August 9, 2015
Rev. Dr. Amy Ruth Schacht
Guidelines for Balance
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry, but do not sin: Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up; as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This is a delightful passage to read on the day of Samuel’s baptism, because when I asked Scott and Therese why they wanted Samuel baptized, and baptized here at LPC, they both talked at length about the sense of community they have found here, and how much they wanted Samuel to have a place in the world where he knew he was loved, and that God was with him.
This passage is all about community, and what it takes to live in community, and what gets in the way of community. It reminds us that in real life, we belong to each other, and when we don’t live in community together, it grieves God’s heart. But it is also shockingly honest about all the ways it is so incredibly challenging to live together, and it also addresses what may very well trip us up and gets us into the most trouble: Anger, and what to do with it.
Wonderfully, the author does not say “Do not be angry!” Which is such a relief, because, how of hands – anyone here ever been angry? Right – every single person, probably from the very beginning of life – George and Harriette Jing’s new baby boy, only 3 days old, has probably already felt angry. But nowhere does this passage suggest that it is un-faithful or unchristian to experience anger. Getting angry does not mean you’ve just punched your one-way ticket to h-e-double hockey sticks, as we used to say. Getting angry does not make you a bad person. It is what happens next, because this author knows, anger makes us vulnerable, because it makes us lash out in an effort to protect ourselves, and we end up hurting others. Anyone here ever regretted what they’ve done or said when they’ve been angry?
And what have we been told is the solution? “Don’t go to bed angry,” or “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”
This week a friend of mine was in a really, really rough place – You know, the kind where a whole decade of stressful events pile into one week, and so I took one for the team, and went to see a movie with her – She needed stress relief, she needed the release that comes from laughing so hard you might snort soda, she desperately needed to be in a psychic space that did not include her preschool aged kids throwing tantrums in the sanctuary Sunday morning while she was leading worship and her husband was with his father as he was undergoing emergency surgery and would then be moving back in with her family of three kids for the foreseeable future.
There was this one scene in the movie that perfectly illustrated the problem with the rule, “Don’t go to bed mad.” A couple who had been dating for awhile get into their first real argument, and the boyfriend asks his girlfriend to be completely honest with him – Let’s lay it all out, he says to her. Only, as it so often happens, it is getting later and later at night, and he has a major surgery to perform in the morning, and she goes on and on and on, using 300 words when 10 would do. They want to resolve this fight, their anger and frustration with each other, then and there – They don’t want to go to bed angry; they don’t want the sun to go down on their anger. Not, mind you, that they are following the advice laid out in this Letter to the Ephesians – but because you don’t have to be a Christian to have been told: Don’t go to bed angry. Resolving that anger is more important than getting a good night’s sleep.
It’s a scene brilliantly devised to show us how we get it wrong, we Christians, and I know, because I totally recognized myself in that scene. Because I too used to have this idea that it was bad, unfaithful, immature, irresponsible, to go to bed angry. And I too was under the impression that we must hash everything out, and resolve everything then and there, regardless of time and place.
I wasn’t married for very long before I realized I would never, ever, EVER tell couples coming to me for premarital meetings to make sure they don’t go to bed angry. First of all, because has anyone here tried to fall asleep angry? We don’t need to be told not to do it – Because it’s impossible. Physiologically, it is impossible to be actively angry and relaxed enough to fall asleep. It makes sense – if you are angry, it is because you are feeling threatened, and if you are feeling threatened, you’d better stay vigilant – sleep might very well mean death. So anger – not so conducive to sleep, as I have discovered from first hand experience. A racing heart, sweaty palms, rapid breathing, tense muscles – Good luck with that.
But what to do with all that anger? In spite of what I used to believe, and what I think many, many people believe, talking it out is not the way to stop feeling angry. Logic is absolutely no match for anger. More words will not ease the rage-filled heart. Why? Physiologically, anger gets us ready to fight or run, and so we are literally “blind with rage,” and once our heart beats around 90 to 100 times a minute, we can’t hear very well. When we’re a little blind and a little deaf, the spoken word isn’t very effective.
Not only that - what sorts of things make you angry? And what do all those things have in common, if we dig deep enough? Go back to what is the root of anger – You feel threatened – and until you can figure out how to remember your life is not in danger, your brain will not stop churning out anger.
So what to do? Especially as night begins to fall …. Because the issue isn’t that we get mad, but the question is what do we do next. Obviously, selfishly, it would be a good thing to figure out how to stop being angry so we could fall asleep. But remember, the author here is concerned not with us as individuals, but with us as a community – and how anger, and stealing, and as the list goes on – Bitterness, wrangling, slander, and malice – do to our life together. We can also argue that sleep deprivation does the community no good.
Stopping the anger is a matter of using a different part of the brain to calm the part of the brain that is perpetuating the anger. Which is the second reason I don’t tell people to never go to bed angry. Because unless we’re given some sort of practical advice, there’s no magic “on-off” switch to anger, where it’s like turning the lights off to go to bed.
In theory, stopping that sense of rage – it’s not so hard – We can even teach it to kids, and in fact it is being taught to little children taught all the time – There’s a 3 ½ minute film called “Just breathe helps kids with emotions,” and it features young children describing what makes them angry – When their brother hits them, when someone says they don’t want to play with them. And then, how it feels - when they get mad, they get headaches and their brains start hurting, they get sweaty, their hearts pound, and your body can’t control you, and mad takes over your body. And they punch stuff and people when they don’t really mean it. And they all agree – they really don’t like it when they get angry. But who does?
And so what do they do? They take a deep breath. They find a place where they can be alone – Right there – That is super-hard, but super-important to do. We think if we just find the right argument, the right logic, appeal and defend our case well enough, we’ll convince the other we are right and that will make the anger go away.
But remember, anger shuts down our logic. So we need to step away, just like when we were little and we were sent to time out – And then we need to remember how to calm down, take deep breaths.
Again, we think that if we let our anger go, we’ll never convince someone that we are right. That we’ll never be able to talk about it again. That it has to all get resolved right then and there. But none of that is true. There’s nothing wrong with anger; it’s a sign something is not right. And no one likes to be angry, and it feels so uncomfortable, we want it to stop, but what we usually do just perpetuates it.
We can’t really get to the root of what’s wrong until we’re not angry anymore, and we can think about it. And using logic won’t stop the anger. So next time you find yourself building into a good rage, the priority is to calm down. As soon as you catch your heart beating fast, your breathing quickening, your face getting red. Step away and breathe. Because getting into a battle, a fight, a screaming match, a war of the wills will not stop your anger. Even if you get your own way, even that doesn’t effectively stop the feeling of anger.
According to this author, it is not easy to live in the real world – The real world where, as Christians, we are all part of one another. We guard our tender hearts against hurt by hiding behind anger and bitterness and wrangling, and slander. But in this life, we’re called to be open to one another, vulnerable to getting hurt, tender hearted, forgiving each other. Because yes, we will get angry to cover up our fear and hurt, and that anger can lead us to sin, but it doesn’t have to – Step away. Calm down. Then continue the discussion with our eyes on the prize: Forgiving one another, as we have been forgiven, in Christ.