As I’ve continued to meditate on the Sermon on the Mount, I found myself struck in a new way by these words.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
I have always believed and taught that feelings are not sins, and so I have interpreted this passage to be about our outward expressions of anger toward others, such as the example Jesus gives of calling people names. But this time around, I felt led to reconsider how Jesus sees my anger. It’s true that the initial surge of emotion is not something I have direct control over. But, if I really stop to think about it, my anger usually does emerge from already ugly places in my heart - areas where I feel insecure, defensive, and self-righteous. Psychologists describe this by calling anger a “secondary emotion.” We have another feeling first, like hurt or loss, and then we respond to those feelings with anger toward someone we hold responsible for our suffering. Anger comes from the felt need to blame. It doesn’t come from the places in my heart where I have cultivated confidence, compassion, grace, and humility.
I found myself this week thinking that, though I don’t always initially have direct control over feelings in my body, I do have a good deal of control over what feelings I am likely to end up having, as well as what feelings I nurture once they arrive. I can choose to focus on the faults and failures of others in order to cultivate a protective self-righteousness in myself. Or I can choose to build a tolerance for looking at my own failures and to nurture compassion for others in order to cultivate a gentle humility in myself. With this in mind, I believe it is important to seek freedom from anger by cultivating the heart. If you like, you can pray this prayer with me,
“Lord Jesus, set me free from anger. Teach me to turn continually away from the need to blame and to turn instead toward mercy, compassion, and true knowledge of myself in all my weakness and failure. Teach me to be gentle toward myself and others. Show me always my own need for mercy so I will be merciful toward others. Teach me to know your love and to live in it always. Amen.”
Love in Christ,