“Be angry and sin not” says Paul (Eph 4:26), “angry” being a command. What a strange thing for Paul to say. Perhaps it violates our sensibilities about what it means to follow Jesus. Isn’t anger a bad thing? Shouldn’t we just find a way to deal with our anger internally, not letting it out into the daylight where it can make a mess? Why in the world would he command us to “be angry”?
Truthfully, I’m not 100% sure, but I have some guesses. In the verse prior to 4:26, Paul tells us to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one Body.” Then he says, “Be angry.” Is it possible that these commands are connected? I think so.
When I was on staff at a church in Tulsa several years ago, we would put on an annual “lament service” during Lent. This was a service in which we created space where it was okay to do what publicly what the Psalmists seemed to do fairly regularly – giving (sometimes shockingly loud) voice to our sense of injustice before God over the things that have been done to us (or not done for us) by God and others. It was a time to rage. To shake our fists in brutal, gritty honesty at God, giving expression to the pain and frustration in our souls. “Where were you God?” “How could you let THAT happen?” “Why didn’t you come through when we called to you?” “Why aren’t you answering us?” “I trusted you and you let me down…”
You have to appreciate the existential risk that participating in that service posed to the good folks of Tulsa. In a place like Tulsa, a bastion of “faithy” Christianity, where your “confession” is everything, the thought of saying such things for many seemed like a short step from losing your faith altogether.
Which is why we put the service on. To create space where it was safe for people to climb out of the polite fossilization that had occurred in their relationship with God and into the risky dance of honesty… and perhaps also, then, intimacy.
When it was all over, the most frequent comment I would hear from folks was this one: “You know, that was the most painful and difficult and awful thing I have ever done… and I have never felt so close to God as I do right now… the moment I was done venting, I felt waves of his love and acceptance and affirmation wash over me.”
There is a lesson to be learned there for all of our relationships. Too often, in the attempt to avoid making a mess with our emotions – our frustrated, angry, confused, hurt emotions – we bury them deep within ourselves. And in so doing, we bury any chance of intimacy in the relationships. My own conviction is that many marriages, for instance, die not because of too much conflict but from too little. Many families grow cold and stale not because the families were too vigilant in “telling the truth” about what was going on in their hearts, but from not enough of it.
When our hearts are frustrated or angry, it is an important “tell”, for our hearts are constantly trying to tell the truth about what’s going on around us. And when things are out of whack, our hearts SCREAM inside of us to tell us so. To put a bottle on that is to censor the truth. And censoring the truth is the best way to wind up in oppression and slavery – often its the oppression and slavery of having relationships that have become merely “polite.”
God, we learn from Scripture, does not censor his heart. Instead, he wears it on his sleeve. When he sees injustice, he reacts. When his people stray from him, he BURSTS FORTH in the pain of his soul – “What have I done to you O Israel that you have strayed so far from me???” When the world devolves into chaos, his heart grieves. Jesus frequently got angry. He exploded on the Pharisees for their stubborn hearts, he flipped tables in the Temple, he pronounced judgment on Israel for rejecting him.
And we are made in his image. “To fear the Lord” the writer of Proverbs tells us, “is to hate evil” (Pr 8:13). When things are out of whack, we’re supposed to react. It is part of the Divine impress on us.
I think we need to do a better job of wearing our hearts on our sleeves, because to press into radical honesty is to press into intimacy. Seems to me that attempting to play it safe and be nice and maintain the status quo is a sure recipe for becoming emotionally distant, from others, from ourselves, and ultimately from God.
We need to learn to live from our hearts. People need to see our hearts. As a leader, people need to see my heart. And not just my “nice” heart. They need to see my frustrated and angry heart sometimes too, for in doing so (and this is the important point), they’ll also see the things that I love and long for, the things that I care about deeply and am willing to fight for.
Like God. Elie Weisel, the Holocaust survivor, once said “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” God’s anger – his STRONG ANGER – is but a corollary of his great love. It is because he loves the world so much that he hates it when it slides into chaos. It is because he loves the weak so much that he hates when they are oppressed. It is because he loves his people so much that he hates when they stray.
Marriages die… families die… friendships die… churches die…
To press into radical honesty is to press into intimacy. And so Paul tells us to “Put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are members of one Body,” and then “Be angry…” These are profoundly connected.
Let our loves erupt in ruthless honesty Lord God. Help us wear our hearts on our sleeves.