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Diffusing Explosive Anger (August 27, 2000)

Down near Fort Worth, Texas, authorities were puzzled over dozens of suspicious fires that kept igniting in curious places.  For example, a dumpster would catch on fire, then an abandoned building, and then someone's garage, or an empty house.  Though such fires are known to occur, something wasn't adding up.  The fires kept happening in the same region.  They were regular occurrences.  The fires, though destructive, never caused injury.  And most curious of all, the fire department was always quick to respond.

After some careful investigation, authorities zeroed in on the source of the fires.  Evidently a group of firefighters in Genoa, Texas had a little bit too much time on their hands and not a lot of smarts.  They were accused of setting more than forty fires throughout the city.  When they were finally caught red-handed, they defended their pyromania saying, "We had nothing to do.  We just wanted to get the red lights flashing and the bells clanging."  Instead of being fire fighters, they were fire starters.

What are social pyromaniacs?

This past week I picked up a book called Firestorm.  In this book, author Ron Susek talks about pyromaniacs.  Pyromaniacs are those impassioned few who not only love setting fires, but who also have, "a tragic psychological need to witness the ensuing drama."  It's preferable that your local fire department not be made up of pyromaniacs.  In his book, Susek coins a term I have never heard before, social pyromaniacs.  He says that social pyromaniacs are those individuals who love setting relationships to flame instead of old abandoned buildings.  They love going around dousing relationships with flammable agents.  They love tossing flaming cocktails through the windows of people's lives.

Social pyromaniacs let negative emotions, ill thoughts, and anger smolder for months, even years, and never lift a finger to extinguish the hot coals.  Social pyromaniacs fan fading embers of anger into all-consuming forest fires.  They carelessly toss their lighted matches of anger into volatile relationships, and then stand back to enjoy the show.  Instead of being social fire fighters, they opt instead to be social fire starters.

Today I want to talk about something that poses a very real threat, not just to the unity of our church, but also to our relationships with one another and especially to our relationship to God.  Nothing wrecks relationships more quickly than undiffused anger.  Nothing takes us further from God's presence than undiffused anger.  Anger is the struck match that must be extinguished before it causes great damage.

Anger must be extinguished before it causes great damage.

When I was in the fourth grade, my brother Mike and I loved playing with fire.  We would go down to the creek and light sections of grass on fire.  We would build big brush piles in our back yard and set them ablaze.  Fire was a game to us and we played around with it far too much.  But then one day we were playing with candles in our bedroom.  One thing led to another and soon we were dangling string and small pieces of plastic over the candles just to see what would happen.  On this particular day, I was the stupid one.  I took a piece of newspaper and dangled it over the flame.  It took about a half-second for that entire piece of paper to become engulfed in flames.  The flames were about as big as my eyes.  Needless to say, I dropped the newspaper and it landed on the carpet.  The carpet caught on fire and I panicked.  I yelled for help.

My brother quickly grabbed his pillow and smothered the burning paper.  As he sat on the pillow, my Mom burst into the room saying, "What's going on?  Did something happen?  (Sniff... Sniff..)  Is that smoke I smell?"  Of course, I was the first to speak.  "No... ah, nothing's wrong.  We, ah..., we were just playing and we had the candles lit."  In her wisdom my mom said, "Why don't you give me those matches, and get those candles out of here?  You guys could catch this house on fire!"  After vigorously nodding our heads in full agreement, mom left and we scrubbed the singed carpet until it no longer looked scorched.  We had a new found appreciation for James 3:5 (NIV) which says, "Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark."

Undiffused anger is a real threat to our church.

Playing around with anger is a lot like playing with matches.  We often think that our own anger is as harmless as a match.  We confidently strike it up and become mesmerized by its glowing flame.  We never think that our own anger is going to erupt into something greater.  So we toy around with it, thinking that we are in complete control.  We dangle little thoughts over it.  We run our fingers through it.  At times we even let our own anger burn out of control, just to marvel at the power and strength it has to cause destruction.  And in some circumstances we fully unleash our anger and let it run its course.

In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus paints a picture of the danger of anger.  His point is that a spark of anger is always the prelude to a forest fire.  No one playing with matches ever says, "I think I'll start a forest fire today."  And no one playing with anger ever says, "I think I'll destroy someone today."  Rather, like a fire, anger builds until it explodes with physical violence.  Kids don't just wake up one morning and say, "I think I'll go on a rampage."  Rather, their anger intensifies for years before culminating in murder.

Let's take a look at Matthew 5:21-23 (NIV).  Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell."  There are several things we learn about anger from this passage.

First, anger is as serious as murder. 

Jesus says, "I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment."  The people of Jesus' day had a very narrow and comfortable understanding of murder.  When God said in Exodus 20:13 (NIV), "You shall not murder" , they assumed that God was only talking about the violent physical action by which a life is taken.  They believed in this "degree of sin" thing whereby God shrugs his shoulders at some things, like anger, while taking other things more seriously, like murder.  Jesus totally stunned his audience by associating anger with murder by saying, "...anyone who murders will be subject to judgement"  and, "...anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment."  In God's eyes, anger is every bit as serious as murder because anger is always the prelude to murder.  Anger is the spark that leads to firestorm.

If you travel to a place like Yellowstone National Park, it is unlikely that you will see signs posted around telling visitors, "Do not start forest fires."  You will however, find signs like, "Do not leave camp fires unattended", and "Extinguish all cigarette butts", and "Fire alert level: 5."  You will also discover that park rangers are every bit as concerned with enforcing the seemingly small, innocent infractions as they are about putting out the big firestorms that decimate thousands of acres of land.  The reason is that park rangers and fire fighters understand that the largest fires begin in the smallest, most unimaginable, and even innocent ways.

When God says, "You shall not murder", he is not just talking about the violent physical action that ends another person's life.  Rather, he is talking about every action and thought that leads up to murder.  From the struck match of anger to the unattended campfire of anger in our hearts to the final outward act of violence, all of it is serious business in God's eyes.  All of it is subject to judgment.  Not only does God prohibit our arriving at the destination of murder, but he also commands us to get off the pathway of anger that leads to murder.

The best way to prevent forest fires is to prevent people from playing with matches.  The best way to stop murder is to diffuse anger before it builds and takes over.  The best way to stop murder is to extinguish that smoldering campfire of anger that is consuming your heart.  The best way to stop murder is to not flick the ashes of our anger into the great forest of relationships around us.

The internal anger inside us is the prelude to the outward final violent act.  Murderous anger leads to murderous behavior.  That's why God doesn't mess around with anger.  If all of us took our bottled-up anger as seriously as we took the physical act of murder, our lives would change dramatically.  In 1 John 3:15 (NIV) John says, "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him (Christ).In God's eyes, anger is as serious as murder.

Second, over time, anger intensifies.

In Matthew 5:22 (NIV) Jesus says, "Anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell."  In Jesus' day, 'Raca' was a light insult that literally meant "empty head."  In our day we say things like "You idiot, how could you be so stupid?"

'Raca' was an insult of a person's intelligence.  It means nitwit, blockhead, numbskull, or bonehead.  At times our mouths spew just these sorts of insults.  You're driving in traffic and someone cuts you off.  Your son brings home a bad report card.  Your child misses an open shot at the goal in soccer.  Your spouse makes a poor decision.  Someone asks you a dumb question.  A coworker does something that annoys you.  The first symptom of anger is most frequently a light insult like 'raca.'  Sometimes that light insult is guised in humor.  "You goof-ball.  Momma always said you were a few french fries short of a happy meal."

Sometimes that light insult is whispered under your breath, "Whose hair-brained idea is this?  Am I the only one with a brain around here?"  Sometimes that light insult is packed in an impatient rebuke like, "Shut up!"

If left alone, it's amazing how quickly our anger begins to surface and even build.  Notice in this passage how quickly the light insult becomes a outright condemnation, "You fool!"  In Jesus' day calling someone a "fool" was equivalent to telling someone to "go to eternal hell", and I don't mean that metaphorically.  "You fool!" was an expression of contempt for another's heart and character.  It was the most intense expression of anger a person could muster, short of lashing out physically with violence.  It was the expression of one's desire to see another person suffer, even die.  The next logical step after wishing such evil on someone is violence, even murder.  How quickly the struck match of anger engulfs one's relationships.

Third, Jesus indicates that anger can cost us everything.

In Matthew 5:25-26 (NIV) Jesus says, "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.  Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.  I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."

Earlier this year Robert Pambianco of the Washington Legal Foundation released some mind-numbing statistics.  In 1997 the top ten United States jury awards totaled seven hundred fifty million dollars.  In 1998, one year later, the top ten United States jury awards totaled 2.9 billion dollars.  In 1999, the top ten United States jury awards totaled 8.9 billion dollars.  Robert Pambianco says that these numbers are, "just further evidence that suing someone has become the preferred means of solving disputes."

According to Jesus, the price tag for not diffusing your anger may include being handed over the judge, being thrown in prison, and paying every last penny.  Married couples who do not get their differences resolved and their anger diffused are likely to enter into a knockdown drag out legal battle.  Individuals who procrastinate in resolving differences while hearts are still malleable may later find their opponents' hearts hardened and vindictive.

It's interesting to me that we spend so much time blaming lawyers.  The problem is with those who hire lawyers to do their bidding.  The problem is with those who stubbornly refuse to resolve their differences by quickly settling matters with their adversary.  Anger can cost us everything, especially in our litigious society.

Jesus indicates that anger interferes with our worship.

In Matthew 5:23 (NIV) Jesus says, "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."

The scene moves to a place of worship where people are offering sacrifices to God.  As scriptures about God's goodness are read, as God's merciful, forgiving name is praised in song, as prayers for God's grace and favor are offered up to the holy God, as the worshiper kneels before the altar to remember God's sacrifice, he begins to offer up the absolute best gift he can lay his hands on.

But suddenly the worshiper realizes that he is not right with his brother.  His heart becomes heavy.  Old feelings of resentment and anger begin stirring.  A much hated face enters his mind and he becomes paralyzed by the realization that he is not at peace with a brother he has wronged.  He tries to justify his feelings and actions, but it's of no use.  He cannot worship a forgiving and loving God when he has an unforgiving, angry heart.

Jesus instruction is clear.  "Leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift."  Notice the priority Jesus places on reconciliation.  "First go and be reconciled."  He adds in Matthew 5:25 (NIV), "settle matters quickly with your adversary."

Anger is as serious as murder.

In summary, anger is as serious as murder.  Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment."  Anger intensifies over time, from 'raca' to 'you fool' to physical violence.  Anger can cost us everything.  Jesus said, "You will not get out until you pay the last penny."  Anger interferes with worship.  Jesus said, "Leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother."

With such negative consequences, why would we let our anger fester?  Why would we let the sun go down one more time on our anger?  Why would we hold onto something so explosive and destructive?  Jesus' word is, "First go and be reconciled..."

In The Essential Calvin and Hobbes  by Bill Watterson, the cartoon character Calvin says to his tiger friend Hobbes, "I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings.  I'm sorry I did it."  "Maybe you should apologize to her," Hobbes suggests.  Calvin ponders this for a moment and replies, "I keep hoping there is a less obvious solution."

Friends, before the forest of relationships around you ignites, do the one obvious thing that will make all the difference in the world.  First go and be reconciled to your brother.  Diffuse your explosive anger.  Extinguish the flames before the flames of anger consume your world and cost you everything.

Reflection on communion.

Just now, we are going to move into a time of communion with our Lord.  At communion, we reflect on two types of relationships that are dear to us.  First, we focus on our relationship to God and ask, "Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, body and soul?"  Second, we focus on our relationship to one another and ask, "Are we loving our neighbor as we love ourselves?"

Both questions must be asked and honestly answered at communion time.  Are you right with God?  Have you confessed your sins?  Have you repented and recommitted yourself to obedience?  Have you asked forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ?  Are you trusting Jesus Christ to be your righteousness before God?

Are you right with your brothers and sisters in Christ?  Is there someone who is maybe even in this room who you refuse to talk with?  Is there someone you are angry with or someone that you have been wishing evil upon?  Is there someone you have offended with light insult or a vindictive word?  Is there someone you have wronged and need forgiveness from?

The communion table around which we gather every week is the closest equivalent we have to the altar of Jesus' day.  It is an offense against God to come before this table professing our love for God while actively harboring anger in our hearts toward our brother.  Today before you take the cup and the juice, be sure that you are right with your brothers and sisters in Christ.  If you are not, "First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come offer your gift."  Offer your gift of worship to God.

Prayer 

Father, anger is no laughing matter.  It is destructive.  It is sinful.  Anger is something that needs to be repented of.  It has no place in our hearts.  Give us the strength to diffuse and extinguish our explosive anger.  Help us get right and stay right with our brothers and sisters and also with you.  In Jesus' name we pray.  Amen.

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