“Substitute Grief for Anger”
July 29, 2018
Grief for others is way better than anger at them.
I. The problems with anger (James 1:19-20, Ephesians 4:31, Matthew 5:21-22)
II. Jesus chose grief over anger (Luke 19:41-44, Mark 23:37)
III. Steps: choosing to be sad, not mad.
The past few years I’ve crossed paths with To Kill a Mockingbird several times. I hadn’t read it since high school but then we listened to it on audio on a family trip, and we were all engrossed in it. The main character, of course, is Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the award-winning film. Atticus is one of my literary heroes, a man of quiet, principled integrity who treats all people fairly, cares for those in need and sympathizes with the weak. As I skimmed the book to prepare for this message I lost hours re-reading the key scenes.
I was looking for a specific kind of integrity, in which Atticus was confronted with anger and could have responded in anger, but chose not to. The first one I saw was Mrs. Dubose. The narrator is Atticus’s six-year-old daughter, Scout. Her older brother is Jem. “Countless evenings Atticus would find Jem furious at something Mrs. Dubose had said when we went by. “Easy does it, son,” Atticus would say. “She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.” Jem would say she must not be very sick, she hollered so. When the three of us came to her house, Atticus would sweep off his hat, wave gallantly to her and say, “Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening.” He would tell her the courthouse news, and would say he hoped with all his heart she’d have a good day tomorrow. He would swing me to his shoulders in her very presence, and we would go home in the twilight. It was times like these when I thought my father was the bravest man who ever lived.
The key storyline in the book is Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of assaulting a white woman. Not long after Atticus agrees to defend Tom, Mrs. Dubose accosts Jem and Scout from her porch one day and tells them their father is an “N” lover. This infuriates them and a few days later Jem retaliates by destroying Mrs. DuBose’s camellias. Atticus arrives home that night with a handful of wilted camellia blossoms. He has stopped and talked to Mrs. Dubose. But instead of anger at her, or at Jem, he responds with compassion. He sends Jem down to talk to Mrs. Dubose and receive his punishment, which will include reading to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon. It would be a spoiler to tell why this must be so, but the point is Atticus Finch responded to anger not with anger in return, but with sadness over the sin and compassion toward the angry. That’s what we want to explore this morning.
I’ve looked forward to this message because the approach I’m going to be talking about today has the potential to be life changing. It’s something I’ve thought about for just a couple of years, but haven’t really talked about from the pulpit.
If you’re here today and you ever struggle with anger or bitterness, I would like to suggest that you substitute grief for anger. I believe that grief for others is way better than anger at them. Jesus models this and indirectly teaches it, but before we get to his example, let’s discuss the problem of anger. Some people are pretty comfortable with anger in their lives. Some don’t seem to take anger seriously, but allow it a place and even a purpose. “I don’t get any response if I don’t get mad,” and so forth. I would contend that anger is almost always a sin. Even frustration, which is a word we use to soften anger, is usually a sin. Bitterness is a sin. Hard-heartedness toward people, or toward God is a sin.
Do you think I’m going a little overboard with this? Let’s look at some verses. James 1:19-20 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James has described the process by which temptation leads to sin. In order to avoid that, he now says, each of us should be quick to listen. He’ll go on to say we should listen to or receive the Word of God and “be doers of the word, not hearers only.” But we should also be quick to listen in relationships, the very place where most of us experience sinful anger.
So first, be quick to listen, second be slow to speak. In relationships, these go hand in hand. We listen to people first, actively, to really hear what they’re saying. And we try not to respond, to speak, until we have really heard. The phrase I always think of is that God gave us two ears and one mouth so we would listen twice as much as we speak. This is especially true when the circumstances are the kind that might irritate, frustrate or anger you. We tend to look at the surface or apparent behavior of people, jump to a conclusion about what should be done or should have been done, and then blurt that out before we really know what is going on. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
But especially we need to be slow to get angry. Does this mean that we can get angry, we just shouldn’t get angry right away? I don’t think so. But you’ll say “Bob, what about righteous anger? Didn’t Jesus get angry?” Yeah, he did, and it was righteous. He never sinned. There is righteous anger. My problem is that what I find in myself and what I often see in others is not simple pure indignation over injustice and sin, but a different thing that at its best mixes righteous indignation with selfish harmful anger. My anger isn’t because I’ve been sinned against but because I’ve been inconvenienced or embarrassed or taken offense where offense was not meant. Even when I am responding to sinful behavior my anger includes this self-centered stuff and my response to the other person is often more harmful than helpful. James calls this man’s anger. Look at verse 20: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Man’s anger does no good. Man’s anger accomplishes nothing.
This is why it seems wrong to defend anger by saying it’s the only way to accomplish what you’re trying to achieve. “My kids won’t listen until I get mad.” “The only time I get any response from this crew is when I’m angry.” “He needed to know how serious this is.” Can you really defend those statements when James says “man's anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.” I think we need to lose this cultural conviction, promoted and reinforced by all kinds of media, that anger is justified because it somehow works.
James says in chapter 3 that “the tongue,” which is the key instrument of anger, “is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” Proverbs agrees. Proverbs 29:22 “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.” Proverbs 19:11 “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Proverbs 15:18 “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” Man’s anger does not achieve the righteousness of God.
But someone will say to me what about Ephesians 4:26? It says “be angry and do not sin.” Right and do not sin. If you can be angry without sinning, righteous anger, that’s ok. But even there Paul says “don’t let the day end while you’re still angry.” And five verses later he says “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” All, all, all. If you struggle with these things you have a sin problem. If other people tell you you’re an angry person, even if you deny it, you may have a problem, you may even be near or in the zone we call ‘abusive.’
I don’t want to belabor the point but it would be wrong of me not to quote Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount he takes a series of commands and turns them from external commands to heart commands. He amplifies and elevates heart issues to put them on the same level as Old Testament commands. We’re all familiar with this in the case of lust. Jesus says if you lust after a person in your heart, it’s like you’ve committed adultery with that person. We accept that. We take it seriously. We should. Lust is dehumanizing and destructive to relationships.
But what of anger? Jesus elevates anger, a heart issue, to be like murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” That’s serious. Angry people go to hell.
Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about substituting grief for anger. This isn’t the only way to deal with anger, but I find it powerful.
I see it in Jesus. As he approaches Jerusalem in the Triumphal entry, before his sacrifice and resurrection. Luke says that when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43For the days will come on you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. They will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’”
He’s going in to die. Jerusalem is rejecting him. The people he came to save are rejecting him. Their leaders will arrest him, accuse him, subject him to a mock trial, spit on him, strike him, and condemn him. They will turn him over to the cruel Romans who will sentence him, flog him, mock him, and crucify him. Does Jesus have every right to be angry? Yes. To lash out, to judge? Yes. Is he angry? No. He weeps. He weeps over the city, its sin and where that sin will lead it. Instead of anger he had grief. Instead of anger he had compassion for the ones who were angry at him, saw them as victims of their own sin.
Midway through the week, Jesus expresses that compassion again. Matthew 23:37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Do you hear the compassion? “I feel and fear for you, Jerusalem. It’s only your hardness of heart that refuses my care.” This is powerful. In the face of sin, even sin directed against us, a way to avoid the sin of anger is by compassion and grief and mourning, for the sin and for what it is doing to the sinner.
Anger is not an inevitable reaction. Like any sin, there is a brief period of time, a thin line between the temptation to anger and the flaring up of anger. I know from personal experience and talking with others that it can feel impossible to stop that flare up. It seems instantaneous. Yet God says he will give a way of escape. Do you remember that? 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Substituting grief for anger is one way of escape. Let me give you six steps, ideas to help you use this approach. Step 0 is to prepare. I’ve often said sin makes you stupid. It’s really temptation that wants to make you too slow and blind to avoid the sin. But we can prepare. We can pray the Lord’s prayer “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” We can say as David does “keep me from willful sins.” Keep me from blindly falling into old traps.
We can prepare wedges. There is a thin moment between temptation and sin. You need something, a wedge to drive in there to hold that moment open. In the case of anger there are some time-tested wedges: counting to ten, taking a deep breath, turning away, anything to give a fraction of a second, a moment of sanity and awareness. So prepare those. When the anger begins to rise how can I program in a pause, a momentary pull back that gives me time to escape?
Step 1 then, after you’ve prepared is to use the wedge or wedges. Take that deep cleansing breath and slowly exhale. Turn away. Count to ten. And then, step 2, use that instant to cry out to God. It’s useless to try to do this in your own power. You’ll count to ten and you’ll turn back in anger. Maybe a colder anger than it would have been, but still anger. The prayer that fits in that moment of awareness is “Oh Lord, help.” God doesn’t need a complete description. He knows what’s going on. He hears you. He knows how to help. And He will.
Step 3, before you’re really ready, pray the exchange. Deep cleansing breath. “Oh Lord, let me be sad rather than mad. Let me grieve this situation instead of exploding in anger. I give my anger to you and I put on mourning.” I don’t want to get mystical on you, but for me there are certain images that go along with this. There is a conscious picturing of tears, of water, of the Holy Spirit pouring out something to quench the flames of anger. There is a conscious sense of emptiness, almost a cultivation of it, right here, that place the anger would have occupied becoming a desperation and a need in the pit of my soul.
Those are the immediate steps. When the fuel is about to ignite, when the tachometer is approaching the red line, put in the wedge. Turn from the fuel.Take your foot off the pedal. Cry for help. And make the exchange: sad rather than mad.
The last three steps are longer term. Step 4 is examining the anger. We’ve talked about this a little. When I look at myself, a lot of the common, everyday anger comes from inconvenience. Some person or some circumstance has changed my plan or disturbed my comfort. This is real anger and needs to be dealt with, but the sadness is mostly at myself, for continuing to have a self-centered life.
A deeper anger, still mostly selfish, comes when I think I’m being accused, attacked or criticized. Anger wants to say “This is not my fault.” Sadness needs to say “where have I been wrong or hurtful in this situation?” while at the same time saying “am I really being accused or just taking it that way?” and “what brokenness or need in this person’s life might provoke them to this?” If an animal with its foot caught in a fence snaps at you when you try to help, you don’t get angry at the animal: you look for another way to help.
A different anger comes when we are hurt or embarrassed by the sins of others. At time this is two other people hurting each other, so we’re angry on behalf of someone else. Our anger has a righteous component, but is often gasoline on a fire. The injured party doesn’t appreciate your anger and the perpetrator is hardened by it. If we approach both sides with sadness over the sin, it’s possible to get a better hearing. So the prayer is “Oh, Lord, why am I tempted to anger?” Knowing why we’re angry helps us know what to grieve.
The next step is to cultivate compassion. This means seeing the other person’s sin, or the situation you’re in as revealing the brokenness of a fallen world. If I’m angry over sickness or circumstance, it’s the sickness and circumstance of a broken world. And when I see a person’s sin I’m seeing their brokenness lived out. They’re still responsible for their sin, but it’s sad that they’ve made those choices. They don’t need my anger and won’t benefit from it.
One of the key lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird is to put ourselves in another’s shoes and learn compassion for their brokenness and circumstances. Early on there’s an incident at Scout’s school. Her new teacher can’t understand why Walter Cunningham won’t accept charity, why Burris Ewell only has to attend one day a year, or why Scout already knows how to read. Scout is angry at the teacher, but Atticus says that if she’d put herself in the teacher’s shoes she’d see how someone new to town and to teaching couldn’t know these things. Later, when Scout’s innocent questions defuse a lynch-mob situation in front of the jail, Atticus says it’s because she allowed the leader of the mob to stand in her shoes, to see things through an innocent child’s eyes - and be ashamed.
So we need to cultivate compassion. And it’s not a compassion that prefers sinners to victims, it’s a compassion that sees the sinner as broken while not wanting him or her to remain in their sin. Some people hurt us. Some people hurt those around us. Some people repent but still have to suffer the consequences. Some people never repent, or repent with excuses. Compassion looks different in each cases, but it’s still compassion. This is what Jesus showed to sinners, without approving their sin. The woman caught in adultery is a great case study in how Jesus educated the Pharisees on a compassionate response to sin.
Finally, the last step is to sustain grief by dependence. Some anger doesn’t need this step. You deal with it, you’re over whatever inside you or outside you tempted you, and it’s over. But there are many times when your ongoing temptation or the ongoing brokenness and sinful patterns of other people and of the world mean that an extended grieving of sin, an extended crying out to God is needed. You continue to feel sad. You continue to feel the emptiness inside, the ashes of a fire successfully quenched by tears and by the Holy Spirit.
One of the ways I sustain grief and sustain the prayers that characterize grief is by fasting. I’m not the kind of person who says everyone has to fast, but for me fasting supports prayer and keeps it real. The hunger reminds me of the need, and feels like sadness. The point isn’t the fasting, which I also do for weight control at times. The point is the prayer that continues to cry out to God for intervention, for rescue, for healing, for sanctification and for peace.
There is a danger, however, with this whole practice of substituting grief for anger, and especially with this sustaining step. The danger is depression, sinking into an ongoing sadness that is no longer connected to the situation or to prayer. Long term anger is dangerous. It leads to vengeance or bitterness. But long term sadness can lead to despair and depression. The right long term response is dependence on God. In anger we depend on ourselves, in depression we despair of ourselves, but in dependence we allow God to sustain our souls and our lives even in a fallen world, even when others hurt us, even when we fail.
I said at the beginning, “You can’t do this without God.” I’ll say it again “You can’t do this without God.” In human strength you can’t address your sinful anger. In human strength you can’t control the impact of grief. But in God you can. So we started with step 0, but the step before step 0 is to come into a rescuing relationship with God through Jesus Christ and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who strengthens and sustains and comforts you in a fallen world. Jesus has already shown the ultimate compassion for our sins in his death on the cross. He’s paid the price of sin and death and risen victorious. As we put our faith in him we receive forgiveness and new life. We receive the Holy Spirit. Only then can we depend on God for the strength to live in a fallen world, and trust God to deal with the sin and circumstances that tempt us to anger. Only then can we can substitute grief for anger and mourn in his strength.
So the pre-step is to come to faith in Christ. You need to do that before you attempt the rest. The zero step is to pray for awareness of the temptations to anger and to seek wedges to provide a space before the sin seizes you. Step 1. Use the wedge to open the gap. Step 2. Cry out to God. Step 3, Pray the exchange, ask God to help you substitute grief for anger. Long term steps? Examine the anger, cultivate compassion and sustain the grief through dependence.
This practice of substituting grief for anger, sadness for madness, is something that can be extremely valuable. I’ve seen it to be so. And I have seen others try this, and find it valuable. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve only been thinking this way for a few years at most, so all of the stories where I’ve grieved this way are still works in progress and I don’t have liberty to tell them. I’d either embarrass somebody, hurt somebody or shame somebody.
So let me close with one more story from To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of the book one of those trying to frame and condemn Tom Robinson has a deep grudge against Atticus for defending the black man. So this man, Bob Ewell approached Atticus in the middle of town, cursed him, spit on him, threatened to kill him. But Atticus just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face. Ewell taunted him “Too proud to fight, you N-lover?” Atticus put his hands in his pockets, said “No, too old,” and walked away.
Later Atticus explained his behavior, an explanation which sounds to me a lot like substituting grief and compassion for anger. “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?”
I understand. Just as Jesus wept over the city that was about to condemn him, so we can weep and grieve over sin. Anger does not achieve the righteousness of God. But grief imitates Jesus, and leads us into compassion, dependence on God, and peace. As the psalmist says, weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning. And that’s next week’s topic.