Christian Anger Management

Anger itself is not sinful. The sin is in getting angry over the wrong things and in the wrong way. Photo: Vladimir Koletic
Published March 13, 2012

One of the funniest movies in recent years is Anger Management with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. Sandler plays a businessman who is wrongly sentenced to an anger management program after an incident aboard an airplane. Nicholson plays the anger management instructor who has some very unorthodox treatment techniques-techniques that make mild-mannered Sandler get increasingly angry.

Many of us come from cultural backgrounds where it is considered inappropriate to show emotion-especially anger. Anglicans, in particular, seem to cultivate a demeanor of maintaining a stiff upper lip. There are things we may not like, but we grin and bear it and keep it to ourselves. We are careful not to show our anger, because that’s bad form.

So what are we to make of Jesus when he drives out the money changers from the temple? In John’s gospel, verse 2, chapters 13 to 25, we see Jesus literally throwing people out of the temple, driving out sheep and cattle, scattering coins and overturning tables. He even uses a weapon-a whip cord. He screams at people selling doves: “Take these…out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place!”

This incident is recorded in all four gospels, which is a good indication that it actually happened. Most scholars believe this action by Jesus sealed his arrest and execution by the authorities. After all, the temple was the most sacred shrine in Judaism, and no one-not even Jesus-could expect to get away with disrupting business.

What caused Jesus to get so angry? The system of sacrifices central to temple worship had been turned into a capitalistic scandal. Everyone in the Roman Empire used Roman coins for day to day business, but those coins-with the picture of Caesar on them-were not acceptable for the temple treasury. So Roman money needed to be exchanged for temple script. The concept was benign, but the actual practice was corrupt. The rate of exchange was rigged. The people were being exploited, ripped off.

But there is another reason Jesus must have been angry. This commercial hubbub-the selling of animals for sacrifices and the exchange of coins was being conducted in the Court of the Gentiles. This section of the temple was where foreigners, non-Jews, could pray and worship God. Instead, however, it was being used for business and commerce.

So ethically, morally and spiritually, the temple system was rotten. God’s name was being abused. No wonder an outraged Jesus acted so dramatically, so decisively to cleanse the temple from corruption. This was no sugar-coated Jesus, sweet and mild, cuddling babies and petting lost lambs. This was an impassioned Jesus-an indignant Jesus-with a razor-sharp tongue, his heart racing and his spirit on fire.

It’s obvious that Jesus could get angry. So is anger always a sin? Obviously not! The Bible says that Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15), yet he expressed anger. So anger must not be, in itself, a sin.

Someone once compared anger to nitroglycerine. Nitroglycerine is an unstable liquid that, in paste form, is explosive. Nitroglycerine in very small amounts, however, is what heart patients are given to keep their hearts beating.

Anger itself is not sinful. The sin is in getting angry over the wrong things and in the wrong way. We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic. We get angry when someone takes credit for something we have done at work. We get angry when we are tired and cranky. You and I get angry over all kinds of things-some of them exceedingly silly.

Jesus’ anger was different. He got angry when he saw people exploiting religion. His mission was to seek and save the lost. He had a heart for people, especially the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalized. It is no wonder he felt outrage when he saw some religious leaders using the trappings of religion to take advantage of people.

We can all think of people who have exploited religion for self-serving purposes-religious hucksters and notorious TV evangelists come to mind. Politicians in various countries around the world sometimes use religion for political gain-think of politicians in the United States, for example, or leaders of some Islamic nations.

I suspect Jesus gets very angry when religion is used for political purposes to focus people away from the real social issues of the day and instead is used to direct anger against others. Yes, religion has been and continues to be used to persecute minorities, foster rage and hatred, justify discrimination and stir up an irrational nationalism against other peoples.

And yet, I don’t think that we Anglicans are exonerated. We may not exploit people for our own gain, or justify violence or persecution against visible minorities, but we do have a tendency to put form over substance. Jesus taught that at the centre of the religious life are two commandments-love God, love your neighbour-but the religious authorities at the time were obscuring these two commandments with a host of petty, peripheral demands-obscure laws, pointless rituals, elaborate ceremonials and countless rules and regulations that stifled the human spirit, ignored human need and thwarted compassionate outreach.

The religious leaders cared about the religious institution, but Jesus cared about people. At the heart of everything Jesus did was his love for people. Law wasn’t as important to him as people, so he healed on the Sabbath day. Tradition wasn’t as important to him as people, so he touched the untouchable lepers and cured the woman hemorrhaging blood. Even religion wasn’t as important to him as people, which is why he made such a disturbance in the temple.

Jesus did not come to die for the law or for tradition or even for religion. Jesus came and died for people-not just Anglicans, not just Christians but all people-even the ones who may not meet our moral standards. They might not look like us or act like us or speak like us or even live like us. But Jesus loves them as much as he loves us. After all, Jesus did not come into the world to condemn people but to save them.

Tom Troeger, a former Presbyterian seminary professor who is now an Episcopal priest in the United States, tells about a childhood game he played in grade school. Half the children would form a circle and hold hands, facing outward. The rest of the children would be outside the circle. The ones holding hands would chant, “You’re out! You’re out! You can’t come in!” Once they had chanted this twice, the children on the outside would rush as hard as they could to break into the circle. They were limited to one try. Those in the circle could only hold each other’s hands; they couldn’t lock arms.

You and I know about that game. We have seen it on a child’s level and on an adult level-and sometimes, heaven help us, it has been played in the name of Jesus. “You’re out! You’re out! You can’t come in!”

At the time of the apostles, Gentiles had to push to get into the church when only Jews were allowed. For over nineteen hundred years, women struggled to obtain leadership positions in the church when the men in charge said no. Gays and lesbians are now pushing the door open, when others are still trying to close the door shut. And so it goes…whether it’s open communion or open baptism, there are Christians who want to open the doors and others who want to shut the doors. These seem to be the two religious groups in the church today-those who want a church of open doors, open minds and open hearts, and those who don’t.

One of the finest priests I have known is Fr. George Regas, who for many years was rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. Fr. Regas coined the phrase we use in our church bulletin: “Whoever you are and wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome.” In his stodgy, stuffy church, Fr. Regas was not afraid to make things messy. He took a formal, proper church of upper crust Episcopalians and opened it up to the community. People could ask questions, express their doubts and share their wounds, and not feel threatened or judged. They could admit being broken, making mistakes and feeling hurt, yet still know they were loved, accepted and forgiven.

I remember one man with AIDS saying about All Saints: “When I came to this church, I had trouble praying, but that was OK because the people here were praying for me. And I discovered that’s what the body of Christ is all about.”

Yes, that’s what the church of Jesus is all about. Some churches are known for the people they keep out. My guess is that makes Jesus very angry.

The good news is that Jesus cares about all people, you and me included, even when we make mistakes, act foolish and do dumb things.

“God so loved the world…” This is the heart of the gospel. And that is the faith I invite you to make your own. Not legalistic faith that fills people with guilt and forgets to flood them with grace. Not moralistic faith that divides people into acceptable and unacceptable and forgets to remind us that we are sinners saved by grace.

I invite you to place your faith in Jesus, whose goal for us is to help us grow in love for one another and for God-a faith that tells us that we really matter, not because there is anything remarkable about us, but because there is something remarkable about God.

“God so loved the world”-the whole world and everyone included. Accept nothing less.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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