Habits

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). Yikes!  What are we supposed to do with such dire warnings?  Where is the unconditional love we’d much rather hear about?  This sounds like it’s chock full of threats by a God that expected too much of us. I mean, come on, I haven’t murdered anyone! Sure, I have experienced anger at times and with even with people I love. But, hey, it happens. “It’s not like anyone has died!”

What is the old saying? Anger is one letter short of danger. If we are honest, anger occupies a larger part of our lives than we want. Anger is a part of our lives. Anger is part of the habit of our lives. It is part of our communities. Anger is something wicked that this way comes.

Anger will only grow more intense as we approach and enter into the depths of the election year. People seethe at the Trump administration. People seethe at the Obama administration. They all justify their anger. They hold their anger as righteous and they think, “My anger is not like their anger. This is justified, it is righteous! This anger isn’t liable to judgment! Heck, look at Jesus, he got angry too!!” It is a deadly pattern, a sinful habit.

“Justified”, “righteous”, I wonder what God say about this? How are we to think about the anger that so often describes God’s prophet; the anger that, from time to time, poured out upon the people of God. The prophets Nehemiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah angrily denounced the wealthy Israelite’s’ exploitation of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien/stranger among us – actions that were sinful and against the commands of God. And Jesus expressed anger at the Pharisees who exhibited such hard hearts (Mark 3:1-5). Surely, all this is righteous anger!

If we deeply reflect on God’s Word, we are going to see that righteous anger conveys extreme displeasure over sin. The oldest expression of sin in Scripture is to break relationships. Where our anger fractures and breaks relationships. Jesus and the prophets aren’t breaking relationships in their anger, they are calling people back to covenant relationship with God.  Their anger is redemptive. Their anger is calling forth community the community God intended among people.  A blessed community.  A beloved community.  A community meant to initiate a radical way of doing life on the earth.

The “you” in the Sermon on the Mount is in the plural. Think about that. We tend to see the Sermon with the lens of the individual, but I would suggest that Jesus is also doing what Jesus always does: calls forth a community He trusts will follow in his footsteps and bring divine love to a world hungry for hope and healing. He trusts will we actually go the ends of the earth in that mission. He trusts that we will take our relationships as seriously as He does. God wants not the bare minimum politeness, civility and good manners — but the deepest respect, integrity, and love. So deeply ingrained it is habitual and natural.

As Christians, it is totally appropriate getting upset over sin. The social sins such as the social evils of abuse, racism, pornography, drugs, poverty, and capitalism run amuck. And there are the “everyday evils” such as gossip that destroys reputations, bullying that scars young people, and more – actions we should condemn. But no matter how reprehensible the people or activities we’re condemning, we might want to ask ourselves the questions, “Is there sin in the way my anger is expressed? Where is the redemptive value of my anger?” Think about the last time you were really angry. Was redemption anywhere nearby?

Now let us consider again Jesus’ teaching on murder.  When He says “But I say to you” it is teaching that coexisting without literally killing each other is not enough to sustain a beloved community.  It’s just the beginning.  Agreeing not to commit homicide is essential and lovely, but what about all the other habitual ways we human beings “kill” our relationships through resentment, rage, unforgiveness, and spite?  Don’t we often treat others as if they are dead to us?  Less than human?  Unworthy of love?  Don’t we inflict soul-killing violence on each other through our words?  Our silences?  Our refusal to extend and receive forgiveness?  What good is it if we, God’s children, technically spare each other’s lives, and yet commit unspeakable acts of murder through a refusal to love?

Something wicked this way comes. We haven’t killed anyone, but… Anger is in the air; we are a house divided. We all have our patterns of anger, likely little of it redemptive. But we can change. We are called to change. Here is some advice for how to begin to change: “everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the [anger] of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).

Here is some more advice. It comes from the nuns who taught us in high school. During the school dances, the slow ballads would arrive and wooohooo! You got to slow dance… real close. The sisters would literally come over with a 12-inch ruler, but it between you and your dance partner, gently smile, and say “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” So, when you feel the demon of anger rising within, leave room for the Holy Spirit. Consider your response and words. Do not “kill” the person in front of you. Find the path of redemption in the moment.

For God wants not the bare minimum politeness, civility and good manners — but the deepest respect, integrity, and love. Now, there is a habit worth forming.

Amen

2 thoughts on “Habits

  1. I keep forwarding this to myself every week or so, so I can read it over and over. Now during the quarantining, I am looking at it again. I have been less aggravated by a few people but am also getting the chance to reflect on my part in the interraction. I am praying to have a kinder, gentler face to face interraction when all this is over! Thanks for the admonishment. I needed it.

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