Along the Way: The Great Challenge

If you were to ask me, “What is the greatest challenge in your spiritual life these days?” I would have no trouble answering you. It is living within Paul’s exhortation, “Be angry without sinning” (Ephesians 4:26). I am angry with respect to many things going on today that are doing harm to too many people. Without going into detail, I confess that some expressions of my anger are un-Christian, and I know it. But I am angry anyway.

So, Paul’s words are my “sticking point,” and I know that I must not live apart from them. The challenge is knowing how to live within them.  Matthew Fox has come along for me at a good time. Right now, his Daily Meditations are dealing with the same challenge in the face of all the ungodliness we are witnessing these days—and even worse, an ungodliness that masquerades as godliness….which, I confess, only increases my anger. Richard Rohr’s book, ‘What Do We Do with Evil?’ has also been helpful.

In this post, I will mix my thoughts and theirs to offer what little light I have on being angry without sinning. Even a candle’s worth of light is helpful in total darkness. And total darkness is where we live if we don’t take Paul’s words to heart.  I am learning to do so through the practice of contemplation.

First, in contemplation, I face reality. I have learned from Thomas Merton and others that “the prayer closet” (Matthew 6:6) is where I confront my deficiencies. When I speak, write, and act for justice, the activity distracts me from considering my own heart.

Nonviolent resistance, I have learned from John Dear, can be a form of self-righteousness unless it is set in the context of prayer. Without contemplation, we can lack the humility which must precede and infuse resistance.

It is in contemplation, not action, where the Spirit has a chance to tell me, “Steve, your anger is not healthy.” Action can be a way of avoiding ever hearing that. It can be an expression of “this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8). It is in contemplation where God has space to say, “Steve, we need to visit about your anger. You’ve got a problem with it.”

Second, it is in contemplation where I receive a vision for godly anger—for righteous indignation. The vision originates in Jesus, who when reviled did not revile in return (1 Peter 2:23). And then, I move from him to the host of disciples (ancient and modern, Christians and those of other religions) who model Paul’s words, “be angry without sinning.”  From them, I learn there is a prophetic anger that is not only real, it is necessary if we are to overcome evil.

It is anger that stays focused on evil (“the dirty rotten system” Dorothy Day), not on people. It is channeling my anger into the prayer Jesus prayed in the face of evil, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Of course, on one level evil people know exactly what they ate doing, and they act (as John Wesley put it) with cunning and concealment.  But on the level Jesus was praying, he recognized that some can become so hard-hearted and self-deceived that they call evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). That is precisely what has happened to those in the Religious Right, and who believe that nationalism and the gospel are synonymous.  We are right to be angry at this, and resist it.

Third, it is in contemplation where the Spirit asks me to make the saving exchange—to hand over my anger in exchange for God’s—that is, redemptive anger set in the context of steadfast love. This is godly anger, and it is not easily come by, or maintained. But it is real, and it is what God offers me in the quiet place. God does not remove my anger, God replaces it.  Martin Luther King Jr. called it having the strength to love. It is being angry about evil, not the people who practice it.

And yes, that is a fine distinction—one hard to maintain. That’s precisely why contemplation is the means of grace for “being angry without sinning.” I go daily to the prayer closet, which always includes some kind of “cleaning the lens” so I can see as I should, and act as I must. Charles Wesley put it this way, “If to the right or left I stray, that moment, Lord, reprove.”

Contemplation is the means for getting back on track rather than derailing the whole train of my soul. Contemplation is the gift God offers us to confront the great challenge of “being angry without sinning” and being given the grace to do it.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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