:16, says "each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor." What's interesting is that in verse 17, Zechariah says, "let none of you imagine evil in his heart against his neighbor." Often when someone does something we disagree with, we imagine all kinds of evil motives for what their actions.

We see this in the current election cycle. Both sides are imputing the most evil motives they can imagine onto the other candidate or party. They make their rivals out to be Bond villains, plotting to plunge this country or the world into chaos and destruction. I think it's more accurate to say that each candidate wants what is best for this country. Where they disagree is on how to accomplish that and what the best for this country might look like. Those are points for legitimate disagreement and debate. But if you start thinking that your fellow American is evil incarnate, you are a short step from the neo-Nazi who shot up the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He ceased to see the Sikhs as human beings trying to do what they thought was right. He saw them as evil beings to be eradicated. Some of the rhetoric being spewed onto the airwaves and the internet on political and even religious issues has bordered on a similar demonization of the other side. No good can come of that.

We are to be truthful because, Paul says, we are members of one another. We are all part of something bigger; in this case, the body of Christ. We are called to be part of the ongoing embodiment of God's Spirit in this world. And if one member of the body is in pain, the other parts need to take note and get to the bottom of it. If not, the cause of the pain will fester and the problem will become bigger. In practical terms, the member of the body of Christ who is hurting will get angrier and will either cause a big blow up or leave. That's why Paul, quoting Psalm 4, says, "Be angry but do not sin."

Isn't anger a sin in itself? Not always. Jesus got angry at the hardness of heart he found in the Pharisees who would rather let a man with a withered hand suffer than let Jesus heal him on the Sabbath. He famously got angry at the money changers in the temple. Anger at the conditions in which some people live often leads to reform. But, if allowed to get out of hand, it can lead to war. Rage, uncontrollable anger, is one of the seven deadly sins. Paul does not use the Greek word for rage at this point. So it is possible to get angry without crossing the line into sinning.

In fact, Aristotle said something very wise about this subject: "Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose in the right way--that is not easy." Anger is powerful. It can make you ready to handle a situation that frustrates you or is harmful to you or those you care for. It can help motivate you to rectify something that is wrong. It can also make things worse, especially if you brood on the perceived injustice until it builds to rage.

How can we avoid letting our anger grow into sinful rage? Paul says, "do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger." That's the NET Bible's translation and I think it fits the original Greek better. Here Paul does use the word for rage but in the literature of the time, it referred to the "provocation" or external cause of the rage. What Paul is saying is deal with the issue when it first arises. Get at the cause and work on fixing it before another day passes or it will grow into rage.

Now that doesn't mean that you should broach the subject when you're both angry. You may have to wait a few minutes or hours until you can deal with the issue calmly and civilly. But don't let the matter slide. Or, as Paul points out, you will make room for the devil. You will miss the opportunity to accomplish something constructive and give your anger the opportunity to become destructive.

So after cooling down and being able to discuss things rationally, the thing to do is to deal with the cause of the anger, as Paul says. Now there may be an actual sin at the root of the conflict. Paul talks about thieves giving up stealing. Was that a problem in the church at Ephesus? It's possible that some members were misapprehending Paul's teachings on grace. They may have thought that since we are saved by grace through faith and not through works that they needn't clean up their act. Some parts of Romans imply that people in the church thought they could go on sinning that grace may abound. And if some members of the church were stealing you can see that such behavior would trigger real and justifiable anger on the part of others. So Paul echoes the first word in the good news Jesus proclaimed: Repent. Following Jesus means turning you life around, leaving behind your sins and changing the way you think and act. In the case of thieves Paul says they need to work to give to those who are in need. They must change from a lifestyle centered on fulfilling their own desires and live one centered on filling others' needs. 

But what if the cause of the dispute isn't a sin on someone part? What if it is a misunderstanding? If you listen to the other person tell their side, you may find that you can see their point.  And if you repeat it back to them to make sure you're understanding them correctly, you may find that one or both of you were not making yourselves clear. It may be that you are substantially in agreement with them. You might even be saying the same thing in different ways. The difference may be in your methods of doing things or in your emphasis on what's important.

When we get angry we tend to exaggerate or making sweeping statements that overstate the nature of the problem. And when we are angry we are often more interested in fixing the blame than fixing the problem. So Paul says, "Let no rotten word come out of your mouth but only what is good for building up what is needed, so it gives grace to those who hear it." Don't say that nasty thing that you've been saving up so long it's gone bad; use constructive words that will fill the need of the occasion, words that bestow grace on everyone within earshot. Good communication means not saying things that will inflame the listener but only what will enlighten the situation. In my marriage classes we speak of the Four Horsemen of Martial Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Avoid criticizing or accusing the person, especially by saying "You always…" or "You never…" That's rarely true. Don't get defensive; don't get focused on circling the wagons when you are supposed to be listening to the other person. Don't express contempt for the other person; it's the clearest predictor of divorce and, I would imagine, of a person leaving the church. And don't stonewall; don't clam up or else refuse to actually engage in the dialogue, like saying anything just to end the whole discussion. That doesn't help matters. Those are the most rotten things you can say or do in an argument. Others include blaming, bossing, name calling and threatening.

When you say and do such things you grieve God's Holy Spirit. You wouldn't call someone a dirty name in church; don't do it anywhere, especially to a fellow Christian. The Spirit dwells in both of you. His presence, says Paul, is like the wax seal a merchant would put on a jar of oil or wine, to say that it was his and the contents were pure. We should not do anything to break that seal. It marks us as God's own when the day of our complete redemption comes. 

So Paul tells us to put away all such grievous acts and attitudes: bitterness-- brooding over past injustices until you have poisoned your present--and being quick-tempered and being hot-headed and yelling and slander along with malice--the desire to harm others. We are instead to be kind to one another. We are to be tenderhearted, compassionate. We are to be forgiving of one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us. As we are reminded in the Lord's Prayer, being forgiving of others and being forgiven by God are linked. If we refuse to forgive others, we can't expect God to forgive us as we continue to sin in maintaining our unapologetic resentment towards our fellow human beings.

Then Paul raises the bar. We are to be imitators of God. Obviously we can't create universes (except fictional ones) but we can imitate his character. We are to do it as beloved children do. Kids will imitate their parents. Or caretaker. My little patient will grab a Kleenex, hold it to his nose and blow a raspberry in imitation of my loud nose blowing. He also says "Thank you" a lot, a habit of mine I'm glad he picked up. We, in turn, are to imitate God's love and forgiveness.

Furthermore we are to imitate Christ who loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. While pagan moralists sometimes told people to imitate the gods, their gods showed no humility and never gave up their lives to save others. The true God, the God of love, whose purest expression we see in Jesus, does. And as his followers we too are to love others unselfishly. Which precludes giving free range to our anger.

Human anger, James reminds us, does not lead to God's righteousness. Jesus said if you are angry with a brother you are liable to judgment, if you insult him you are liable to the council and if you call him a fool you are liable to hell. Sadly, there are some Christians who didn't get the memo. They seem to always be angry and/or to provoke anger in others--deliberately. God's Word inevitably angers some people but I don't think we should go out of our way to rile people up. When Jesus clashed with his critics it was over essential things, like putting the healing and wellbeing of people ahead of nitpicking rules, or the nature of his mission as Messiah, or his authority to forgive sins. He didn't get into unnecessary arguments about taxes and politics, though others tried to draw him into such hot button issues. What made Jesus angry was callousness towards the sick and poor and powerless. But when the authorities came for him, he didn't resist. He rebuked the disciple who fought back and healed the person his disciple harmed.

Why do we usually want to imitate the anger of Jesus and seldom his restraint and gentleness? Because, as Aristotle says, it's easy to be angry. And it's easy to convince ourselves that our anger is moral, that it's not just human irritation but righteous indignation. But that's merely self-justification. People get angry all the time. And everyday we see what happens when people get angry. They fight and kill one another. Even if they don't get physically violent, they yell or act nasty to each other and everyone gets their back up and nothing but damage is done. That's not how you run things. That's not how you save the world. That's how you destroy it. And Jesus came to save.

We can't totally eliminate anger. If you care about people and they are threatened with harm, or if they are so stupid or selfish as to harm themselves, you will get angry. God's anger does not arise out of hate but out of love, as any parent would get angry if he or she saw her kids hurting one another. But what he ultimately does is absorb our anger and turn our worst act of violence, the murder of God's son, into the reversal of death and destruction for all. He shows us the ultimate result of our rage and then he doesn't get angry; he gets creative. Torn flesh becomes spiritual sustenance; shed blood becomes eternal life flowing from God into humans. No more sacrifices need to be made; no more lives need to be taken; no more revenge need be exacted. When Jesus cried from the cross, "It is finished," he meant it.

The Kingdom of God doesn't come from out of a gun or out of the belly of a bomber or out of the rage that makes people strap bombs to themselves or march into theaters or temples with weapons. It won't come out of following Bin Laden or Hitler. The Kingdom of God comes out of forgiveness and healing and turning the other cheek and walking the second mile and disowning ourselves and taking up the cross and following Jesus. It comes out of divine, self-sacrificial love, imitated by beloved children, trying to be just like their heavenly Father.

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