And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
I began to write some reflections on this passage today, when it all started to sound somewhat familiar. I did some searching through my old posts on the blog, and found this article from over 12 years ago. Two things came to mind: 1) I am grateful for the way in which the writing has held up over the years, and 2) I am saddened that I still struggle with the same prideful heart these 12 years later.
We are all in the midst of God’s transforming work, He’s not done with us yet. May this word be cause for reflection, and a source of hope in overcoming anger.
In C. S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce, Lewis has a dream in which he finds himself on a bus ride from hell to heaven. Along the way, he observes as various passengers on the bus either decide to turn back to hell because the transition is too much for them to bear, or they are transformed into those prepared to dwell in heaven forever.
During one such encounter, Lewis watches as a woman passes by, grumbling and babbling about nothing consequential, while her angel companion cannot get a word in edgewise. He writes,
The shrill monotonous whine died away as the speaker, still accompanied by the bright patience at her side, moved out of sight.
‘What troubles ye, son?’ asked my Teacher.
‘I am troubled, Sir,’ said I, ‘because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into the habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.’
‘That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.’
‘I should have thought there was no doubt about that!’
‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The questions is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman – even the least trace of one – still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our eyes forever. They must be swept up.’
‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’
‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences… it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.’
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. (The Macmillan Co., New York, 1946)
I am always surprised to find how writers like Lewis, Brennan Manning, Blackaby, or Chambers seem to be writing specifically about me. Perhaps Lewis struggled with grumbling and anger the way I do, that is how he could write with such wisdom.
I would not describe myself as an angry person. I don’t yell and scream at people, I am usually considered pretty easy going.
But I know myself. I know the rage that festers and fumes within, needing only the slightest catalyst to set it off. Maybe its the lady at the grocery store with 25 items in the express lane, or the guy who parks his truck in the middle of the school parking lot, gets out of the truck, and casually walks his children to the door, meanwhile blocking the ten people behind him from dropping off their children and getting to the office on time.
I find myself fuming over the littlest of things. It began as a grumbling mood, but I am afraid I have embraced it. I pray I have not reached that day when I can no longer repent of it. Then there will be no me left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.
God warns us against rage and anger. In Genesis 4, Cain is angry with the world because God has accepted his brother’s sacrifice and not his own. Gen. 4:5-6 reads, “So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’”
Wow – do I know that feeling. Sin is crouching at the door, waiting to jump out and consume me. God says I must rule over it, I must conquer this beast. But it’s so difficult. Part of me likes the rage, maybe I’m holding out for that moment when I get so mad I’ll start turning green, rip through my clothes and become the incredible Hulk (yeah, I read too many comics as a kid).
But getting angry at least gives me the feeling of having power. I can fume and fuss and cut someone down and feel really good about myself – but that feeling is temporary at best. I’ve held on to this anger for so long, now I don’t even know what I’m angry about, and the satisfying feeling that comes with the eruption is less and less each time.
I need a change of heart, a change of perspective. I need God to soften my heart. I need a little time under Jonah’s shade tree.
You see, I think Jonah had the same anger issues that I am dealing with. Jonah was a prophet of the Lord God, and the Lord called Jonah to go and preach to the city of Nineveh. As the story goes, Jonah refused to go and preach to his enemies, so he went the opposite direction, hiring a ship to take him to Tarshish. While at sea, a terrible storm raged, and Jonah confessed his sin and was thrown overboard, only to be swallowed by a whale. After three days, Jonah was thrown back out on the shore, and God told him again to go to Nineveh.
This time Jonah went, and he preached God’s message – a threat of impending doom if the people of the city did not repent of their evil ways. Sure enough, the people repented, and God relented of the disaster.
Now, you would think that Jonah would be happy that over 120,000 people had responded to his message, but instead he was displeased, and angry with God. He told God that he would rather die that see the Ninevites repent. And God said, “Do you do well to be angry?”
So Jonah went out to a hill overlooking Nineveh, and he sat there, waiting to see what would happen. As he waited, God planted a shade tree for Jonah, and this made Jonah really happy. The next day, God put a worm in the tree so that when the sun came out, the tree withered and died. Again, Jonah grumbled against God, “I would rather die…” And God said again, “Do you do well to be angry? You complain about a tree that you did not plant. Should I not be concerned for Nineveh, for the 120,000 souls that are there?”
What Jonah needed was a change in perspective. He was concerned with his reputation as a prophet, he didn’t want to be associated with these despised Ninevites. He was more concerned with his comfort and his reputation than with the souls that needed saving.
I need a change in perspective. My anger comes from that deceptive and pervasive sin of pride. I have put my needs, my comfort, my advancement, myself, above the needs of everyone else. I only get upset because I don’t feel like I get the respect, the response I deserve. God is saying to me again, “Do you do well to be angry?” It is foolishness to hold on to this rage. Prov. 14:29 teaches, “Whoever slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” What a fool I’ve been.
‘Do you do well to be angry?” I know the answer is “No.” I pray that God will help me to rule over it. This can only be done through the power of Holy Spirit – I can only conquer my fits of rage as the Spirit of God develops in me “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:21-22). While I hold on to my anger I cannot hold on to Christ. When I take up my ax, I cannot also take up my cross. As long as the greenie-meanie lives I cannot say, “I have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”