Anger: How Well Do We Manage It? Part Two

The_Phillip_Medhurst_Picture_Torah_408._Moses_striking_the_rock._Exodus_cap_17_v_6._PozziI wrote about anger last week because this strong and sometimes unpredictable emotion perplexes us, particularly as its expression relates to Christian character and witness.

Among Christians, what we may least understand is that not all anger is the same. There is good anger and bad anger. The anger that moves a man to intervene when he sees a disabled boy being bullied in public is good anger. Road rage is bad anger.

As Moses was descending from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets freshly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, he saw that the people had returned to pagan practices of worship and celebration. This made the Lord angry, and Moses, too, as God’s representative. As Moses neared the camp, he dashed the tablets to the ground, smashing them as an object lesson to the people.

In that account God’s anger is mentioned three times, and Moses’ anger is appropriate. The Lord does not rebuke him (Exodus 32:7-20). We can call this good anger.

But later, when the Israelites are without water in their wilderness journey, the Lord instructs Moses to take his staff and “speak to that rock” while the people watch. Instead, he addressed the people as rebels, speaks so as to take God’s glory to himself, and strikes the rock angrily twice (Numbers 20:2-11).

We call Moses’ anger that time bad anger — self-seeking, self-serving and disrespectful of the people he was called by God to serve. He paid dearly for his angry outburst.

Today, we are living in angry times, and too much of the anger we experience or witness is bad anger. Such anger is not just fueling terror and destruction in other parts of the world; it gets into important relationships and strikes often close to home, in family, or church.

We must not forget we are capable of anger because we are made in the image of God. Without this capability we would be less than human. Yet we need to understand that anger is like fire: under control, fire can keep a whole household comfortable on a cold wintry day; undisciplined it can burn down the house and the neighborhood too.

All this is why the Apostle Paul warns against the danger anger poses. Borrowing from Psalm 4:4 he writes, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

If destructive anger is damaging our witness for Christ, God’s mighty Spirit who dwells in believers enables a better way. Here are three suggested steps we can take to cooperate with the Spirit.

First, we tell ourselves the truth. A woman in a Christian organization became angry with her boss and would not speak to him. One day he asked her: “Are you angry with me? She replied, “No, I’m just perturbed.”

Perturbed is a good word but not rigorous and pointed enough to summons conscience with a call for change. Attaching the right word to any condition we want to deal with is the first step toward appropriating grace to bring about the change needed. There is a saying, “To know oneself diseased is half the cure”.

Second, we tell God the truth. He of course already knows, but confession opens the way for God to work in us when we speak of our sins to Him. The psalmist prayed, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).

Third, tell someone else the truth. Sometimes we need the support and coaching of another human being, like a pastor or counselor, to face up to sinful anger. That person can be a conduit of the Lord’s grace, helping us to recognize our anger and to learn new ways of dealing with this emotion.

It is not God’s will that we become incapable of anger. Even Jesus was appropriately angry with hard-hearted Pharisees who had no compassion for a man with a withered hand who needed healing (Mark 3:5).

But in our fallenness this emotion too is tainted by sin and needs redemption. So, while we rejoice in the grace God has already given us, if our anger is corroding our spirits or proving hurtful to others we implore for added grace to make us whole, remembering the promise given the Apostle Paul: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a)


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Image info.: “Moses Striking the Rock.” A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations.

Are You Managing Your Anger Well? Part One

4243823948_672835e4fb_mWe experience anger because we are made in God’s image. The Scriptures give us instances in the Old Testament of God’s anger with his people when they were disobedient (Exodus 32:9–14). However, his anger is always righteous and appropriate to the situation.

Our anger, by contrast, often falls far short of that standard. Because we are members of a fallen race, our natures tainted by sin, our anger at times may be explosive, hurtful, even punitive. If we are sensitive and aware our expressions of anger may leave us with deep feelings of sorrow and perhaps helplessness. But, as Christians we should not allow ourselves to say, “That’s just the way I am so take me or leave me.” There is hope in the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about standards of conduct for Christians. He exhorted them to “Put away all falsehood (Ephesians 4:25a NLT). And, “If you are a thief, stop stealing.” (Ephesians 4:28a NLT). These practices were sinful and were to have absolutely no place in the Christian life.

But he spoke differently about anger, “ And don’t sin by letting anger gain control over you” (Ephesians 4:26 NLT).

Apparently anger was not forbidden in the way lying and stealing were. It was nevertheless identified as a human emotion that, if not managed, could do great damage and could be the source of grievous sin.

I can see at least five ways we can display hurtful anger.

Sullen anger. This is not displayed by slamming doors or talking in a loud voice. But sullen anger puts a dark cloud over those against whom it is directed. Nothing is said but much is felt. Sulking, tense silence, or seething beneath the surface may be devices for sullen anger.

“Nice guy” anger. My wife and I boarded a narrow-gauge open platform train in California to ride up a mountainside to the site of an early mining effort. A couple with two children got on and took a generous amount of space. Then another family of four boarded and sat next to the first couple. They were crowded and the first couple made no effort to sit closer together as a courtesy.

There were a few words. Then the woman of the second family turned with her back to the first but sat with a frozen smile on her face for the rest of the ride. I believed her message to those who saw the exchange was, “See, I’m not angry. I’m too nice to be angry.”

Transferred anger. I once saw a cartoon divided into four frames. In the first frame a boss was chewing out his employee. In the second the employee was at home and his words to his wife were drawn as loud black lines. In the third frame, the wife was scolding her little girl harshly. In the fourth, the little girl held her ragdoll by one arm, spanking it with her free hand. Anger’s target often shifts.

Abusive anger. This may be marked by shouting, even screaming, or quiet but psychologically violent abuse. It’s out-of-control anger – like road rage or air rage.

Finally, there’s unrecognized anger. Once, when preaching to a large congregation, I referred to a category called “adult children of alcoholics”. I noted that they often seemed to live under three imperatives: Don’t talk / Don’t trust / Don’t feel.

After the service, a minister came to see me. He had written the imperatives on his hand. With energy he said “That’s me!” As the grown son of an alcoholic father he explained in detail how each of those orders fit his tended ways of functioning. He did not trust anyone – including me, he said. He had never seen his self-directed techniques before. All this denial was a heavy burden to carry. He needed and received professional help.

What can we do so that anger does not dominate us in sinful ways? A story from Doctor Ben Carson’s life leads us to the Gospel. When he was a teenager, in a burst of anger he stabbed at another boy and only the boy’s big belt buckle saved him. Ben Carson went to a nearby room of seclusion and spent a long time calling on God to deliver him from such anger. He reports that God answered that prayer.

Just as for Dr. Carson, the Gospel holds before us the means for curbing or directing our anger for Jesus’ sake, and enables us to live in freedom as redeemed men and women. But there are techniques to be learned. More on them, next week….

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John Calvin’s Pastoral Words About Prayer

13712688913_80b64ee497_mJohn Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, offers some strong pastoral counsel to keep our prayers from becoming flat and tedious. He makes six points.

Calvin’s sentences, reflecting the writing style of his time, are complex. I take the liberty of presenting his ideas about revitalizing prayer both in summary and in simpler English.

He introduces the subject with the assurance that God watches over us even when our awareness of Him is dim.

After this, he makes his first point: that even though we have not yet learned as a matter of habit to come to Him with every need, we should as a conscious decision pray with a burning desire to seek, love, and serve Him until that custom of reflexively coming to Him in every circumstance has formed.

Second, we should pray that nothing we would be ashamed of, if seen by Him, should enter our minds or hearts. This calls for dependence on the Holy Spirit and his aid in our discipline.

Third, our prayers will include a review of the benefits that come from his hand and we should receive them with deep gratitude. Gratitude is a practiced element in prayer, easier for some than others.

Fourth, when we perceive that God has answered a prayer, we should consciously meditate on his kindness. We can do this not only in the prayer chamber but on our way to work.

Fifth, at the same time, we should embrace with greater delight those things we acknowledge we have obtained by prayer.

Last, may we settle in our minds that God promises never to fail us, that he invites us to call upon him, and that he is actively extending his help to us right now.

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Is This the Right Person for Me to Marry?

DiceWhen I was twenty years old I was an aspiring gospel singer, and I traveled with a preacher five years my senior. At the time, we were both single.

In spare moments the subject of qualities to look for in a lifetime partner came up. This was back when marriage meant one man and one woman in covenant for life, and when young men and women were typically more ready to marry by their early twenties.

By his repetitions the list was fixed in my mind so I believe I can reproduce it accurately, before adding my brief comments.

First, he would ask, is this person a committed Christian? According to the Scriptures, Christians are to marry only Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). So one should ask: is there evidence that he/she loves the Lord and manifests that love in lifestyle, attitudes, and habits?

Christians who ignore this requirement relative to marriage go contrary to clear Scriptural teachings. In doing so they disobey the Lord and deprive themselves of a spiritual dimension to their marriage that God intends to be unifying and enriching.

Second, is this a person of good character? In the early stages of a relationship, one looks for such traits as honesty and trustworthiness; a vision for life that includes serving others; respect for parents and little children; a strong work ethic; and empathy for others. Also, do friends and family give off cues and comments of affirmation or reservation — even alarm?

Third, what about disposition? It’s true that parties in a marriage have down days for which their mates make allowance. But prominent and frequent pouting, grumpiness, anger, or me-first behaviors even in a person of great charm should be noted because such traits will dissipate a lot of the life force that could otherwise be turned to positive, outward and even Christian ministry purposes.

The Proverbs warn against a “quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife” (Proverbs 21:19). If the Proverbs were being written today for our culture they would have cautionary words against choosing a “quarrelsome and ill-tempered” husband also.

Fourth, what about family background? Marriages tend to be stronger and more fulfilling when a bond between the two families also forms. Cultural and family similarities are certainly not absolute prerequisites in our multicultural society, but they can be helpful if present. If very different, they will require extra effort to bridge.

It is family values, character traits, disposition that of course trump all else. However, and one question to shed light on this issue is: Do I want this prospective mate’s brothers and sisters to be aunts and uncles to my children?

Fifth, (a modern adaptation to my preacher friend’s fifth question): if two vocations are represented in the potential union, is the success of the marriage more important than the full achievement of either partner’s vocation? For example, one partner wants to teach in Minnesota and the other in Florida. It is possible that a relationship could even be dissolved by unyielding differences.

While it might not answer the specifics between Minnesota and Florida, the couple in which each individual values the marriage above where to live will be more likely to survive this kind of modern-day dilemma.

Some may feel the above questions are too plodding for something so enthralling as love that points toward marriage. Why should a couple care about “little issues” in the realm of such areas as faith, character, disposition, and family if they are in love?

Passion is very much a part of the love that God gives to bind a man and woman together for a lifetime. But while passion may be sufficient to get a relationship started, it is not by itself enough as a foundation for a wonderful marriage. And, generally speaking, it is better for the mind to lead with questions like those above and the heart to follow than for the emotions to take over and the rational mind to be switched off until after the wedding.

And so, for the young person wishing to follow the path of wisdom to the altar and to deep satisfaction beyond, both clear judgment and romantic passion should have their appropriate place and contribution.

Christian young people must never forget to bind all this together with a strong cord of prayer. Pay attention to the answer to the above questions (and others); seek godly counsel if perplexities arise; ask for wisdom from God; and you are likely to experience the kind of love that blesses you and your spouse, survives all vicissitudes, and lasts a lifetime.

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Re-post: Dealing With Our Doubts

DoubtIt’s one thing to be racked by our doubts, wondering if God exists, if He cares, if he can do anything for us in our uncertainties. But to feel that our doubts are sinful, that we must keep them hidden, compounds our distress.

The truth is that doubt is the not infrequent experience of aspiring saints, while the smug or narcissistic or spiritually complacent know little about it. Bible characters like Esau, Samson, Absalom and Herodias give little evidence of wrestling with doubts. They are all supremely self-confident people.

But the prophet Elijah is a different case. So are Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and John the Baptist. Even Jesus had his times of doubt. No one ever trusted the Father more implicitly, yet, from his cross he cried, “My God, My God, Why…?”

There are many doubter’s laments in the Psalms. At least 40 of the 150 are called psalms of lament, and some are from people wrestling with doubt.

Psalm 77 is one of them.

This psalmist is in such distress that he cannot sleep at night. He holds God responsible for even this, since for the Hebrew mind God is ultimately involved in every human situation.

The psalmist cries out in his anguish, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in his anger shut up his compassion? (Psalm 77:9 RSV).

This psalm must at first have been the solitary cry of one believer. But when the psalms were collected, eventually to become the Old Testament hymn book, this one was seen as a cry common to many devout hearts. Thus it was made a part of the Old Testament worship literature. Now all doubters, New Testament doubters too, may use it.

But it is not for committed unbelievers. They are inclined to resist being nudged in the direction of faith. Answer one question and they will likely raise another.

No, Psalm 77 is for devout doubters. Doubters want to believe God is their friend, that God is there for them.

But they struggle to see how things could be as they are if God really cared. Doubters have faith but it is under assault, conflicted, strained.

Frederick Robertson, great preacher of an earlier generation, dealt with black, sometimes nearly overwhelming, doubts. His advice?

“Obedience! Leave those thoughts [of doubt] for the present … Force yourselves to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know …”

Good advice, but there is an even deeper word in this psalm. “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord,” he says, “yea, I will remember thy wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11 RSV).

This psalmist avoided the peril of self-absorption by meditating, principally on the mighty acts of his God at the Red Sea.

We can go one better. We have the record of the mighty acts of Jesus to call to mind – his perfect life, his love for the oppressed, his healings – and particularly his deliverance from death at Joseph’s tomb. The Holy Spirit, by such meditations, can renew our faith.

When trying to overcome oppressive doubts, in addition to personal meditation, it is also good to go where a company of believers is worshiping the living God. Attempt to share in their faith as they sing and pray. Join with them and listen to the word of God preached. You will be among friends. On any given Sunday, there will surely be others there too who need to activate Psalm 77.

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What I Saw This Week in Coldwater, Michigan

SMCOn Thursday of this week our daughter, Carolyn, drove me 368 miles from the suburbs of Toronto to Coldwater, Michigan. We went to attend an ordination service during a session of the Southern Michigan Annual Conference of the Free Methodist Church-USA.

Eric Rose, a young minister who was to be ordained along with five others, invited us to come as his guest.

Eric had been in touch with me a number of times about different aspects of pastoral ministry, and we had become friends. I knew he was anticipating his ordination joyfully.

The ordaining body was an annual conference. This is a grouping of regional churches that work together under an elected superintendent. Annual conferences meet yearly to review achievements, establish shared accountability, and care for the staffing of the churches.

We arrived at the place of meeting. We discovered there an orderly gathering of ministers and lay delegates in equal numbers. The annual conference was hard at work hearing the reviews of one year’s ministries and anticipating challenges for the year ahead.

We saw instantly that the mood was bright. There were moments of laughter, but at the same time there was evidence of serious work being done.

Annual Conferences are a trademark of Methodism. They trace back to 1744. How did they come into being?

Recall that in 1738 both John Wesley and brother Charles were graduates of prestigious Oxford University and ordained ministers of the Church of England. After periods of spiritual uncertainty and distress they both experienced remarkable evangelical conversions in May of that year.

These conversions seemed to unleash a renewing movement of God’s Holy Spirit across the British Isles. This is referred to as the Methodist or Wesleyan Revival.

After 1738, six years of Spirit-anointed preaching by John and Charles and others had raised up great numbers of new converts. In this mighty movement of the Holy Spirit the revival had awakened the spiritually impoverished, the enslaved, and often the church’s castoffs. As well, many were converted from what today might be called people of the middle class for whom the established church had failed to deliver the bread of life.

John Wesley was the natural leader of this movement. He was faced with the problem of how to bring ordered living to the thousands of the spiritually awakened. Wesley’s administrative gifts brought forth the idea of an “annual conference.”

The first annual conference of 1744 had ten members – John and Charles, four other ordained clergymen, and four lay preachers, not ordained but authorized by John Wesley and his colleagues to preach the gospel.

On the day before the first annual conference convened there was a preaching service, a love feast, and the serving of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to the whole of the London society of Methodists, which by that time numbered between two and three thousand.

The agenda for the day of the conference was limited to addressing three questions: what to teach; how to teach; and how to regulate doctrine, discipline and practice. This first annual conference was conducted in deep humility. Wesley and these good men agreed that every question raised was to be freely and openly debated, so “that every person may speak freely what is in his heart.”

This first annual conference in 1744 became a template for Methodism. More than 250 years later almost anywhere Methodism exists regional work is administered through annual conferences (though names may vary).

When I saw my friend Eric standing with five other ordinands before the congregation in Coldwater, Michigan, and all six responding affirmatively to the questions for ordination, I was reminded that annual conferences around the world continue to be the body responsible for the conduct of this holy service of ordination.

I myself have administered ordination vows at annual conferences in such locations as Canada, the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brazil, Haiti, and others.

My visit in Coldwater was deeply satisfying. Thanks be to God that the spiritual roots of today’s church sink deep into the soil of Christian history. Fundamentals do not change. And special thanks to God for the declared dedication of six newly-ordained ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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The Father’s Day Drama at the Kitchen Door

2901132111_0c8127ab04_mWhile pastoring in Western Canada in the second half of the 1950s I often went out in the afternoon to visit shut-ins, hospital patients, or newcomers to our growing church.

In 1956 our children were ages eight, five, three and one. Kathleen was home with the two younger children during the day and as the older two arrived home from school mid-afternoon she was there to receive them.

When my afternoon calls were coming to an end, and I was ready to start for home, I would use the nearest phone to tell Kathleen my approximate time of arrival.

For that arrival she had a ritual she practiced with the children. She would turn from the phone and say to them with excitement, “Daddy’s coming home! Daddy’s coming home!” The children would go into a dance of joy and be at the door to greet me when they heard the car in the driveway. Being treated with such enthusiasm was a father’s joy.

This tale is really a very thin slice of our family life. It may scarcely seem worth recalling, but in retrospect, with two of those four children now grandparents whose children are raising their own children. I get pleasure from reliving such a thin slice of life.

It seems to me that Kathleen’s ritual nourished in the minds of our young children respect and appreciation for their father. After all, children should get their first prompts on how they should feel about one parent from the other parent.

I know that life is much more complicated now than during the 1950s. For one thing mother may not be at home, and to get there she may have to leave from work and go first to the daycare to pick up the youngest child. And she may have to carry out this errand as a single parent.

Or a father may not have the luxury of coming home every day or at the same time every day. And when they do, both parents may arrive home frazzled and under pressure to meet the basic needs of a hungry child or two. What parent in such circumstances has time for the niceties?

But I recall that back then in the 1950s we too had our frazzled moments. Four young children are a handful in any home. In our case, the youngest had special needs that demanded great and constant attention.

Moreover, we lived next door to the church building and at times the parsonage could seem like an extension of the church. As well, both of us were greatly involved in the activities of church life. I worked many evening and weekend hours at pastoral tasks; my wife sang in the choir, taught Sunday School and often served meals to visiting speakers or other guests.

So Kathleen carried out this ritual greeting for my homecoming because it was too important to her to neglect. She and I both now think there was something in it that strengthened parent-child bonds on into adulthood, however slight the exercise might seem in the telling.

The memory of that kitchen door greeting comes to mind because Father’s Day cards are being selected in the stores and great numbers of wives and children are wondering what sort of gift to buy for father as June 19 approaches. That search is all to the good. A well-chosen card or a little gift can speak volumes, too.

But Father’s Day is a good time to review the rituals we incorporate intentionally into family life to enrich relationships, quell storms, and reinforce with the vitamins of caring whatever family laws we have.

For the little ones, a ritual like the drama my wife enacted at the door made father’s home-coming both surprising and precious. Even such a simple spontaneous exercise can strengthen bonds between parents and growing children.

So, happy Father’s Day to all fathers who read this. If your children are young, may they greet you not only on Father’s Day but often at the door with a ritual family dance of joy! But, whatever the children’s age, may this day renew your precious family connections.

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