I’m pleased to be back this week, after accompanying Tanya on her business trip to Florida. Last Sunday we had the pleasure of worshipping with First Christian Church in Melbourne, Florida. I had previously visited that church in the spring of 1988. Two friends and I were in Florida on spring break and we eventually made our way to Melbourne, where we camped in an orange grove for several nights. I enjoyed visiting again, almost 38 years later (and enjoyed better accommodations) and was pleased to see the church continuing to thrive.
Visiting churches while on vacation is a real blessing to me. We sat on the back row so let me say these to those of you sitting on the back rows today – you are my people! It’s a great vantage point from which to observe all that goes on.
This morning, we continue our journey through our Lenten series of messages based upon the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth). Today, we come to the second in the series – wrath. Our Scripture text for today comes from Romans 12:9-21, which offers an antidote to all of the Seven Deadly Sins, and certainly you will hear the ways in which Paul speaks to the dangers of wrath –
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I offer four points this morning related to the deadly sin of wrath.
1. Anger is an emotion, but it is also a seed, a seed that once planted, can grow into wrath.
When I was in either late junior high or early high school, an interesting question was posed to our youth group. A young man had been visiting for several weeks, with interest in one of the young ladies in the group, and he often challenged our adult leaders with his questions. On this particular occasion he asked, with a level of indignation, how could Jesus have been perfect? When he cleansed the Temple he demonstrated anger, and anger is a sin, so how can you claim he was perfect?
Our leaders were stumped by his question, so one of them asked that one of us would go in search of our minister’s wife. I can remember her standing in the doorway of the room looking perplexed by the question, as she also had no answer. She said she would be back in a few minutes with her husband, our minister. He was a wise, good man, and a very important role model and example to me. I was surprised when he didn’t have an answer either. Though I didn’t accept that the young man was correct, I struggled for a number of years to formulate an answer to his challenging question. Finally, when I told someone the story some years later, I was given an answer that should have been immediately obvious. Who ever said anger was a sin a friend of mine asked. He was exactly right. Anger is not a sin. Anger is an emotion, just the same as joy or sadness. Where, when, and how did we ever come to the conclusion that anger equated sin? It’s simply not true. Reading the Bible one will find many, many instances of anger, as it is part and parcel of the human condition. While there are Scriptural warnings about the dangers of anger, such as Ephesians 4:26, where Paul writes in your anger do not sin, it is a mistake to connect anger and sin together; they are not one and the same. Some lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, in fact, substitute anger for wrath, but this is a false equivalency. Anger is an emotion, not a sin, but the manner in which anger manifests itself can lead to sin.
The photo on the screen this morning (and at the top of this manuscript) is taken from a sculpture in Venice, Italy, and the inscription is translated as a cruel anger is within me. That inscription is a good way to describe the sin of wrath. Wrath is so much more than anger. Wrath is a type of anger, but is goes much further than the manner in which we typically think of it. Wrath is anger on steroids. Anger that is left unchecked can quickly translate into wrath, which does indeed become a cruel anger within us, and is particularly dangerous because it always ratchets up destructive tendencies and feelings. While anger can allow room for some form of equitable justice for a harm suffered, wrath is not content until is has destroyed the other person. Wrath is never satisfied to restore a damaged relationship; instead, it seeks to inflict only harm and destruction.
I think all of us have a growing sense of unease about the amount of anger in our society. There is anger about our politics and our political system, about our economy, about the role of government in our lives, there are many contentious social issues, and it seems more and more that we live in a world swallowed up by anger, and it is transforming into something far deeper and more menacing.
Some of that anger based in the way in which we sometimes feel diminished and marginalized, which will lead to anger. We feel threatened by others and the gains they make and this causes us to feel insecure about what might happen to our freedoms and our liberties, as though one person’s gain must necessarily lead to another person’s loss. For others, their religious beliefs or political views are rejected by many others and the marginalization that they feel feeds anger, and that anger can grow into something far more troubling. I think it is a safe assumption that the shooter who killed six people, and wounded several others, yesterday in Kalamazoo, Michigan allowed his anger, his sense of marginalization, and his feeling of marginalization to turn into wrath, a wrath that was tragically turned to innocent bystanders.
Anger is not the same as wrath, but it is a seed, and too often that seed is watered, fertilized, and nurtured until it grows into wrath.
2. Wrath will eat you alive.
After the early service someone texted me this saying – the rage you feel does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored than to the object on which it is poured. Wrath wreaks much havoc upon the lives of others, but it does the most damage to the person whom it controls.
Even the word is ugly – wrath. That’s a word that sounds menacing. If you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings trilogy, you are familiar with the wraiths. The name of wraith finds its root in wrath. The wraiths were beings who were distorted by their anger, their hatred, and their wrath. This is what wrath will do to us; it will distort our nature that reflects the image of God and turn it into something destructive.
I don’t think any of us really know the way in which we are perceived by others, but I would guess that most people see me as a fairly laid back person who operates on an even keel. I wasn’t always this way. When I was younger I had a bad temper. I had a nasty temper. I remember vividly when I was late in high school getting very upset with a couple of my friends, out of a larger group who were gathered in my family’s yard. I can still see my friends standing around looking at me as though thinking who is this possessed person? And possessed is a word that is very applicable to wrath, as we become possessed, we become consumed by this desire to extract revenge, or to cause harm, or hurt another person or persons.
When anger is allowed to run unchecked in our lives it becomes something very different; it becomes wrath. Wrath turns into an all-consuming desire for revenge, to bring about destruction and pain. Wrath will repudiate the core virtues of Christianity – love, forgiveness, and grace.
A Scripture passage that comes to mind when thinking about wrath is that of Genesis 4:2-7, part of the story of Cain and Abel, which I have quoted often in messages – 2 Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. 6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
I find God’s warning about anger and sin in this passage to be very instructive. Anger was present in Cain and he watered, fertilized, and nurtured that anger until it grew into wrath. Sin is a force that is always crouching, always seeking an opportunity to pounce upon us and to bring destruction to our lives. It will use our anger, twisting it into wrath and seeking to use that wrath as a destructive force in our lives and the lives of others. Anger will eat us alive.
3. Be aware of your unresolved grief.
I started to leave this point out, because I don’t know that it fits in the flow of this message, but I think it is an important point for all of us, because all of us have some element of unresolved grief in our lives. I am now well into my fourth decade of ministry, and over the course of those years I have observed the one does not have to scratch the surface of anyone’s life very deeply before that grief becomes very apparent. And, in my experience, everyone – yes, everyone – has some measure of unresolved grief that is at work under the surface of their life.
It is important to understand that grief does not always stem from the loss of a loved one. There are many sources of grief – a broken relationship, the remnants of being bullied, being treated unjustly the loss of a job, a health issue – anything that is traumatic in our lives leads to grief, and that grief must be addressed.
Many years ago I read an article in Parade magazine. Does anyone remember Parade? It came in our Sunday newspaper. Did you receive it here? One Sunday there was an interview with a psychologist that has stayed with me, because of something she said. In talking about the hurts that children suffer, she said that children will say to us, I hurt. If that hurt is not dealt with, their words I hurt will change from a description of emotion into a predictor of behavior.
Whatever the source of your unresolved grief, learn to deal with it.
4. There is a time for anger.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is one of the most famous passages of Scripture. It contains the words there is a time for everything, and you know those words from your study of Scripture and from the song popularized by the Byrds. In verse 7 Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. We could add that there is a time for action as well.
Anger is not always a negative or destructive force, but one that God places within us to move us to action. This is what we call righteous anger, as Jesus demonstrated when he cleansed the Temple, turning over the tables of the moneychangers and driving them from that holy place. They had turned the holy place of God’s people into a place of crass commerce, cheating others in the name of God. Jesus was incensed by what was taking place there. If we fail to become angry at the violence and injustice in the world we have allowed our hearts to become either too calloused or we have allowed ourselves to grow blind to the suffering of others.
God seeks to redeem anger, as he is always working to bring about redemption. Instead of allowing anger to become wrath and become destructive, God’s aim is to turn our anger into a positive force in order to work against the injustice and suffering. God seeks to redeem that anger which plagues the world. The prophets of the Old Testament often burned with anger as they sought to bring about the end of injustice. The prophet Nathan, for example, in bringing to light David’s sin with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:1-14), burned with righteous anger about David’s abuse of power, which had led to the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. In one of the Bible’s most dramatic scenes, Nathan says to David, you are the man! Nathan was unafraid to challenge the king and to reveal David’s murderous treachery. To make such a stunning pronouncement required Nathan to summon all of the righteous anger he could muster.
Tanya and I went to see the movie Risen yesterday. People often ask me my opinion of faith-based movies. I don’t see them all, but I did enjoy Risen. The movie was well done and contained some scenes that were very moving. If you like movies, and if you have contemplated seeing this movie, I recommend it to you. We went to the new theater off of Blankenbaker Drive in Louisville. If you have not been to that theater, it is different from others in the seating. This theater has recliners, and I’m not talking about recliners like the raggedy old one that used to sit in our den, and that required a hard pull on the lever to allow it to lean back. These are large, leather, electric, and very comfortable recliners. You push a button and it will stretch out until it is completely flat. I’m tempted to go back to the theater and pay for a ticket, find an empty theater, and take a nap in one. Although they are very comfortable, there is something very strange about looking around at a theater full of people, with their 15 gallon buckets of popcorn, 10 gallon Cokes, and bushel boxes of Milk Duds, all leaning back in those recliners. I couldn’t help but think, is this what we’ve become? But at the same time I also thought, I really like this! It is as if the world is conspiring against us, but not to make us hard-hearted or calloused towards humanity; it is as if we are being lulled to sleep, made indifferent, or apathetic about the blight of so many of our brothers and sisters. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we don’t see or notice the sufferings of others because we have been lulled to sleep in our own very comfortable cocoon of existence.
It is time to wake up from our slumber, to allow the struggles of others to call to us through any indifference and apathy that might have set in upon us. There is a time for anger – righteous anger – and a time to allow that anger to move us to action, just as it did Jesus.
Do not allow your anger to consume you and to turn into wrath. Instead, allow that anger to move you outward, and into the lives of those brothers and sisters who need you to minister to them in the name of Christ!