Pastor’s Blog: Godly versus Ungodly Anger

Pastor’s Blog – Godly Versus Ungodly Anger

God gave our bodies anger as a kind of safety valve to let out the pain we experience on a daily basis. Anger can keep our hearts from bursting and our brains from having a stroke. In other words, because of the unholy trio of sin, death, and the evil one at work on us and in the world, we can end up doing grave harm to ourselves, our relationships, and to complete strangers if all that hurt, betrayal, or fear inside us builds and builds until we blow. Anger can be a real godsend, or it can turn out to be utterly demonic. It’s all in how we learn to deal with anger.

The psalms, also known as the prayer book of the Bible, cover the whole gamut of the human experience both for individuals and for the community of God’s people. Particularly apropos to the topic at hand are the laments. If we will imagine hearing the psalms sung (accompanied with instruments) in the life of God’s chosen people, we can hear them bringing all their experiences into the presence of God especially their anger. Weighed down with depression, anger turned inwards, the psalmist asks, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever?” (Psalm 13). He wails: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Psalm 130). He snarls in the midst of the Babylonian exile: “Happy are they who take your little ones and smash their heads against a rock” (Psalm 137). Notice how the laments turn to praise at the end. There is great trust when the psalmist (and we) can cry out to God in anger over the things not understood and with disgust at the things done and left undone by us.

Martyred Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis as a last spiteful slap at one who told the truth to those enmeshed in evil, wrote a little book entitled: “The Prayer Book of the Bible.” Bonhoeffer noted that Christians always pray the psalms through Jesus, who, even from the cross, lamented: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22). When Christians pray the psalms through God’s beloved Son into whose death and resurrection we have been baptized, we know that we are addressing His Father through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Praying this way with godly anger is to recognize we still see through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13).

I begged to learn to play the piano when I was a child. Dad found an old broken player piano with keyboard intact and had the sturdy upright brought into our home. Along the way, it acquired new felts and a tuning, but it was always at least a quarter tone off. Nevertheless, that piano got me through not only six years of lessons but endless hours of hurt, betrayal, and fear. I would often come home, hardly greet my parents, and sit down to play for an hour. By the time I got up from the keyboard, I was at peace again. When I didn’t know what to do with my life, I would play the piano or my guitar and sing for hours. I would go on nightly walks of three to five miles. When my father died painfully, I could not cry for three years, but I could pour out my horror on a keyboard. In seminary, I learned from Dr. Martin Luther that the devil cannot stand hymns or being the butt of our laughter, and so I often went into the nave of whichever church I was serving and played and sang hymns at the top of my lungs. At the lowest point in my life, I took up running three miles every other day while praying the Morning Prayer liturgy. On days off during that painful season, I would often write a song on the old piano that had long since come to live in my house. The constant was not such helpful ways of lamenting but rather regularly attending the services of God’s house, hearing His Word, and receiving the Eucharist.

There are godly ways of expressing anger, and when we do so in godly ways, we come to a place of peace. Our present situation has not changed, but God has changed our attitude towards it. He has not waved a magic wand. He has loved us and brought us safely through the worst by comforting our troubled consciences with the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, and given us the assurance that He has heard our anger, and the thoughts and feelings behind the anger, and has not abandoned or rejected us and will never do so. The words of Romans 8 help here: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8:26) and “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).

As for the ungodly ways, we see them played out on the news, on the roads, in our neighborhoods, and wherever we go. Sadly, sometimes we bring those ungodly ways to our relationships at home, at church, and whenever we speak or write vitriolically to or about our neighbors or even complete strangers. Pastors, in particular, are often on the receiving end of ungodly anger. We often know what is behind that anger and that such anger is actually towards God but is being directed at His much weaker servant. Those particularly immature in their faith may act out either by acting like jerks or by avoiding the services of God’s house. Men, who are feeling impotent or vulnerable, will often bring that to church and create a mess. Women, who are used to getting their way, often sow seeds of dissension at church by gossiping or through character assassination. There are commandments against all of these and more, and the old Adam or Eve, the old sinner in us, reacts in a particularly nasty way when confronted with bad behavior. Of course, the old Adam or Eve loves to justify her or his bad behavior and may paint God’s Word as “negative” or “scolding” or “not very nice.” How do we deal with lamentable behavior that goes unlamented towards God by us sinners?

The Word of God is a two-edged sword. It cuts us to be kind, to excise the wound, and to remove the cancer in the soul. God’s Law is always spoken to afflict those comfortable in their sins. Some people run through an endless series of bad relationships and resent being told they are responsible for their own relationship-killing behavior. Some churches run through an endless series of preachers, sometimes with shorter and shorter pastorates, because ungodly anger and deep-rooted sin is killing them from within. A handful of people, three to five, with ungodly anger can drive pastors out of the ministry or certainly out of a congregation. The only lament for some of those possessed by ungodly anger seems to be that they keep getting sent bad preachers, or, if only they could get some new blood, then their church would set the world on fire. By their fruits, ye shall know them. Those who love darkness run from the Light lest their deeds be exposed. You can feel such ungodly anger.

But God’s Gospel is always spoken to comfort those afflicted by their sins and yearning to be set free by the blood of Jesus. The Gospel needs no fireworks or screens or smoke machines or catchy tunes. In fact, the Gospel of Jesus Christ forgives sins and gives eternal life and salvation. When we know that we have acted in ungodly ways and yet hear that God’s Son has borne our sins and carried our sorrows on His cross, we cry with joy as our empty, sin-sick hands become a throne for the true Body and most precious Blood of God’s Son Jesus. Hearing His promise, ‘This is my Body; this is my Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” we have peace with God and can extend that peace to neighbors.

Advent, a penitential season, begins this Sunday. Brother or sister, examine your life. Is ungodly anger killing you and/or those you touch?

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

szumwalt

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.