Gentle, meek, and mild?

But Jesus got angry

Mark 3:1-5 Jesus went into the synagogue again and noticed a man with a deformed hand. Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him. He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts.

Ephesians 4:26 Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.

Hebrews 12:15 Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.

James 3:14-15 If you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom.

All my life I’ve been afraid of anger, because in my experience anger was linked to emotional and physical violence. So when I came to this story in Mark, my first instinct was to skip over it in favor of something more positive and cheerful. I could write, for example, about the stunning rainbow that hovered over Pittsburgh Wednesday afternoon …

Shutterstock: Pushish Images

But God didn’t let me get away with that. In the background of my thoughts, I kept wrestling with the issue of anger and how I would just shrivel up or melt into a puddle on the floor if I perceived Jesus was angry with me.

I am in no way an expert on dealing with anger. Far from it! But here are a few simple guidelines that seem helpful to me at this moment in my journey.

Anger is an emotion we all feel—unless we’re in denial. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. If we don’t give it proper attention, it may instead turn inward and become a “secondary” emotion, hurting us and others through depression, bitterness, apathy, resentment, unhealed grief, or other emotional states. When anger settles in, as part of our emotional furniture, it becomes harmful. Hence the wisdom of Ephesians 4:26.

If we feel anger, we need to pay attention to it. “Primary” emotions, I’m told, surge and then recede in our bodies in about 90 seconds. Until the emotion has passed through, we shouldn’t take any action. But once the emotion has dissipated, we can ask ourselves questions: What was the source of the anger? Against what or whom was it directed? Was it appropriate, i.e. did its intensity match the severity of the provocation? What did I want to do while I was feeling the emotion? Is that action appropriate, i.e. will it reduce or escalate the perceived threat? What else is going on in my life that could intensify the feeling of anger (fear, fatigue, stress, the sense of repeated offense, a feeling of impotence, a narrative I am telling myself about this person or situation …)? Anger can show us a lot about ourselves and the condition of our souls.

Anger is our body’s response to the perception that something is wrong. We need to pay attention to this and decide what to do about it. There is always something we can do about perceived injustice, even if it is “only” relinquishing our pain to God and praying for those who have offended or hurt us. The Scriptures are full of references to God’s justice and the wisdom of entrusting to him those situations we are not properly positioned to do anything about. But often there is something positive we can do, contributing to God’s purposes of healing and redemption, rather than harm and destruction.

The energy of anger propels us to act. This can be a good thing, or it can be terrible. Good actions can be carried out calmly. The impulse of the feeling of anger, though, can often be harmful. Self-control includes hanging in there with the seemingly interminable 90 seconds so we can then evaluate possible actions with our rational brain engaged, not just our impulsive brain. If I yell and hit back when my child yells and hits, for a moment I may feel relief, but the fruit of those actions will damage my child and his or her trust in me.

Thinking about all this took me back to the story in Mark 3, and to the other references cited above. One thought I had (and I would love to hear yours!) is that Jesus’s frustration with the religious leaders opened a window of opportunity for them to see things differently. They placed enforcement of their (mis)interpretation of the law ahead of the wellbeing of one of their congregants. Had their hearts been in tune with God’s loving heart, they could have seen grace in what Jesus did, and wonderful rejoicing could have strengthened all present. Instead, they went away to plot how they could kill Jesus.

Jesus was not for one second out of control of himself and his actions. The religious leaders’ offense had become engrained. Not even Jesus could “make” them change their minds and hearts. Yet he offered them an invitation, through bringing to light the condition of their hearts. An opportunity to repent, to change, to grow. To respond positively to truth.

Your thoughts about this complex topic?

But God shares our sorrow

Acts 7:59-8:2 As the Jewish leaders stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that he died. Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day … Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning. But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.

Romans 8:17, 26 If we are to share Christ’s glory, we must also share his suffering … But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.

Covid is battering our friends across South America. Daily, it seems, we hear of another heart-rending situation involving people we know and love. So while we delight in the re-opening of our lives here in the U.S., thanks to life-saving vaccines, we’re reminded constantly that this pandemic is not over. Nor will be in the foreseeable future.

A pandemic is one thing. Suffering people deliberately inflict on each other, as Saul did to the early church, is even more painful, especially if God’s holy name is used to justify wounding and destruction. Sadly, this is nothing new. I’m grappling with bitter historical realities in my research for Treasure Hunt 1904.

But God had a plan for Saul, and we’ll get to that in the next chapter of Acts. The time came when Saul, known later as Paul, wrote, “In my insolence, I persecuted God’s people. But God had mercy on me. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was!” (1 Timothy 1:13). God offers mercy and hope of transformation to anyone willing to hear his voice of compassion. Even the perpetrators. Inexplicably, he loves our broken world.

Paul continues telling Timothy that despite human arrogance, “He alone is God” (verse 17). God’s not rattled by my sense that the world (and even the church) has gone crazy. He’s still on his throne–remember Stephen’s vision? He has a plan.

So I offer to you, Lord, my sorrow and grief, my anger at what I see as manipulative and unjust, my worry about what’s happening in the U.S. and the world, my frustration with my own limited vision and frail faith.

And now maybe I can go back to sleep.

Deer again ate my pansies–though not down to the dirt this time.

But God’s Kingdom is not just talk; it’s power

1 Corinthians 4:12-13, 20 We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us … For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s own power.

Wow. This is where the rubber really hits the road, isn’t it? I find the only thing harder than responding as Paul models for us is doing so when the target is not me directly, but someone I love.

Recently, for example, critical things were said to my husband in a public space. The person had not come to him privately to express his concerns. Dave listened, took to heart what the person said, took the matter to the Lord, and is working diligently to make changes in his life. He let the offense roll right over him. The relationship, thank God, is intact. Which might not be the case if I had reacted the way I wanted.

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Because I fumed. I thought of all kinds of things I wished I had said to defend Dave. I felt hurt and disappointed in this person whom I consider a close friend. It took me a couple of days before I too took the matter to the Lord, confessed my anger and reactivity and defensiveness, and allowed him to cleanse me and restore me to peace and the ability to pray for blessing in the person’s life.

What I am deeply grateful for in this case is that I did keep my mouth shut, rather than escalating the situation and adding insult to the injury. Thank you for that, Lord. Thank you for painful experiences that have shown me the wisdom of biting my tongue until emotions are not so high and until I am in tune with the Holy Spirit.

And yes, maybe an appropriate time will come for addressing the person’s action. If so, I hope it will be characterized by blessing, patience and gentleness—which would not have been the case initially.

God’s power for living is resurrection power. Life triumphing over death. Speaking what is life-giving rather than death-dealing. The Holy Spirit makes this possible when I let him have control; when I ask him to overrule my immaturity and impulses and defensiveness.

On the cross, having been whipped, scorned, humiliated, stripped, and condemned on false charges, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). That is power. Thousands of times more potent than had he called legions of angels to deliver him. Kingdom of God power. Counter-cultural power. Counter-carnal power.

Please, Lord. Easter in me.

But Jesus was angry

Grief. It can skewer you, swamp you, sabotage your self-control. It can be hot or cold. It can leave you bubbling over with the desperate need to talk, share, let others know how you feel. Or it can empty you, dry you out, isolate you. It can fade softly into the background yet knock you down with no warning. I once at the grocery store threw myself sobbing into the arms of a woman I barely knew. No, not typical behavior for me.

As I walked early this morning, the wind blowing my hair because in spring angst I left my hat at home, I thought, “Grief is like the wind.” On the car radio I heard we may have gusts up to 60 miles per hour today. We may lose power; branches may crack off our trees.

Have I felt grief that powerful, draining all my energy, stripping me, changing me permanently? Yes.

The news announcer went on to tell me eight tornadoes ravaged Alabama yesterday. Have I felt grief as devastating as a tornado? No. But I know some people have.

On still days, we don’t think about the wind. On hot days, we relish a breeze. It’s something we share with everyone in our neighborhood, whether we know them or talk with them or not. It’s part of our shared experience. Grief has become like that over the past year, not just locally or nationally, but worldwide. We all have something or someone (or many somethings or someones) to mourn. Can we let it unite us, strengthen our empathy, soften our reactivity?  

Some of us have loving, understanding people around us. Some of us suffer alone. As hard as things have been in our country, the resources we have are abundant compared to many parts of the world. I’ve talked with several people this week who told me, “Vaccines? We have no idea when they will reach our country. And once they do, it will be months or years before they are available for people like me. Meanwhile, our health care system is totally overwhelmed. Our recourse is prayer. And doing what we can to care for each other.”

I’m glad Jesus knew grief; I’m glad he wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. In 1551, when Robert Estienne defined a verse structure within the chapters of the Bible, he decided “Jesus wept” deserved its own verse. I’m intrigued that Jesus’ weeping was apparently fueled by anger at his friends’ suffering. Could some of his emotion have been linked to his own impending death or, closer to hand, the Jewish leaders’ reactions to this high-profile event (From that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death (v. 53)? What do you think about Jesus’ anger?

As I finished my walk, an image of wind turbines marching across Pennsylvania hills flashed into my mind. Lord, I offer you, once again, my grief. Please harness it for your own purposes, beginning within my own soul. Make it a resource. A gift. Another miracle, Lord. Thank you.

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