Monday, June 06, 2016

Anger

We're living in a day and age where an outflowing of national anger and disillusionment with broken government promises, increasing bureaucracy and taxation is having a significant impact upon presidential politics. Whether that impact will be negative or positive for our country is hotly debated, and beyond the scope of this Last Word.

What I am concerned about here is the impact that anger has on us personally. And I speak from that of which I know. I was raised by Christian parents, but the general mood in our household was often very angry. My parents fought a lot. Usually they were angry with each other, for a variety of reasons; and sometimes they were angry with us kids. I remember once my mom was very angry with my brother and I about something (I don't remember why; I'm sure we deserved it). She went for the belt to administer a whipping, which she rarely did. As the oldest, I was unfortunately first in line. And she was so angry she didn't realize she was holding the wrong end of the belt when she hit my backside with it. The first (and as it turned out, only) blow landed with the metal buckle coming in contact with the target.

And my mother was instantly horrified when she realized what she had done in anger; she burst into tears and ran off sobbing. It was the last time she ever took a belt to any of us five kids, as far as I know.

The fortunate part of the story for me is that my mom wasn't very strong, and even in her anger the metal belt buckle, while it stung a bit, didn't do much damage!

Some of this anger transferred to me. I had a hard time as a young father not being goaded to anger by my kids, particularly my son, who was very good at doing that. By the time he was 17, he knew exactly what buttons to push to get me pretty much out of control. Once he sent me into a blind rage, and I was so angry I grabbed a telephone (the cordless kind) and launched it at him with all my might. Fortunately he had good reflexes and ducked the missile, which punched a hole right through the drywall of our staircase.

He grabbed some things out of his room and left the house, announcing that he was going to report me to CPS. I probably would have deserved that. I was appalled and dismayed and spent three days just pleading with the Lord to help me get my anger under control. At the end of that time, realizing that through the Lord's empowerment I indeed did have control, if I only had the discipline to exercise it, I vowed I would never be goaded into that kind of anger again. And I have kept that vow to this day, some 15 years later. As a result, my relationship with my son has vastly improved. (Not that he hasn't occasionally tested those limits!)

I realize now (and I probably realized then, to some extent, at least) that my anger was holding me back from becoming the kind of father, and the kind of disciple, God wanted me to become. I am so grateful to be able to look back and see how God has helped me get some victory over this particular broken and sinful aspect of my life. I am hoping that it has not only made me a better dad, but also a better husband, employee, brother in Christ, and citizen. (Now, on to the next big project!)

A Prophet With a Problem

At worship on Sunday I mentioned what I am learning from the book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet who had a problem with anger. And the Ninevites deserved his anger! They were among the most brutal people ever to inhabit the planet.The records of their horrific brutality, if you read about them in the history books, make you feel ill even now, thousands of years later. I won't go there; I'll just assure you that whatever your imagination can conjure up, what they did to their enemies was worse.

And they didn't like the Hebrews. And the Hebrews didn't like them. Which is why many people think Jonah ran the opposite direction when God told him to go and deliver His message to Nineveh. Wa-a-a-ay in the opposite direction.

But the real reason Jonah ran is revealed in chapter 4:1-4:
But it [God's mercy on the Ninevites after they repented] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”4 And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
The answer to the Lord's question was, of course, "No." But instead of answering, Jonah just sulked. He went and staked out a position on the hillside overlooking the huge city of Nineveh, hoping against hope to see God rain down fire and brimstone on it while he ate popcorn.

It's amazing, when you think about it, that the reason for Jonah's anger was the kindness, grace and mercy of our steadfastly-loving God! In his anger against the Ninevites, Jonah wanted vengeance. He was only all-too-happy to preach God's simple message: "40 days, and Nineveh will be destroyed!" No love lost there, as far as he was concerned.

So Jonah set himself up on the hill, and verse 6 says "the Lord God appointed a plant" that provided shade over Jonah and gave him relief from the heat. And Jonah was glad for the plant. (He'd apparently had enough of discomfort after spending three days and nights in the gastrointestinal tract of a large fish!)

But then our merciful, gracious, and loving God did something very interesting. Verse 7 says that at dawn of the next day, God "appointed a worm" that attacked the plant so that it withered, and Jonah lost his comfy shade. (For the fascinating biblical story behind the worm, check out this blog post.) After the sun rose, "God appointed a scorching east wind" to make Jonah really uncomfortable. And once again, Jonah was angry and "asked that he might die" (You can almost hear him thinking, "I'll show God! We'll see how he feels after His prophet has died of heat stroke.")

The discomfort was of course intended by God as an object lesson for Jonah. "Do you do well to be angry about the plant?" God asked him in verse 8. And Jonah replied, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

I hope Jonah saw the divine humor in this. God was under no illusions that the Ninevites were model citizens. His view of them was that they did "not know their right hand from their left." Not very flattering, eh? And to drive his point home, God adds: "And also much cattle." Come on, Jonah, at least feel for the cows!

(Something about this reminds me of that strangely hilarious scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou?: "Oh, George! Not the livestock!")

I continue to be blown away by a recognition which I probably share with Jonah that God is so good at love, and I am so bad at it. He is indeed "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Thank God He often (probably more often than we know) "relents from disaster," even though we certainly deserve it!

What to do if you struggle with anger?

Do you struggle with anger? Be honest. I don't think I'm alone in this one. We know there is a "righteous anger," an anger at sin and its effects on innocent people, and injustice, and man's inhumanity to man, and so much else that has resulted from the Fall. But how often can our anger truly be counted in this category? Or how often is our anger instead a result of the fact that we haven't gotten what we want or think we are owed? Our anger blinds us. We think we are concerned about a mote in someone else's eye, when our anger has blinded us to the log in our own.

And our anger separates us from the blessings God wants to bestow on us, and through us, to others. My advice is: Deal with it! Lay it before the Cross. Recognize how the blood of Christ absorbed the righteous anger of God, anger at the sin we so willingly partake in. If you need help, get it. Ask brothers and sisters around you to pray for you and hold you accountable. Get professional help if you need it. Please don't wait for God to give you a loving sunburn to drive His point home, as He did with Jonah!

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