Sermon: "Anger Control and Forgiveness"

4th in the "Relationship Builders" series.
Delivered February 18, 2007 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: Ephesians 4:26-27, 4:31-5:2

You know I like movies and I like these movie clips and I don't want to get your hopes up because I am not going to show one today, but I want to remind you of the movie "Rain Man." You remember the movie "Rain Man" with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise; they play brothers. Tom Cruise is the younger brother and Dustin Hoffman is an older, autistic brother who he kind of kidnaps from the home and they take this cross-country road trip and there is a lot of conflict in trying to rebuild relationships. And there is one point where he goes along and Raymond, Dustin Hoffman's character, makes note of everything that happens and one time Tom Cruise's character Charlie Babbitt gets angry with him and grabs him by the scruff of the neck and he goes, "Charlie Babbitt squeezed and pulled and hurt my neck" and he writes it down. He writes it down. He keeps a journal of these offenses. Now, few of us here actually keep a journal; how many people here actually keep a journal of offenses? No, I am sure hardly any of us do, but what we do do is we are pretty much satisfied to keep them right here or we keep them right here.

I want to ask you some questions and I don't want anybody to call out and I don't want anybody to raise their hand, but here are some questions for you to think about.

  • Are you angry with anyone today?
  • Did you get angry with anyone this past week?
  • Is there someone in your life who has hurt you whom you have not forgiven?
  • Are there folks who have rejected your expressions of love leaving a part of you very uneasy about expressing love in the future, especially toward them?

Now all of these types of questions are addressed in the text that we are going to be looking at today. There is like an intersection of love and anger and forgiveness and I think most of us would agree that there is both good and bad anger just as Pastor John shared with the kids. What would you think of a person who had no capacity for anger? It would be abnormal. There would be something wrong.

This coming weekend the movie "Amazing Grace" is going to be coming out in the theaters. I had the privilege of seeing the movie ahead of time and it's a great story about William Wilberforce and his decades long battle to abolish slavery in 19th century England. He fought, and if it wasn't for the righteous indignation and anger that spurred him on I think he would have given up. It's very clear how many obstacles that he faced in trying to do that. So anger aroused by injustice is appropriate.

Jesus expressed anger on occasion. He was upset with folks who demeaned others or demeaned God, but yet he expressed it as a way of helping others. He had their interest at heart and he challenged them through anger. But selfish anger, bad temper, irritability and all of that are inappropriate.

I think the reason folks get into reality shows or watch Jerry Springer or Judge Judy is because they feel like you know they are not like all those far-out people who express all these crazy antics. It can help us avoid some self-examination. So if you are looking for grading on a curve today, I've got a great curve for you. I mean you are going to look awesome compared to this person, okay? Maybe you heard the story about Captain Lisa Nowak. This is the astronaut; I mean this is an educated, skilled woman who rises to the rank of captain in the Navy, an astronaut, and she drives from Houston to Orlando to confront another captain in the Navy, Captian Colleen Shipman over the affections of yet another astronaut. After following Shipman to her car; she said she just wanted to talk. She ended up pepper-spraying her. She said she had no intention of harming her, yet found in her trunk were a steel mallet, a heavy knife and a BB gun and the most bizarre aspect of the story is that in her drive from Houston to Orlando she wore a diaper so she wouldn't have to stop. She wanted to get to where she was going so quickly, she wanted to cut down on time. I mean that is a lot of time. I mean I don't know why driving through the rolling hills of Mississippi and Alabama and all those, that something wouldn't just calm down, but it didn't. For hours on-end she is nourishing this anger and she can't wait to act on it. I mean if you look at this before and after picture you see how anger takes it toll on people. So this is an extreme case, but I would like to suggest that all of us have this capacity if put under enough stress and disconnecting from the power of God.

So let's look at these verses as we wrap up this relationship series from Ephesians 4. I am going to start in 26 and 27 and even though its going to be up there, I am going to skip down to 31 and go through Chapter 5, Verse 2. Before we do, let's pray.

Lord, I ask that your word would be a lamp unto our feet, a light unto our path, that it would cut deeply in to our hearts, in to our intentions and it would make a difference in our relationships. Help us to be courageous, to follow where you lead us and transform us through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Okay, Ephesians 4:26:

"In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry".

Then skipping down to Verse 31:

"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. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."

In the past few weeks we have been talking about healthy relationships in the church. We talked about some very practical day in, day out things that we need like speaking truthfully to each other, using loving words and today we look at anger control and forgiveness, because they are so intertwined. If we don't learn to grow in these areas then our relationships will suffer, but even more as a community of faith our message will sound hollow to those who come in to the church seeking answers. I remember talking to a friend of mine, a pastor friend of mine when I was pastoring in central Pennsylvania; we were talking as pastors do about different things going on with the church and some of the struggles and all of that and he said, "Well, you want to hear this one? We have two brothers whose families are feuding in our church and the way that it gets manifested on a Sunday morning is that whichever family gets there first takes the family pew and the second family when they come in, if they see that the other family is there they sort of kind of walk to them, glare down the pew, fold their hands and huff out." I was thinking about this and I thought you know there is a trick to winning this game. You don't want to get there too early, because then you look like a guy outside of Best Buy trying to buy something, right? You are just there alone. So you've got to time it so that you get there just at the right time, but not too soon and it takes a lot of energy to do that, right?

Now can you imagine a guest coming into that situation and seeing that, what that would do for encouraging them to find answers in that situation? It's this type of thing that Paul clearly has in mind when he says, "In your anger do not sin." Actually the verb for angering, do not be angry, the tense is actually passive, which is encouraging to me. So another sense would be to translate it this way. Be angry if you must. In other words, its passive, the subject is being acted upon, so its like angry feelings happen that we can't control sometimes. Its just part of being human. We just get angry with things when we are provoked. But then he says something else, he says, "But do not sin" and now the tense is active, which means the person is doing the action and so he is indicating that while we can't control the feelings, we can control our response and we can control how long we respond in anger because he then gives a command which would not be fair if we couldn't control it. He says, "Do not then let the sun go down on your anger" and that word anger is different from the first word anger.

The second word anger in that verse talks about the provocation that caused the angry feelings. So in other words, when you boil it all down, because many times I think we look at this and we think, I can't go to sleep until I chase down whoever it is I am angry with and work it out. I don't think that is what he is saying, that's preferred, but I think what he is saying is "Don't go to sleep with bitter thoughts. Don't put your head on that pillow nursing bitter feelings" because what will happen then is that you are getting an opening, an opportunity, a foothold to the devil who loves to take advantage of division and divisive thoughts and it will drive a wedge in to your relationships and you will suffer as well. I mean you look at those before and after pictures of the astronaut and you are thinking whoa look at what anger and bitterness and rage can do to a person.

There's a graphic in a book that I love it's, "The 8th Habit." You have heard me refer to Stephen Covey a number of times and in this book he talks about going into a library when he was on sabbatical somewhere reading and he opened this book by another author and that's what he saw inside the pages of the book and he borrowed it for his book and he says that there is a gap and the name of that gap if you were to name it would be called freedom to choose. He says in that gap between stimulus and response there lies the power to choose our response and in that gap lies our own growth and happiness as we respond in one particular way.

Figure - Demand vs Resources graph

Now he goes on to say that the gap, if you have been raised in a family where maybe there is a lot of stress and dysfunction and abuse and anger and all that, maybe the gap that you have is very small and if you have been fortunate enough to be raised in a healthier family where reconciliation and love was modeled then maybe your gap is pretty big and you can you know maybe not be so quick to knee jerk reactions in relationships. But what he says is that no matter whether the gap is big or small, if we tap in to the power of God it can grow. We can find that God will enable it to grow and if we coast and we don't tap in to the power of God, that gap can actually shrink based on our practices. Does that make sense? So the response is a function of choosing to be controlled by decisions or conditions.

This is why one of the writers of the Proverbs said something; I am paraphrasing the verses up there; a person essentially who controls their temper is mightier than one who takes a city. I mean it's trying to elevate the power that God can give in an internal sense that's much greater than an external kind of power. And so the reason that Jesus so often spoke of forgiveness is that he knew that if we would tap in to that forgiving power of God, that it would allow something within us to be fresh and alive and vibrant. It would be a work of God's grace in our hearts creating the kind of relationships that can only be described through his power and the opposite lack of forgiveness by definition leads to stagnant living, a stagnant environment in our souls that breeds; well lets see what it breeds in Verse 31. "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice." See this is a progressive list. It's not a comprehensive list and if you look at the list in some ways it can kind of be on a continuum of what you really can't see in a person to what you can maybe see manifested in a person's life and so he starts and he says if you allow bitterness it's like fertilizing a root. You know bitterness is brooding over insults refusing to be reconciled, not letting go of resentment. Now let me just say this is not easy what I am sharing with you. I mean some of you have endured some of the worst kind of hurt imaginable. So this is not to be taken lightly, but it still allows for freedom and power no matter how deeply we have been hurt if we will allow God's power to work in us.

So all that comes from lack of forgiveness; all those sort of resentments. And then, if that continues it will simmer inside and produce rage. Have you ever thrown a pine branch on to a fire? It's almost like flash paper. It just goes up like that. That's what the first word rage kind of brings out. It's like these outburst of anger. And then when that dies down if you don't deal with it then you go into more simmering, low boil kind of anger that again continues to nurse hurt. And then, it continues to brawling, which is fighting words, loud talking, you know yelling at each other and then slander where you are actually dismantling the reputation of others. That's the progression and he is sort of tying up the whole verse he says, "and get rid of all malice" which is sort of an umbrella for everything that I just said because it intends to harm another person; it tends to hurt those who have hurt us.

So Paul is saying and I think this is a better translation; instead of get rid of all of these things, I think it would be better to say, "Let them all be removed by God's power." See that tips the scales to where it belongs; that we really cannot deal with this apart from God's power. It's a difference between Ellen and me when we are getting rid of stuff. Like when we clean out our garage. We have a big box of give away things and a box of throwaway things; you know the Goodwill box and the trash box. Before long I am starting to go through the Goodwill box and I am starting to pull things out. I am saying, "You are not going to give this away are you? I mean you never know when I am going to need the wheels of these old roller-skates for something?" She says, "Honey, let it go. Just let it all go. Unclench your fist and let it all go. You can do it. I know you can. Get rid of it all." Can you relate to this in any way? I mean guys I know you can relate to it. I mean what about all those boxes with the emotional junk in there and we go through and we think, okay I will get rid of it, but wait a minute I really like this, this feeling that I have I am not so sure I want to get rid of it. It's been a friend of mine for a long time. I don't know what I would do if I got rid of that feeling, right?

I think for pastors and other pastors and not just pastors, it's any leaders in the church, but I think the toughest times and I have had to deal with this is when someone has been positive in relating for a while and then for sometimes known or unknown reasons all of sudden they become like Peter around the charcoal fire saying, "I never knew that man" and then you think to yourself what did I do, what happened. Sometimes I can kind of point to something that might happen, but other times I am like clueless. I think to myself, okay I am going to - I start to think about ten different ways that I can tell them off. Sometimes you start writing a letter and the letter just sort of degenerates as it is being written you know? I really felt this way and by the end its like and I hate you and I can't believe you did this, signed, your brother in Christ. But we have a choice. We can let God take this stuff from us. I mean if you were financially burdened, I mean to the point of not knowing what to do, wouldn't you love it if somebody came to you and said, "Let me take this burden for you? Can I take this for you and just pay it off? Would you let me do that? I would really enjoy doing that." Some people would be like, "No way. It doesn't matter how long I have. I am going to take care of it." But most of us when we are really stuck and somebody is coming along saying "I will lift this debt off your shoulders. Go ahead, let me do it" would say "Yes, thank you."

And that is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, in the cross, in his grace. He has taken the debt that we owe and all of our ugliness and all of our unforgivness and he has taken it in to himself and been raised on the third day and now he offers to take any burden, anything that is wrecking our lives, he will take it. He will take that financial debt and that's exactly the way he talked about reconciliation and relationship in the Sermon on the Mount. Right after he was talking about leaving your gift at the alter he then says, "Settle matters quickly with your adversary." He goes on to say stuff like because people are going to start dealing with stuff and you are going to get locked up and you won't get out until you have paid the last penny. He uses financial metaphor to talk about the burden that will happen to us if we don't deal with these feelings that we have.

This is President's weekend. We have a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps nobody experienced more stress in leadership than President Lincoln. He had so many people that were upset with him; so many angry people over his policies and what he was trying to do. Yet you know how he began every day in office, he said he forgave everyone at the beginning of every day in office. That is what he did. It was the only way he said he could function. He said it was a gift to himself. It was a discipline. And that's where the apostle goes in Verse 32. He says, "Be kind" and you can also translate that word good; do good, be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other. Again, that word forgiving is like giving freely something, being generous with something. Forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you. And then in 5:2 he says, "Be imitators of God, therefore, his dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Two just as is. In other words, the forgiveness can't happen apart from the just as part of Christ working in our life. Just as, in other words forgive each other, love each other in the same way that God forgave you.

I am grateful to Mandy for pointing me to a book by Dan Allender called "Bold Love". I would recommend it to you and he basically is making the point that love really in relationships is not possible without forgiveness. And he has an axiom on one of the pages here that I just kind of leaped off the page at me. Just listen to this progression. He says:

"I will not live with purpose and joy unless I love. I will not be able to love unless I forgive and I will not be able to forgive unless my hatred is continually melted by the searing truth and grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

See, when we don't forgive and we hold on to anger, we bear a grudge as it were, then we are not only letting somebody else take control of our lives, we are squeezing out the work that God wants to do in our life because we are so tight. Let me do a little experiment with you. If you have arthritis in your hands then don't do this, but it's an experiment to kind of point out something that Ghandi said. He said, "Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it stands than to anything on which it's poured."

So okay, if you are game and willing to try this experiment; you don't have to, but I want to encourage you to just make two fists right now, okay. Now squeeze your fists as hard as you can. You're not squeezing them tight enough. I know you can do it harder, tighter, tighter, okay? Just hold it there. Hold it. Are your hands getting tired? Now hold on just a little more. No, make it a little bit tougher; squeeze hard, okay? Just a little bit more. Okay, now let go.

Okay. Let's talk about that. Did you notice some pain in your fingers when you were squeezing your hands? You know, its interesting there is not only pain when you are squeezing, there is a little pain when you are letting go. Again, it's like picking stuff out of the box that you don't want to let go of. There is pain in letting this go. Secondly, did you notice that every second it took more and more strength to keep it up. In other words, you had to focus more energy and attention on to that act and it caused other energy that could have been used elsewhere to be just blocked out. And then lastly, even now you still might notice a certain numbness and insensitivity and that's kind of reflective of what happens in our hearts when we get numb towards what God wants to do and numb toward others who we need to express forgiveness toward. All that energy gets used up nursing a grudge.

And so you can see how when you let something else control you instead of God's Spirit that it gets at odds at the kind of life that God wants for you. There is no room for anything else. Nothing else can fit in, especially the freedom and forgiveness that God wants to give us.

Now many of you here know the story of forgiveness and reconciliation that I have shared about my mom Mary and my dad's second wife Betty. My folks were divorced in the late 50s and my father and Betty, his second wife, have been married for over 45 years and there is a new chapter on this story. Betty is currently at St. Joe's hospital having been diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple of weeks ago. She worked at the Bel Loc Diner. She was rushed by ambulance to the hospital; two stents were put in her heart and then while she was there it was discovered that she had this inoperable stomach tumor and there was not much that could be done. Well, I was visiting her this past Thursday morning. We were just alone in the room and she started to reminisce on how God had helped her to ask forgiveness; like I needed reminding. I mean I was right there. She trusted the Lord in 1976 and a couple of years after she started to experience a guilt, I guess the conviction of the Holy Spirit that she needed to make things right and so right in this sanctuary in the back after an evening service she came up to me and I think it was '78 or '79 and she said, "I need to ask your forgiveness." I said, "Really, for what?" She said, "You know for what happened so many years ago." She was trying to grapple with her part in what led to the family breakup and I said, "Well I think it's awesome that you are asking forgiveness. I do." And she goes, "But I need to do something else." And I said, "Well what's that?" She goes, "I need to ask your mother to forgive me." Now you have got to understand that there was really no communication between the two of them for 20 years at all hardly. And I said, "Well when do you want to do that?" And she said, "I would like to do it tonight." I said, "Tonight, really? You want to do that?" She goes, "Yes." I said, "Well, go on home and I will meet you there and we will go over."

I called my mom and I said, "Mom you are not going to believe this, but Betty is here and she wants to come and ask your forgiveness." There was just dead silence for about ten seconds and she says, "Okay." And so the drive over; its only a mile and a half, but the drive over was I mean my stomach was just churning and hers was even worse and she took comfort in a little verse that she saw in the Bible, "God will give you the words you need to say when you need them" and so we get up to my moms front door and the screen door opens and I am kind of back of Betty a little bit, kind of pushing her in so she won't chicken out and we knock on the door, the door opens, my mom leans her head around and she just slowly open the door and they just sort of collapse in each other's arms and she says, "Mary, forgive me" "Betty, I do forgive you" and all that and she is just going on and I am looking at my watch and its 10:15 and I am like I am watching a miracle. I am watching something that can only be explained by the grace of Jesus. You know later my mom said to me; I didn't say this in the other services cause it just came back to me just now; she said later reflecting on it she goes, "Jesus came and visited me that day in the form of Betty."

But there is another chapter here. Just a few weeks ago after all this diagnosis happened, they live in New Jersey, but they come down here and she works at the diner many times and my dad will stay down here and she at times go to Calvary Chapel, it's a small little church on Old Harford Road and she went there feeling a need to realign herself with God. And so, she went and there was communion that Sunday, she couldn't take communion, she didn't feel like she could and so afterwards she asked the elders, this was after church was breaking up, she went down and she said, "Could you anoint me with oil and lay hands on and then I will take communion" She said, "I have been backslidden and I want to get right." And she did all that. So now over these two weeks she has been in the hospital most of the time and we have seen her go through these stages of grief and she is coming to a state of acceptance. Ellen just shared with; she was talking to my wife Ellen on the phone and she goes, "I am at peace. I am feeling at peace now. I feel the peace that passes and I understand what Jesus is talking about." But one of the visitors was my mom and during one of those days and she came and brought her famous Greek cookies and visited with her and stayed a short time and then I followed up that visit and when I was there Betty said, "Did you see that card on the wall that your mom gave me?" And I said, "No." And I went over to it and you know it was a nice sentiment about God will see you through and then at the bottom it said, Love, your sister in Christ, Mary. And I said, "Man, another ripple of grace." Another ripple of grace. You know how different this scene could be apart from what God has worked in the lives of these two women.

And so I want to ask you to pray for her, but even more I want to ask you to learn from her and from my mom. In other words, don't wait for a good reason to forgive or ask forgiveness. You are going to come up short. Listen to what God is saying. Don't wait until the other person deserves it. Where would we be if that's the way God treated us? We wouldn't be here. How did God love us while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us before we ever had a clue about God's love. Jesus was taking in to himself the pain of forgiving. Don't wait for the other person to approach you first. Remember what Jesus said, "Leave your gift." In other words, what he is saying is that if you come here kind of like the two families that fought over pews thinking you are going to find God, I will tell you where you are really going to find; where they would find God would be sitting in each other's living room. That is where they would find God. For us, it may be over a cup of coffee at Panera or Starbucks or someplace dealing with something that we need to deal with with somebody else. That's where we will find God. But Jesus is saying that if you come here and you are not willing to do that you are not going to find God here. That's why he said just leave your gift and go and deal with it and then come and offer your gift. You will find God out there somewhere.

So, I hope you will consider forgiving someone this week; maybe someone you have struggled to forgive in your past. I know it's not easy, but by God's grace it is possible. I know I have struggled with it. I know everybody has struggled with it, but it is what your soul needs. See we need it as much as the one we are trying to forgive. And for some of you it will be just quietly letting something go even as you sit here today finishing up the worship service. For others it may mean a phone call or a conversation. But if you need to make those calls, have those conversations, get some support, get some accountability, people praying with you, aspire to love as Jesus loved, stop making excuses for nursing anger and not dealing with reconciliation and lay it down so that you can pick everything that God has for you and trust me it will take two hands open for all that God wants to do for you.

Let's pray. Lord, we ask that your grace and your love will continue to lead us in our relationships. Help us Lord not to make light of what you have done on the cross and yet Lord we know that some of us here today are struggling; others are champions of your amazing grace, but I pray that you would continue to convict us and prod us so that we might have peace with others. Lord we pray for your wisdom to know what to do when others don't want to deal with this. Work on us and help us to make the kind of moves that might lead to opening a door. Help those who have not trusted you this morning to realize that there is fullness of life for them if they would be willing to make forgiveness of their sins a part of the journey with you so that they can be more open to what you have for them in this world. Lord, thank you for the gift of Jesus. Thank you for being with us present now today. Help us to walk with him in to new life. We ask it in your name. Amen.

© 2007, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145