Freedom from Anger
“One cannot enter into eternity tied and fettered by hatred.” In the final years of his life, bishop Anthony Bloom spent his days preparing for death. He wrote a series of papers on that journey, in which he shared to his flock the thoughts and struggles he was going through. Above everything else, Bloom was determined to find every last trace of anger in his heart. Here’s what he said, “The first thing an old person must do is determine not to escape his or her own past; to be ready, when the past emerges in memories…to look squarely at any unresolved problem.” He goes on to insist on “the necessity for preparing for death through…making one’s peace with everyone, with oneself, with one’s conscience, with one’s circumstances, with the present and the past, with events and with people – and indeed with the future, the coming of death itself…One cannot enter into eternity tied and fettered by hatred.” What is it about anger and hatred? Of all sins, anger may be the most insidious. It has that way of creeping inside and possessing us. It’s like the poison you spray on weeds. It starts on the outside, but slowly soaks into the roots and rots them. The irony is the angrier we allow ourselves to become the more miserable we get. We dig ourselves into our own pit. This is what Jesus is getting at in His Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “Raca”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:21-24). There’s no perfect translation of “Raca.” Sometimes this is rendered “You Fool,” but that doesn’t quite capture it’s meaning. In Jewish society, “Raca” was used, though rarely, to express utter contempt for someone. It isn’t a mere passing emotion. It’s an exclamation of deeply ingrained hate. This, Christ tells us, plunges us to hell. But most of us don’t feel anger to that extent. What about just a tiny dose of anger? We like to justify our sins sometimes, contrasting them with the sins of others, or nursing the idea of a “white lie” or a “little sin.” Someone asked me the other day if all sins are equal, and it’s a very good question. Are they? The truth is, some sins do tend to injure souls more severely than others. Yet, at the same time, every sin, no matter how small it looks, can become such a habit, such an addiction, such a part of who we are that in the end it can eat away at us so entirely that there’s no longer any person left at all. Anger works a bit like this. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” These words used to sound severe to me, but they really aren’t. We have to listen carefully to the words of scripture. Throughout the gospels, Christ is described as the One who understands the hearts of men. He wasn’t some aloof prophet just giving people a hard time for not being perfect. He was human too, though divine, and He felt pain and hurt as we feel pain and hurt. God knows that it isn’t easy to love one another. He knows that hurt hurts, and how easy it is to give into anger. Jesus Christ isn’t condemning us. He is begging us not to condemn ourselves. It’s all in the old nurseries. You remember Peter the Rabbit? One morning, at the crack of dawn, the rabbit family is eating breakfast together. Mrs. Rabbit tells the younger rabbits, “Now, my dears, you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” We really need to get back to those old nurseries. They taught boundaries to children, in pretty graphic ways, and always with a dose of sugar. ‘If you go into Mr. McGregor’s garden you’ll likely be cooked in a pie.’ Similarly, Jesus Christ warns us, please don’t give in to the seduction of anger, because it can eat away at your heart and plunge you into eternity of self-inflicted pain and sorrow. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “Raca”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” In a story by C. S. Lewis, called The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines what it’s like to enter eternity “tied and fettered by hatred.” He shows us a man, a very ordinary man, who dies and wakes up at the threshold of heaven. The fellow looks around and finds himself in the most beautiful fields of grass and flowers. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, and a mountain looms ahead where he is welcome to spend eternity in paradise. Confident that he was a good chap, he makes his way up the mountain, but then stops shocked. Sure enough, there was his enemy, the man whom he most hated in life and vowed he’d never forgive. “What!” he declares, “I just can’t believe it! I can’t believe that type of fellow is in a place like this. Why if he’s here in heaven then I want nothing to do with it. I’m going somewhere where he isn’t.” And so the man wanders off. In the end, the only place he can find where he doesn’t have to be around that type is in hell. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” That’s the sum of anger. It hurts us. But Christ goes on to tell us what to do. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mat. 5:23-24). First and foremost, we have to reconcile with one another. We have to forgive and love, and that means to struggle to forgive and love, before any of our other “good works” are even acceptable to God. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.…” (I Cor. 13:1). Short of love and forgiveness, it doesn’t matter how much you give to the poor or how devoutly you pray. It’s all or nothing. Love is our salvation. So what do we do? The Church has a little secret, which you can’t get anywhere else in the world: the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the Gospel we read today, Christ told us not to approach the altar until we’ve reconciled. The early Christians took this commandment seriously. You can read in the original documents from the first century that every Christian was obligated to go to confession weekly. This is still a practice in much of the Orthodox Christian world. I remember when I first visited a Russian church and asked the priest for a blessing to commune. He asked me, “When did you last make your confession?” I was taken back a little. I’m American. I expect to get whatever I want whenever I want it, but I marveled, “These guys take this stuff seriously.” Today, our bishops advice us to confess monthly and only require us to confess four times a year, at a minimum, as a mercy to us. But the message is still the same. The Eucharist isn’t candy; it’s God. “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.” St. Paul writes, “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 11:28). God is so gracious. He is willing at the split of a second to forgive all of our transgressions, and only asks in return that we forgive the transgressions of the people around us. Besides, only hurt people hurt people. No one is truly evil. If someone has hurt you it’s because they were hurt first and are suffering. They need your love. We need one another. There’s a universal saying in the Orthodox Church: the minute anything at church has bothered you, run to the priest as quickly as you can and confess it. Many priests encourage their parishioners to text them, email them, or simply leave a voicemail, as soon as something has disturbed their heart. This can sound crazy to the secular world, but not to us Christians. When we try to deal with things on our own we end up acting on pride. We assume sometimes that we’re grown up enough to handle it. But we aren’t really. The devil is always stronger than an individual, but never stronger than the community. We go to confession to share what’s on our heart, not to a man, but to Christ. By bringing a complaint or a hurt to the priest, you’re bringing it to Jesus Christ. The sacrament of reconciliation is the door to healing schism and ushering the love the God first intended for humanity. That’s why it’s called a sacrament. We don’t need someone wiser. We don’t need someone more experienced. We certainly don’t need someone perfect. We need Christ. And we always find Christ within the body of the Church. So, whether in our prayer life, our fasting, or our ability to forgive, we need God to get us by, and God is in the sacraments. Anthony Bloom was right, “One cannot enter into eternity tied and fettered by hatred.” The good news is: God has given us everything we need to succeed. All we have to do to shed our chains and fetters of hurt and anger, and give them up to our Lord Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.