A few weeks ago, Jennifer and I knew the time had come to get new carpeting on the second floor of our home. We’ve lived in the same house for over 30 years and it had been a long time since we’d recarpeted the four bedrooms on the 2nd floor. So, we called a highly recommended carpet salesperson and worked out everything for getting this done. But the last thing the sales lady said before she left was that I would need to move everything off the floor on the entire 2nd floor, everything except the dressers… the installers would move those around. Now, as I said earlier, we’ve lived in this house for over 30 years and it wasn’t the dressers I was worried about moving… it was emptying the closets. Our house has good-sized closets and they were stuffed… I mean stuffed… full of, well, all the things that end up in closets over 30 years. To be honest, I panicked for a few minutes when I first looked into our closets, then I caught my breath and started moving everything that had any relationship to the floor down into our basement. Fortunately, I had a week to get it all moved and I just stayed at it… but, it was a huge amount of stuff: toys for when grandchildren visit… holiday decorations… wrapping paper for any and all kinds of celebrations… boxes of pictures and video tapes… bedding and memorabilia and well, all the you-name-it sorts of things that can end up in a closet. My plan was to get everything down into our basement and then we could sort through it all down there before we put anything back upstairs… and by doing this we could, to use our series title, really ‘tidy things up.’ But here is what I didn’t expect, and it too is related to the bigger idea of our new series, the tidying up of our lives as followers of Jesus. As we were starting to go through things we found, as I said, boxes of older photographs, and in some boxes labeled 1995-98 and 1999-2003, were pictures of people who at that time were very close to us. Pictures of people we’d vacationed with, people we had shared the deepest aspects of our lives with, people who had said they’d stand with us into eternity, but they were people who’d abandoned us for various reasons: church decisions, theological and political differences, assumptions about us and accusations against us that had no basis in reality; people, who for the most part had simply dumped us without saying anything at all to us… but people who had said plenty of terrible, hurtful things to others about us… lots of others. And as I looked at those faces from over 20 years ago the anger just exploded… apparently the scars over the wounds from those times were very thin and it only took a few old photos to fill me with an anger that I’m ashamed to admit still resided in a the closets of my soul. I am a fairly, level-headed person. I have a reputation for being steady in difficult and even tragic moments. I also know that as a pastor a continual, low-grade fever of sadness is an expectation and that it is impossible not to walk with some degree of an emotional limp due to the way that pastors can be treated by some. Still, this anger surprised me, and it really altered the way I approached today’s sermon. You see, I knew weeks before we ordered new carpeting that I was going to be speaking about tidying up and tossing out the anger in our lives. I’d already thought a good deal about what scripture references to use… what to say and how to say it and then BOOM… I had a clenched fist that wouldn’t loosen up.
Human anger comes in all sorts of packages. Some people have quick, unexpected rage that blows up and then just as quickly subsides… the kind of anger that shocks others; anger that is often over nothing particularly important. It’s fiery and keeps others in a constant state of fear, but it can pass away quickly with little explanation and almost never with an apology. You might know someone like this… or you might be someone like this. Then there are others who live in a continual state of smoldering anger. They are filled with resentment towards any number of people or circumstances and they assume that the world is conspiring against them. People with this kind of simmering rage will say things and act out in ways that show they are always angry about something. A person with this kind of anger is usually not the life of the party. There are also people, I guess like me, who stuff their resentment deep down inside somewhere and live, for the most part, like they are above being angry… but then something triggers things and the anger surfaces with an unexpected ferocity… and when it does, look out!
I could go on and on defining the ways we can get angry, but the focus today isn’t on how anger shows itself, it’s on the fact, the fact that if we are going to be tidying up our souls, if we are cleaning out the closets of our lives so we can best live for Jesus, we need to work at throwing out our anger. And this need to tidy up our anger is something the Bible talks about over and over… the downsides of anger are everywhere in scripture: in the stories of the Old Testament, in the Proverbs, in the teachings of Jesus. And possibly the most powerful statement on the need to toss out our anger is found in James 1:19-27. Let’s all turn to this passage and see what James has to say about clearing away our anger. Hello Online Folks! But, before we read these verses, here is a bit of background on the Book of James. Almost all scholars now believe that the writer of this letter was James the brother of Jesus. Whether he was Jesus’ older brother born to a wife of Joseph who’d died earlier or if this James was Jesus’ younger brother, born to Mary after Jesus was born, is open to debate. But what isn’t debated is that Jesus’ brothers, including James, didn’t initially follow Jesus. In fact, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us in their Gospels that Jesus’ brothers tried to get him to stop his preaching thing and come home with them to Nazareth. But what seems to have happened is that once Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead James had a deep conversion experience; he followed Jesus as his lord and eventually even became the leader of the church in Jerusalem… and this letter is a letter of encouragement to his fellow Jewish Christian brothers and sisters during a time of great persecution… persecution so terrible that many of these Jewish Christians had been forced to flee Jerusalem for their lives… and James knew these now-scattered Christians needed to be encouraged to hold on to their faith! And while we know that James wasn’t initially taken by Jesus’ teaching, it is interesting that this letter actually reads a lot like a Jesus sermon! It goes quickly from idea to idea, just like Jesus’ teaching; it uses lots of images to make its points, just like Jesus’ teaching; and in verse 19 of Chapter One James gets incredibly direct, just like Jesus would often do when he was teaching. And look at what James says in verse 19. Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. It isn’t difficult to understand what James is saying in this verse. Some scholars even believe verse 19 includes a well-known proverb… something like ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’… something everyone just knew. It even sounds like a well-known saying in the Greek: Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Then James goes on and says, ‘Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.’ Now, just the mention of human anger speaks to something that was very common in Jewish thinking at the time. In Jewish thinking there were two kinds of anger: human anger and God’s anger. Human anger, it was believed, and I think they were right, grew out of selfish emotions and would rise up in people because of resentment. God’s anger, on the other hand had to do with God’s disgust that he was having to deal with the same thing in someone over and over and over. God’s anger was the anger of a judge who was having to deal with someone that had already been in their court many times for the same thing. There was a real difference in Jewish thinking between people getting angry and God getting angry. Human anger was wrong because it came from deep, selfish brokenness, and God’s anger was absolutely justified because it was always seeking to bring justice to something that was truly wrong. The literal Greek of this verse is this: For the anger of mankind does not work the righteousness of God. And this is James’ biggest point in this passage: Human anger, in any form, does not bring about, as James says, the ‘righteousness of God.’ And now we have stop and dig a bit because James uses a possessive here when he says, “Man’s anger does not lead to ‘the righteousness of God.’” And anytime you run into this kind of possessive statement you have to do some thinking: Here is what I mean: when James says ‘Our anger does not lead to the righteousness of God,’ does he mean that our anger doesn’t lead to righteousness that God gives to people… in other words, righteousness from God? Or does he mean our anger doesn’t lead to righteousness that is like God’s righteousness? In other words, our human anger and God’s anger aren’t in anyway the same? Or does he mean our anger can’t lead to the kind of righteousness that God wants to see in the world… that would mean that our human anger can’t be used to bring about righteousness for God? I know this can be a bit confusing and scholars do go round and round about whether James meant to say that human anger can’t ever be something from God, or like God or used for God? Here is what I say: I think all of this is true! Our anger, anger that grows out of purely selfish, human sources can never be something from God, it can never be like God and it can never be used for God. And so, what James is saying here is that there is nothing righteous in any way about human anger, ever!
But this begs the question, ‘What does the righteousness of God look like?’ Well, James answers that question in verses 26-27. Let’s look at what he says. If you claim to be religious and the Greek that gives us ‘religious’ (here means something like ‘consistently doing what your faith calls you to do’ in other words, James is saying, ‘if you claim to be someone who does what your faith calls you to do’ but don’t control your tongue… (which, by the way is shown throughout scripture to be the primary tool of human anger… everyone knows that our tongues will say unimaginable things in the midst of anger…) you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion (or doing what your faith calls you to do) in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. James says the genuine way to live out of our faith in Jesus… the way to do what God says does lead to His righteousness, starts with caring for, what in James’ world were the most helpless of all people: widows and orphans! And so, it only makes sense to say that we, too, genuinely show that we are serious about our faith when we care for the most helpless in our world. And so to go back to the primary image of our tidying up series, it follows that when we clean the anger out of our soul’s closets and we throw it in the trash, when we reject the world’s system of thinking only about ourselves, we open up room in our soul’s closets for putting something back in, in anger’s place that is pure and genuine in the sight of God: care for others who need our help. In this way, we become people who live in ways that do lead to the righteousness of God.
So, since we know that we should be throwing out our anger, how do we do it? And I want to begin by saying that I am a pastor; I am not an anger management counselor… but I have some thoughts. First, if there is anger in our lives, we need to admit it’s there. This can be a very hard thing to do, but if it’s there, this is a necessary admission. And once we’ve admitted it, then we need to deal with it! There are no, ‘It’s just the way I am’ excuses when it comes to anger. Anger, the kind we are talking about, the kind that keeps us from living the way God wants us to live, is never excusable. And can I say right off as an aside, if you are one of those people that explodes and scares people unexpectedly or worse, if you do violent things in your anger, let us help you get to someone who can help with managing this kind of anger. This kind of anger works against everything God wants for you, for those in your life and for His world. If this is you, please let us help you get help.
But after admitting anger is there, one way to start working on cleaning it out is to work on listening. The Greek here in James is telling. James says to be quick, as in swift, like really fast, to listen. Then he says be slow, as in hesitant, careful and cautious, before we speak. Again, James isn’t saying anything new related to listening being more important than speaking; it is common wisdom that is found in almost all cultures and yet the importance of listening over speaking seems to be something people need to be reminded of constantly. One of the best parts of being people and not animals is that we can choose to do this or that. We are not controlled by instinctual forces that cause us to do certain things. And, believe it or not, we can choose to listen and keep our mouths shut. We don’t have to say the things we say in anger, nor do we have to say the things that push others into anger. Listening and being cautious about what we say can help us better understand the circumstances, listening and being cautious about what we say can keep us from flying off the handle and they can stop us from taking everything personally: Again, Being swift to listen plus being slow to speak equals being slow to get angry.
Third, we need to focus on what it truly looks like to live in the righteousness of God. This is turning from focusing on ourselves and focusing on those in real need. I can promise you that focusing on what God calls ‘righteousness’ (and, by the way, this word can also be translated as justice) leads us to purpose and it gives us a mission… if you want to know about this just ask some of our care center volunteers about what happened to them when they started focusing on people in real need. Here’s the thing, when we allow human anger to rule over our lives it leads us into a muddled, confused, self-serving lifestyle, a lifestyle James calls ‘worthless’ religion… So, if we want to live a life that does produce the righteousness that God desires, the justice he wants in his world, then we need to do all we can to toss our anger into the trash and focus on others. And so…
Here is what I’ve realized as I’ve thought about my responses to seeing pictures from 1997. My anger does nothing to change anything from the past, but it does change things for those around me now. It certainly can make life unpleasant for my family, plus, it makes me tentative in my relationships with you… this is because my resentment over the past makes me untrusting in the present. It also colors the way I think about the past… the truth is my past is filled with so much good and so much blessing, but my anger pushes my focuses onto those few people and those few moments when I felt unjustly maligned. What I realized was that I needed to do some straight up thinking about what I was resentful about and who I am resentful towards… I needed to write it down, share it with someone I trust and then put it in the trash. I can tell you that that naming it, tossing it out and not giving it an opportunity to resettle in my soul has done wonders. I’ve also thrown away the triggers. They are in the trash can… I’ve let go of the need to justify myself from those times… that’s in the trash can, too… And after today I stop speaking about those times and start listening only to the voices that are speaking the truth about the goodness that is happening in my life today… and all of this helps me focus on what is really important. Here is what I’ve decided: If I am going to get ‘angry’ in the future, I only want it to be over something that God would say is joining him in his desire to bring justice and mercy to those who are in real need of justice and mercy. James was right on the money when he said, ‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So, get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves… If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. So, let’s listen to James… let’s dig into the task of throwing that anger into the trash bin… and let’s begin restocking the closets of our souls with the pure and genuine righteousness of God.
1. Is anger an issue in your life? If so, what sort of anger are you carrying in your heart?
2. Are you carrying resentments from the past? If so, who are you resentful against or what past circumstances are still making you resentful?
3. Who in your life is someone you trust to walk with you as you work to rid your soul of anger? Are you ready to allow them to help you clean the anger out of your life?