The Misuse of Anger

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
– Frederick Buechner

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, by Theodoor Rombouts

In Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “be angry but do not sin”.  Paul seems to allow for an Anger that does not reach the level of sin.  In the Old Testament (notably in the Psalms), God is frequently depicted as angry.  In the New Testament, we find Jesus angry as he throws the money changers and merchants out of the Temple.  In the Bible, righteous indignation seems to be an appropriate response to offenses committed against God (Ps. 119:53; Mk. 3:5).  There is a place to respond in Anger, but this Anger is something distinctly less permanent than deeply-rooted wrath or hostility. We all struggle to distinguish between getting angry for injustice versus becoming an angry person.  Anger is needed in some situations of injustice. It is better than callous indifference.  So how do we determine if our anger is indeed righteous or sinful?  We should ask ourselves these questions:

  • Does our expression of Anger lead to love, wholeness (shalom), or healing?  Is it building up others and the body of Christ?  Are we helping to bring healing to someone or some group that has been oppressed or abused?  If the answers are “yes” – then perhaps your expression of Anger is righteous.
  • On the other hand, does my expression of Anger lead to division, destruction, animosity, alienation, or separation?  This kind of Anger would be hard pressed to be “righteous”.

Paul also writes in Ephesians 4:27, “do not make room for the devil”.  When Anger takes up residence within us, we become ‘angry people’. Angry people sow division, destruction, animosity, alienation, and separation.

It seems to me that good people in our society and churches are responding to injustice with Anger.  But they are allowing that Anger to consume them and others in destructive ways.  We are not always good at using Anger in beneficial ways.  Our goal should be to leverage our Anger into love, wholeness, healing, and building up the body of Christ.  We all need to stop and ask this question: Has injustice led me to righteous Anger?  If so, am I leveraging that Anger to build up the body of Christ?  Or, have I allowed that Anger to ‘make room for the devil’ in my life?  Good people, motivated by injustice, are right to get angry.  Too often, many of them lose control of the Anger.  It controls them. The good they want to do is followed by a wake of destruction and brokenness.  I pray we can find ways to harness the passion of righteous Anger to build the body of Christ.

Mercy is the quality that stands against Anger. All the Anger words – wrath, bitterness, resentment, vengeance, judgment, etc. – are devoid of mercy. The person who swims in the current of God’s mercy already has a leg up in dealing with Anger.  God’s love at work in the world is “mercy”…mercy extended toward friends and enemies, those like me and those unlike me, toward those of every race and tribe. Mercy is a distinctly “God-like” quality.

You may be angry for the right reasons; but be careful that your Anger does not consume you and lead to destruction.

Lenten Disciplines for Every Day: Fasting

John the Short said, “If a king wants to take a city filled with his enemies, he first captures their food and water, and when they are starving he subdues them.  So it is with gluttony.  If a man is sincere about fasting and is hungry, the enemies that trouble his soul will grow weak.”

Early Christians believed the first sin of humanity was gluttony – Adam and Eve overreaching beyond God’s boundaries.  It just so happened to be connected to fruit on a tree.  The earliest Christians thought of gluttony in broader terms than we do.  We think of it as ‘overeating’ or ‘lavish feasting’, but the early monastics saw food deeply connected to our spiritual lives.  Thomas Aquinas points to this in the 13th century as he expands gluttony to include ‘eating too eagerly’, which he considered the most egregious form.  Eating eagerly causes us to disregard health, social, and especially spiritual matters in our lives.  He points to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of beans as a primary example of disregarding the spiritual for sake physical desire.

We all suffer from obsessions with food in our culture.  I am currently binge watching several food shows in ‘4K Ultra HD’, including ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ by Somin Nosrat (which I highly recommend, by the way).  Gluttony has moved from the mouth and the stomach, to my leisure time and my eyes.  While on vacations, my family has a notorious practice of discussing our lunch plans over breakfast, discussing dinner plans over lunch, and discussing breakfast plans over dinner.  I often wonder how much more we could share together….

But here is the rub…gluttony is always about more than food.  Evagrius listed it as the first of the 8 passions, or terrible temptations.  It has always been connected deeply to our spirituality and has always been see as one of the obstacles to love.

Are you fasting from some food or drink this Lent?  Many of us do.  But let me ask all of us, including myself, to consider whether we are actually giving up something ‘easy’ – which only skims the surface of Lent’s intention – or if we are considering giving up something more difficult?  Here are a few more difficult things to consider ‘fasting’ from not just at Lent, but in our lives…some things that we tend to ‘overindulge’ in:

What if we could learn to tame or possibly lay aside our ego, or even our pride for Lent?

What would it feel like if we could learn to ‘fast’ from worry?

Is it possible for me to go 40 days (or even 1 day?!?) without judging someone else…without being critical…without gossiping…without slandering someone else?

If you are like me, you will say, “that’s basically impossible, so why start?”  You miss the point.  Ash Wednesday begins with the affirmation that we are dust.  We affirm our humanity and our imperfections.  We WILL mess up during Lent…and life.  It is assumed already.  But we identify our failing, we get up, brush ourselves off, ask for God’s guidance, and we learn as we keep going…relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Try it…not just for the remainder of Lent, but everyday.  Think about boldly ‘giving something up’…something hard…something that could change your life.

The Passions: Vainglory and Pride

Proverbs 11:2 – When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.

Proverbs 16:18 – Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the famous Greek storyteller Aesop told the following parable:

Two roosters were fiercely fighting for the mastery of the farmyard.  One at last put the other to flight.  The vanquished rooster skulked away and hid himself in a quiet corner, while the conqueror, flying up to a high wall, flapped his wings and crowed exultingly with all his might.  An Eagle sailing through the air pounced upon him and carried him off in his talons.  The vanquished rooster immediately came out of his corner, and ruled henceforth with undisputed mastery.  The moral of the story? Pride goes before destruction

Love has space to grow within us only as each of us learns to recognize and root out the passions within us.  The ancient Christian monastics in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries believed the eight passions to be eight terrible temptations.  They were obsessive emotions, attitudes, and desires that the earliest Christians believed blind us in our dealings with God, each other, and ourselves.  Roberta Bondi in her book, To Love as God Loves, says the passions are deadly because they pervert perfectly good and useful impulses which take away our freedom to love.

Today, we take a look at the last two Passions outlined by Evagrius of Pontus in the 4th century AD: Vainglory and Pride.

First, let’s take a look at Vainglory:  Vainglory is defined as “liking praise or recognition, or needing to be liked so much that our actions are determined by our need.”  People who suffer from Vainglory seek admiration from others instead of love of God and their fellow human beings.  This admiration becomes the goal of their lives.  You can probably see why Vainglory can blind us or get in the way of love, but why is it so deadly?  Vainglory leads us to believe that whatever your skills, it is essentially yourself you are selling to others.

Bondi points out that vainglory is a special passion for ministers and priests and teachers, and anyone else whose self-identity is bound up in the idea of service. It is deceptively easy to confuse being liked with having done a good job.  I meet ministers all the time whose really believe their effectiveness is directly related to whether or not people in their church actually like them. This is one derivation of vainglory.  Vainglory is at the root of a lot of burn-out as the desire for approval replaces everything – goals of your work, love of family, etc.; certainly an enormous amount of self-deception, and hence blindness, stem from vainglory.

Pride is the last of Evagrius’s eight passions. I always thought of pride as the overvaluing of myself.  I remember when my first District Superintendent introduced me to my first Bishop (Richard Looney) for the first time in my first one-on-one meeting with him, the DS said, “This is John Stephens.  He is a very talented young man and he is very proud of his humility.”  They both laughed and I laughed, then I thought – I don’t think that was a compliment.

The early monastics believed pride to be the inverse of humility. Rather than an overvaluing of self, pride manifests itself as a devaluing of others as we compare ourselves to those around us. In modern terms, it makes up an important part of envy. Its essential quality is not found in having too high an opinion of oneself so much as too low an opinion of everyone else.  Self-righteousness is one of its more obnoxious characteristics, as its sufferer looks around to make sure the people around her or him are as good as they ought to be.

One last fable today from Aesop:

There was a peacock who was very proud of his long and colorful feathers. One day he saw a crane and approaching and said, “Look, what splendid tail I have got. All the color of the rainbow are there. And your feathers, how dull and drab they are!”  Saying so the peacock spread his bright tail into a fan and began to dance. The crane saw it all and smiled. He knew that the peacock was trying to impress him in vain  Then the crane spread his large grey wings and began to fly off saying, “well Mr. Peacock follow me if you can in the skies”   The peacock remained earth bound and couldn’t fly. The crane rose high into the sky and was gone beyond the horizon in no time.

The Moral of the Story: Vainglory and Pride Blossom Bright But They Never Bear

The Passions: Gluttony

The passions are defined by the ancient monastics as those terrible temptations that blind us to love.  They keep us from loving God, others and ourselves.

The eight passions defined by the ancients are: gluttony, avarice, impurity, anger, depression, acedia, vainglory, and pride.  The ancients believed there were other passions – some we did not have control over like sleeping and eating, but the passions we can overcome through contemplative disciplines are the ones we will focus on here.

What passions blind us?  What passions are at work stealing our freedom to love fully and perfectly?  Let’s spend a few moments chewing on the first passion: Gluttony

Gluttony is the first passion Evagrius of Pontus lists in the 4th century AD. Evagrius and many others in the ancient world were convinced the first sin of Adam and Eve was gluttony. Gluttony was a broad term for the monastics. It meant, of course, overeating, but more fundamentally, it was connected to too much variety in your diet.  Gluttony suggested an obsession with food that had nothing to do with actual physical need.

Gluttony is very simply about allowing food control us; occupying our time and attention that needs to be given elsewhere.  Evagrius suggests gluttony is the desire for more than we need, more than God designed for us, which is why it is seen as the first sin of Adam and Eve.  They had been given what they needed, but they longed for more – this was not avarice or greed, rather a hunger to have/be more than was needed.

I live on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  We are a resort community with a lot of great restaurants.  When I first moved here in 2009, I was told St. Simons is for the “newly-wed, nearly-dead, and overly-fed.”  And they were right!  I’ve had to think about how much time and/or money I’ve spend on eating or planning to eat.

How do elaborate, expansive meals cause us to think less about the real food needs of those around us?  Do we eat or desire more than we should?