Faith in The Everyday World (4):
Biblical Anger Management
The Perils of Starting Over
Can I tell you a little secret? Something that will help you have peace of mind and sleep well at night?
Here it is: Don’t ever compare yourself with someone else.
Don’t ever look at what others have and how others live their lives. Don’t have eyes for what others have for it will drive you mad. There will always be those who will have more, who will have it better, easier and nicer.
The grass will always be greener in your neighbor’s patch.
That is a slippery slope down into the murky waters of envy, jealousy, rivalry, and anger. These are mindbenders that lead to nowhere. This is the pathway into the very thing James warns about:
2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:2-3
By now you know the background of this letter. You know how these were the final words of a sage and wise man who saw his community having to flee their homes with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes on their back.
These words of his were meant to ring in their ears as a guide of sorts as they started anew somewhere else.
Starting new was not going to be easy. So this is the story of a group of people who were resettling in a new land; and ringing in their ears were the words of this letter from James.
If you’ve ever had to start over you know how incredibly difficult that is. And yet people do it every day all over the world, and in fact many of you have had to do it as well.
Starting over can come in many different forms, from leaving one country for another to moving between cities or provinces and everything else in between. This can include recovering from life-changing events such as bankruptcy, eviction, employment termination, divorce and even the death of a loved one.
So hands up if you’ve ever had to start over again?
This is why the words of this letter resonate so deeply with many of us. We know about the struggles of starting over again.
My own story of starting over again is one of poverty, marginalization and in some ways discrimination.
One of my dad’s greatest struggles with coming to Canada was that his skills as a skilled bricklayer and small business owner in the old country meant nothing in Canada.
All he was good for was to be a laborer who had to work with a short handled shovel because his boss, who was also an elder in the church, believed that his workers should be as close to their work as possible.
Something about that broke my dad’s spirit, as he never pushed beyond being a laborer when he was so much more in the old country.
Seeing my dad like that made me angry. Seeing how we had nothing when all my friends at church had so much more made me incredibly jealous and also terribly insecure.
So I can well imagine the lives of these refugees and how some were incredibly poor and for whatever reason were stuck in this cycle of poverty while others quickly left their poverty and for whatever reason became entrepreneurs and business people who ended up incredibly wealthy.
Both had to somehow coexist as James speaks to both groups.
In fact, last week’s sermon was all about the level playing field the church is and how everyone can stand tall and look the other in the eye and how we don’t favor the rich by giving them places of honor and dis the marginalized by making them sit at our feet like dogs.
I love how James put it: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” James 2:1-4
The Anger of The 99%
One of the other very real issues coming out of this dynamic are the very real feelings of anger that would arise, which is what James addresses in the later part of James 1.
In some ways it would be natural that both sides would be angry with the other side.
On the one hand, the poor had every reason to be angry especially as they saw the exploitation of the rich. The rich had all the power in the world while the poor had none.
There have always been those who have made their wealth on the backs of the poor who labor away in sweatshops with what we call precarious employment.
This comes in many different forms, from a minimum wage that is not a living wage to contract work where none of the employment standards apply, to the use of unpaid interns or offshore workers all of it meant to bolster the bottom line with no chance of profit sharing.
This was a reality in their day and it continues to be a reality in our day. Some of the strongest language in the letter is reserved for those who exploit the powerlessness of the poor:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.[a] 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” James 5:1-6
This is like giving a laborer a shorthand shovel just to keep him close to the dirt and maybe break his spirit or dropping a worker off two blocks from where he lives so that by having to walk the rest of the way home all knew who had the power and car and who didn’t.
In fact, you know what? This makes me angry just thinking about it; and if I am angry though some distance away, imagine the anger of those upfront and personal.
It is understandable that those in poverty would at times be very angry especially toward those who are seen as the rich oppressors and who make their wealth on the backs of the poor or as James said, whose “wages you failed to pay the workman who mowed your fields (and) are crying out against you.” James 5:4
This is what was behind the Occupy movement who coined the phrase “we are the 99%”. I am sure you have heard of this. This is what they say:
“We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.” http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com[JR1]
There is this injustice in this world, this systemic discrimination against the poor and the rising tide of anger is understandable
There exists this anger that is always just underneath the surface and boils over into social unrest, uprising, civil disobedience and on a personal level, rage, attitude, entitlement and jealousy.
The very things James warns about when he says: “ You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” James 4:2
This is the slippery road of anger; a road that travels both ways with the rich as angry at the poor for not pulling their weight as the poor are at the rich for all the oppression they bring.
So it isn’t only the poor who get angry. The rich also get angry. “How dare you want your hands on what I have. I had to work hard for this.”
The rich get as angry as the poor, are equally quick to pass judgment and create stereotypes.
Slow To Become Angry
The bottom line, though, is that anger never solves anything.
If anything, anger makes things worse as anger is matched by anger creating entrenchment, resistance and fuelling alienation.
In fact, who was it that said: ‘human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”? James; that’s right, our man James said this.
In fact, this is what he said and this becomes the key passage for today:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” James 1:19-21
Slow anger down, he says, anger does not achieve the righteousness of God; if anything it takes us away from it and down a slippery path.
There should be no anger even in the face of injustice since God hears those cries:
“The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” James 5:4
God sees all things and will bring a fair and equitable justice.
And until that time you keep your mouth shut so as not to give anger a foothold which is exactly what today’s key passage says: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
Notice the correlation between slow to speak and slow to become angry.
The more you speak about it, the angrier you will get. The more you are fixated on an injustice and it’s all you see and give vent to, the more you will find anger rising up.
That anger will eat you up and eventually consume your life.
An angry, combative and argumentative attitude is not helpful for spiritual growth or as James says, “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
In fact, not only does anger not do anything to add to the life God wants for us, it actually takes away from that life God wants for you.
Which is what vs. 21 alludes to: “Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” which is a reference to the anger of the previous verse.
By not giving vent to anger, by not feeding it, you will then be able to “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” vs. 21
It’s going to be one or the other, but it cannot be both. You will either give vent to anger or you will be open to God’s Word planted in you but you cannot do both.
An angry in your face know-it-all will be so consumed by this that there will be no room left for God to speak his Word into them.
A know-it-all doesn’t listen, nor does someone who vents their anger. That’s why James says, “be quick to listen!”
Listen to what? To the Word planted in you, which if we listen to it will save us.
Save us from what? From ourselves and the anger that distorts and destroys so much. This is about slowing down anger, cutting it off at the knee before it rises up.
How do I do that? Not only by not giving vent to it but also by giving full vent to the Word of God planted in us.
How? By being quick to listen to it and by doing what it says. Notice vs. 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James 1:22[JR2]
This is absolutely key in anger management.
Biblical anger management is rooted in God’s Word. It’s neither about self-discipline nor avoiding certain situations. It’s about what God’s Word does in your life.
Yes, be quick to listen to the Word of God, and be equally quick to do what it says.
Listening without doing is meaningless. You know, if you feel angry, grab your Bible and start reading furiously trying to keep the devil at bay as though by reading lots you will somehow silence the angry devil within.
That’s not how this works. This is not about a chapter a day will keep the devil away.
Instead, it’s living out the Scriptures that will impact your life. It’s being so busy patterning your life after God’s Word that there is neither time nor appetite for what others have or don’t have.
It’s coming to the place where I am so consumed with trying to live for God that I don’t have time to notice others.
That approach knocks the wind out of anger.
Anger needs to be fed and you feed it by having eyes for others or for life’s situations.
But if you are busy having eyes for God’s Word, James says in vs. 25, you will then be blessed in all you do: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” James 1:25
I love this line about looking intently into the perfect law that gives freedom. Freedom from what? From the old life, from the way we were, and from this natural inclination toward anger.
I love the language of looking intently. This comes back to what do you see, what do you have an eye for?
You will either see the injustices of life or the promises of the Word of God but not both.
If you look intently into God’s Word, not forgetting what you heard but committing to doing it, then you will be blessed in all you do for that will bring about the righteous life that God desires.
So you want to be free of anger? You don’t want to go down the slippery slope of its ugly cousins: resentment and jealousy?
Then turn your eyes toward God’s Word. And who and what is God’s Word if not Jesus?
In these closing moments do exactly that – turn your eyes toward Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace!
Here you can find several messages. Feel free to write your thoughts or questions in the comment section.