One of the most difficult parts of being a Pastor is not always knowing what to say, it’s that having said something you carry an extra special burden to live it. There’s a haunting scriptural reference you might be familiar with from James 3:1&2…
Not many of you should presume to be teachers,
my brothers and sisters, because you know
that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
We all stumble in many ways.
Thanks for that, James. I like you more when you’re making other people feel uncomfortable.
I was very recently asked to speak with a friend’s child about some naughty behavior at home. The child was acting out when disciplined and escalating the bad choices already made instead of learning from the discipline and doing better. I agreed to speak with the child and had I think we had a good conversation. We’ll see if the behavior changes, but here’s the gist of what I said…
First, you’re awesome, and that’s a fact, and it’s why such bad behavior is surprising.
I love this child I was speaking with, and I’ve been blessed to be part of the child’s extended family. Any time we have to stop and evaluate our behavior, it’s not a time lose faith in either God or ourselves. We act for the better out of an understanding and appreciation of how valuable we are to God and others. I think this is the difference between contrition and depression, between feeling bad and feeling worthless, and between healthy sorrow and unhealthy self-loathing. There’s no room for “you are bad” even when we’re talking about “your behavior was bad.”
Too often I extend graces to others that I deny myself. You ever do that? I can keep a growing list of how good others are, while my personal tally is mostly on the negative side. I can let my own failings drag behind me clamoring like tin cans on strings and reminding me with every step that I have failed. I need to learn to cut those strings, look carefully that those failings, and dream my way forward without them. This isn’t going to make the failings magically not matter any more, but I need to deal with my faults instead of letting them deal with me. I started the conversation with how loved and how good my little friend has been, is, and will be. But, what about the choices we make?
Second, it’s ok to be mad, but not to listen to the mad.
Here’s another reminder from scripture, this time from Paul in Ephesians 4:26&27…
“In your anger do not sin”
Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,
and do not give the devil a foothold.
Anger is a inner voice, and it’s not often a very wise voice of counsel. Somewhere along the way we have to learn to stop listening to the mad, and the sooner the better. Yes, it’s not as easily said as done. That’s why self-control is such a difficult thing to master… not because of the control part, but the self part. Things happen, things are said, and mad happens. There’s not always a lot of choice there, but what we do next is a choice. Instead of listening to the mad, we can stop and listen to another voice… I recommend the love.
Love will tell me to do something totally different than the mad. It doesn’t matter if the mad is directed at me myself or someone else, love for myself or another will always give me better counsel. Even a child, including the one I was having a conversation with, knows the difference between acting on how mad I am versus acting on how much I love. When I am mad, I have to stop making choices until I can let the love speak. It takes time, effort, practice, and above all choice. James says it famously in his first chapter, James 1:19&20…
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,
because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
Oh, James. The mad is so much more fun! The mad can give me a sense of power! The mad can make me feel less like I need to change anything and put all the burden of change and recompense on the other person! I kinda like that, to be honest. It’s way more effort to stop, to slow down, and to move past the mad.
You know, I made a statement just a moment ago that I want to add something to before I finish and move on with other things. I said, “Things happen, things are said, and mad happens. There’s not always a lot of choice there, but what we do next is a choice.” I do believe that mad happens, and there’s often not a lot of choice about being mad, and yet… I also believe that along the path of choices we make in life, we can unlearn and lose a lot of the mad along the way. We don’t have to be slaves to the mad. I think that the more I slow down, the more I listen, the more I love, the less I will get mad. Like any muscle, if I exercise the mad all the time it will get bigger and stronger. It might be a long road from my first choice to let love speak instead of my anger until I start to realize that there’s a lot less anger in my life to silence, but it’s a worthwhile journey.
Since I spoke, I now have a greater burden to do. I should be judged more strictly. I agree. We’re all human and we do stumble in many ways, and we all need the grace of stumbling into one another’s shoulder, feeling that arm of support wrap around our backs, and get that helping lift back onto our feet. Please, forgive me my mad. Forgive me when I haven’t kept my mouth shut long enough to hand the reigns over to the love. Forgive me when I’ve sat and cultivated the mad, reveled in the mad, and then followed where it led.
Paul again, captures some of the struggle so well, feeling the chagrin of failure and yet the hopefulness of what can be and what will be… Romans 7:21-25:
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I will do better. I will learn. I will grow. I will let the love speak. That’s what I hope for my little friend and for myself… to grow into a joyful expression of love. To grow, choice by choice, into a life less governed by the mad and in which the love speaks.
Ephesians 4:31 & 32, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
I know, it’s almost too much to take a cheesy saying like “use it or lose it” and try to make a point by reversing it, but I’m game. A huge part of tackling the work of yesterday’s verse and making sure that wholesome, helpful and constructive things flow from our choice of words will be removing the negativity which wants to tear down, destroy and punish.
Bitterness, rage and anger. These must be avoided. Brawling, slander and malice. These must be un-chosen. This means that when we find ourselves enjoying the anger, relishing the malice or laboring under the heaviest of grudges, we must make a change.
When anger happens, we recognize it, name it and release it. When an injury threatens to become a grudge, we seek healing, seek help and seek peace. If we hold tight to these things or leave them the liberty to run unnamed and unchecked in our lives, we will find them returning in our words and actions. Just as civility is born from what we value and carry inside of us, so it goes with incivility.
We have a double movement, one of choosing and one of un-choosing. Civility is a “selective” way that we live our lives, holding to what is most good and releasing what is most negative. In this keeping and releasing we set ourselves up for civility or for incivility. We stack our own deck for the positive or for the negative results when we speak and act. I really do have to lose the anger and rage, or I’ll use them. Lose it or use it.
We don’t use the word a lot, but “renounce” is a good one for this idea. To renounce is to “formally declare one’s abandonment of” something. It’s a legal word, and it’s the idea behind today’ verses. Can I renounce the bitterness, rage and anger? Can I renounce the brawling, slander and malice?
Can I stand today and prayerfully, sincerely and honestly make a renunciation of these things that take root in my life and bear such bitter fruit?
I do renounce bitterness.
I do renounce rage.
I do renounce anger.
I do remounce brawling.
I do renounce slander.
I do renounce malice.
Just saying the words does not get the job done, but it sets me on the path. And some things simply need to be said out loud, ya know? If I choose this path, then I must prayerfully walk it and find the help I need to remain on it.
James 1:19 & 20, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
I won’t beat this one too long today. Let’s just accept the premise that James gives us that our anger is not productive, not in God’s kingdom. So much incivility flows from our anger. It comes from our hot, burning anger in the intensity of the moment, and from the slow burning rage that simmers and consumes. Neither bring about the right-ness that God desires.
I’ve known Christians who seemed to think that their anger was a spiritual gift and a necessary tool of the kingdom, and they gave their anger full rein to run and romp. Crap, I’ve been that Christian. Who doesn’t like to burn with a little righteous indignation? Sometimes it is a legit response to evil. Sometimes it’s more of an addiction to the the adrenaline coursing through our veins. Sometimes it’s a sweet balm for our bruised ego.
We too often embrace our anger. It feeds our ego. It fires our imagination. And though embracing the anger might do well for our favorite superheroes battling evil in their comic book and cartoon worlds, in our world, it kills and stunts us. Anger itself is not the problem, as we all feel it sometimes, but it’s letting the anger guide us that causes the trouble. Scriptural voices are really clear on this… Jesus says that our anger leaves us subject to judgment (Matthew 5:21-24), and Paul warns against letting anger lead us into sin and letting it grow over time (Ephesians 4:26).
We have to put our anger aside. It’s not a tool, a gift or a strength. James connects it with too much talking and too little listening. So let’s shut our mouths, open our ears, and let go of the anger. If we seek God’s righteousness, anger is not the ride that will get us there. Civility and so much more suffers in the face of our anger.