Losing Your Temper for Good
Ever dig a grave with dynamite?
There are parts of West Virginia where you have to, because the topsoil is only a few inches thick and underneath is the limestone hillside. A friend of mine heard a tremendous explosion one morning — didn't surprise him, that's how they dig graves out there — but what did surprise him is that the explosions were repeated every twenty minutes or so. After a few hours he and his father moseyed on out to see whether half the town was being buried.
The new gravedigger was out there with a half-empty case of dynamite, tying six or eight sticks together and unrolling 200 yards of wire, putting on his hard hat, pushing the plunger, and then cowering on the ground, because the flying rocks were falling like bombs; then he went back, found the grave three inches deeper, and repeated the process.
My friend's father said, "Gimme a stick." He cut it in half, attached a cap, pushed it into a crack, rolled a boulder on top, stretched out six or eight feet of wire and touched it off with a flashlight battery. There was a dull "Whump!" and voila! A gravel pit eight feet deep, where only bedrock had been.
Old man Epling got more done with half a stick than an ignoramus got done with half a case.
As I listened to my friend tell the story, it occurred to me that this might be a lesson for those of us who are troubled by one of the most persistent problems the Christian has — anger.
Most Christians think of anger the way the dear lady who wrote "Eight is Not Enough" for the Northwestern Lutheran thinks. She wrote about her most recent adoption, which involved an abused child. As she heard the stomach-turning tale, she said, "I prayed that God would take away my anger." Off course she did; in our ignorance, we the clergy have misled people into thinking that anger is a sin.
But don't you remember the familiar passage (Ephesians 4:26, KJV) that says, "Be ye angry, and sin not?"
Anger and sin are two distinct things. And it is comforting to know this, because Jesus was angry. If anger per se were sinful, Jesus could not be our Savior. St. Mark tells us (3:5):
Jesus looked around at them IN ANGER and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
Jesus was angry, yet committed no sin.
You may wonder how this can be. You probably think of your anger as a shortcoming, a vice, a fault, a great liability. That's how the nice lady with all the children thought of it. That's because she was taught to do so. And I do not criticize her or those who taught her that, because I myself have always believed the same way.
That is, until I got my hands on a marvelous book called Make Anger Your Ally, available for $15 from Focus on the Family, Box 500, Arcadia, CA 91006. This book explained that a violent temper can be turned into one of your most constructive assets.
Now, anger by nature is not constructive, any more than dynamite is. Most people use anger the way the ignorant fellow used dynamite. He used 200 times as much as he needed; he didn't direct it properly; and people could have been badly hurt by his misuse. You have to use it the way my friend's father used it. He got more mileage out of half a stick than most people get out of half a case. He didn't waste any making noise. And nobody was going to get hurt.
That's because he contained it. And it's important for us also to bring our anger, like every other thought, into captivity to Christ; for the apostle James cautions us that "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." (James 1:19)
Man's anger doesn't.
But God's anger does.
And God's anger, working through God's Spirit, which lives in Christians, can bring about great results. If we use our anger the way God intended it, it can be as constructive as dynamite instead of as destructive as dynamite. Anger is like dynamite, you know. Its primary effect is to destroy, but Alfred Nobel did not invent it to destroy. His purpose in inventing it was to destroy obstacles — evil things that get in the way of human happiness.
Picture a man trying to dig that grave with a hammer and chisel. It would have taken weeks of exhausting toil. A dollar's worth of TNT did it all in a moment.
Anger can have the same effect.
Sometimes there are enormous obstacles in our way, obstacles to human happiness and benefit, obstacles so huge that no one in his right mind would tackle them.
But an angry man is not in his right mind.
He is in a very special state of mind, given him as a gift by God, that enables him to take an obstacle that common sense would tell him he can never remove.
For example, take Don Wildmon, a mild-mannered Methodist minister who is so angry about pornography that he is taking on the seven billion dollar-a-year[sic]porno industry, the Mafia which is behind most of it, and all three networks — and he seems to be winning.
Take the mother who was so mad when her son was killed by a drunk driver that she founded M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). She's taking on the twenty billion dollar[sic] liquor industry and 50 state legislators AND the enormous inertia of an entire nation — and she seems to be winning.
Take Herman Otten, attacking religious liberalism in the Lutheran church, and getting precious little help and all too much criticism even from conservatives. Seems that he's winning, too.
That's what anger is like. It enables a single David to take on a million Goliaths, and win.
Unfortunately, most of us don't know how to use anger, so we usually bottle it up under the mistaken impression that that is the Christian ideal. We may wind up under a doctor's care for hypertension or ulcers or various psychosomatic illnesses. We may be like the Mississippi steamboats that tied down the safety valve to win a race, until the boilers blew the boat to Hinders and scalded the skin off most of the passengers so that they died in agony. Most Christians' anger is like that, held in till it blows up, making noise, hurting people, accomplishing nothing.
But anger can be one of the most conservative forces in the world, if you use it properly.
How DO you use it properly?
We see how Jesus used His anger. When the Jews tried to block Him from a work of mercy on the Sabbath. He neither vented His spleen nor swallowed it. He didn't stand there bottling it up, with teeth clenched and stomach churning. He didn't explode in rage and cuss them out and hurt the people around Him. His anger gave Him the energy to remove obstacles to human welfare. His anger moved Him to heal.
The wrath of God was similarly controlled. It did not explode against us. It was contained — directed. Instead of sending us all to hell ... for all eternity, His anger broke out against Jesus. But even this turned out for the good, because that burning anger destroyed sin's guilt and power. Now we can live for God, as we were created to do (Ephesians 2:10). We can do good works, for God's Spirit lives in us and through us. And sometimes that is an angry Spirit, wishing to destroy the evil around us, inciting us to righteous wrath.
You may think, "I'm just one person. I'm not Don Wildmon or Herman Otten. What can I do?"
One day my father and I were cutting the grass at our home about 50 miles from Chicago. Both mowers were going full throttle as we passed each other. The noise was almost deafening, but it was like nothing compared to the blast that made us drop the handles and whip around to look at the horizon. The blowup would have drowned out a sonic boom.
And off in the distance we stared in shock at the ugliest thing in the world.
It was a mushroom cloud.
"They've bombed Chicago!" my father stammered. "They've BOMBED CHICAGO!"
His mother lived there.
Well, we found out that it wasn't Chicago. It was the McHenry Fireworks Factory, six miles away.
One little spark got the rest of them going, and WHAM!!!!!!
The significant thing about the McHenry Fireworks Factory was that in Illinois it was strictly illegal to make anything larger than a 2 cent firecracker. By itself, each firecracker couldn't do much. But when they all "put in their 2 cents worth" at the same time, they had an impact that shook the county.
You may not be Don Wildmon or Herman Otten, but you can still get together with people like them. Your "two cents' worth" will not add to theirs, like one firecracker going off after another; it will multiply with theirs, like many crackers going off at once. You can shake the county — you can shake the world.
There's a lesson here for those "lone wolf" Christians who think they don't need the church, its activities, or its fellowship. The most they can do is "pop off" when they lose their tempers.
But the Christian who works together with others, using his anger to remove obstacles and evil, may — if you'll pardon the pun — lose his temper for good.