“Do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:17).
Bishop Anthony Bloom was an old man when he wrote about anger. He was dying. As he prepared for death, he found himself convicted by anger. He searched through his heart for any traces of anger, as earnestly as a surgeon searches for cancer. Why? Why should an old man think about anger? Why should any of us get concerned about anger? Why do the epistles warn us to not let the sun set on our anger? Why does Christ tell us we are liable to judgment and even damnation for anger?
Before passing, the bishop wrote a series of letters. They were reflections on aging and death. In one such letter, he wrote, “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.” In another letter, he insists, “[one must] make 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.” Was the bishop too severe? Before we can judge his words, we should look to see what our Savior had to say about anger.
“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, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:20-24).
Jesus Christ is kind and compassionate. He is quick to forgive and instant in his love. Yet, there are times when his words are striking, and can send chills to the bones. At these times especially we should pay attention. Why is Christ so stern about anger?
“If you say, ‘you fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matt. 5:20-24).
The phrase, ‘you fool’, is an imperfect translation of the Hebrew, ‘Raca’. In Jewish society, ‘Raca’ was used in a specific way. It comes from the Hebrew word, ‘rak,’ which means, ‘empty, worthless, vain, or shallow brains.’ To call someone ‘Rak’ was to say they are totally useless, empty of any value, and ultimately worthy of being spit on. ‘Raca’ is an expression of utter contempt. Have we ever felt that way about another person, even for a passing moment, maybe for years? Have we ever felt this way about a situation, or perhaps, even about God? It is a serious accusation. Yet, does it deserve the hell of fire?
Of all passages, this is really a passage on God’s grace and compassion. He is not waiting in heaven for an opportunity to judge and doom. He is reaching down to our hearts and looking for an opening to heal and restore. Jesus Christ is not condemning us. He is urging us not to condemn ourselves. Anger itself is the punishment. As a poet once put it, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean” (Maya Angelou). Of all human experiences, anger may be the most caustic. It is like acid stored inside our hearts, which, little by little, eats away at the core of our humanity. Jesus is the cure.
Do you remember King Saul? God himself anointed Saul. He was the first king to rule over God’s people. Yet, he suffered from fits of sullenness and anger. When David rose in popularity, King Saul harbored jealously which festered into an incorrigible anger. Again and again, David sought to honor Saul, but the anger inside him gnawed at him. Anger cast a shadow on everything around him. It blinded him and eventually destroyed him. Anger works the same way in all of us when we allow it to fester.
C. S. Lewis tells a story of a man who left heaven because of anger. He was a heavy-set fellow confident in himself. As he strutted forward into heaven he stopped dead in his tracks. “I just can’t believe it!” He stormed. To his shock, there in heaven was the man he hated most down on earth. “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.” The man turns around and walks off to hell, because there, at least, he wouldn’t see ‘that type’. This is only fiction, but it gets at something we need to take very seriously.
An unmonitored campfire can quickly turn into a wildfire and burn a whole forest. A little anger, if unchecked, can burn away at everything precious in the soul. Hell is nothing else but the trajectory that we take here and now, in this life, but extended for eternity.
So what can we do? Christ does not leave us with our anger. He points us in the direction of healing.
“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. 5:23-24).
What altar is he referring to? It is the altar of the heart. Before all our good works are worth anything, we must be at peace with our brother. Before one’s righteousness pleases God, one must, “make 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.” Not only can we not enter into eternity tied and fettered by anger, we cannot even live here and now bound by anger. This is an impossible task without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
Why are so many of us not at peace? Jesus, when he rose from the dead, promised peace. Why then do we not always feel that peace? Why, instead, do we feel a distance from God, incurable and unrelenting? Sometimes, it is simply because we have not dealt with the anger inside us. We have justified it, stuffed it down, swept it under the carpet and pretended like life was normal. We should search out that anger and offer it up in prayer. When we do this holy work, when one determines “not to escape his or her own past; to be ready, when the past emerges in memories…to look squarely at any unresolved problem,” then we can begin to enter into the peace God promises. “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Eph. 4:17). When we are ready to look at our anger and turn it over to Christ, He will receive it with outstretched hands.