‘Be Angry and Do Not Sin’

Jonah 4; Ephesians 4:26
July 2, 2023
Matt Goodale

We’re continuing our sermon series where you tell me what to preach on. And someone asked if I could preach on anger, and specifically how to let go of anger.

And I’m really glad that someone asked for this topic, because it’s a topic I may not have chosen to preach exclusively on otherwise—which is why this series is so great.

While the Bible is stuffed full of stories that address or are driven by anger, I landed on an old favorite. Jonah. I know I preached on Jonah in the fall, but I actually left out this chapter.

What we read today is the very end of Jonah’s story. He has already been sent to Nineveh by God to preach judgment and destruction. He has preached said judgment and destruction. And surprisingly, the people repented and God relented from his judgment.

And Jonah couldn’t be more ticked off about it. We find Jonah, sitting up on a hill above the city, ready to watch the fireworks of God’s righteous judgment at work. But there are no fireworks. And our story opens, “This was very displeasing to Jonah and made him angry.”

He reluctantly came all this way to a city he never wanted to be, to preach to people he hated, only to then have the only benefit of this whole prophetic business taken from him. He doesn’t get to watch the city burn.

And before we judge Jonah too harshly, remember, the city of Nineveh is home to some of the worst kinds of people. The Veggie Tales version portrays them as dirty fish-slappers. But in reality they had a history of violence and oppression of Israel. So Jonah, being a good Israelite, has every right to hate Nineveh. They are the worst of the worst, the pinnacle of unrighteousness in the ancient world. You couldn’t find a worse hive of scum and villainy.

So Jonah sits sulking, angry and disappointed that God didn’t follow through on his judgment. Jonah basically tells God: this is why I didn’t want to come to Nineveh in the first place, I know you’re the kind of God to forgive and be slow to anger…and I don’t like it.

And we witness here a most interesting conversation between Jonah and God. God asks Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about this?” And I love this…Jonah doesn’t even respond…he just skulks away like a child to go sit on his hill. I can picture him crossing his arms and puffing out his bottom lip as he walks away from God’s question.

So he goes to sit on his sulky hill, and God, for some reason, graciously grows a plant to protect Jonah from the scorching sun. And for a day Jonah sits and sulks in his anger.

But as dawn of the next day comes, the plant withers, Jonah’s shade disappears and Jonah totally loses it. He tells God, “I might as well be dead. First, I don’t get to watch the fireworks of your judgment, then this stupid plant dies.” It reminds me of those days when you’re already in a bad mood and every little thing just gets under your skin and you’re ready to chuck your phone across the room because it isn’t working or slam the kitchen drawer shut because there’s no clean spoons.

And God asks Jonah again, “Jonah, is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah responds, “You’re darn right I have a right to be angry about the bush! Angry enough to die!” And that’s kind of where the story ends.

As I read this story this week, I couldn’t help but feel like we live in a culture full of Jonahs—we live in an angry culture full of angry people and we all feel like we have an absolute right to our anger. We all have a hill—some of us many hills—that we are willing to die on for our anger.

Am I the only one, or does anybody else feel like over the last decade or so we’ve become an angrier society? Maybe you’ve even noticed in yourself that you have a shorter temper or quicker fuse.

While there are a lot of contributing factors, I think a lot of it started with the rise of social media and online comment sections, and it’s been quickly ratcheted up through two deeply divisive and contentious elections, and a worldwide pandemic with two camps of people that still can’t seem to agree on the facts of what actually happened. And it seems like our public discourse is just nastier and more vitriolic than before.

I could cite a number of psychological studies showing how in general, people in our society are quicker and more prone to anger than before, but I don’t think I need studies to prove it, because we can all feel it. We live in what has been called a society of outrage. It can feel impossible to escape outrage nowadays. Anger is present across our screen—from TV news to social media—we hear it in the voices of our friends, neighbors and family members, we can feel it in our own bodies.

News outlets have learned that anger is one of the most potent marketing tools right now. Headlines that incite anger in us will get more clicks, more re-posts, more likes. And sometimes it feels like we intentionally go out of our way looking for reasons to be angry.

The amount of conversations I have with people or overhear in coffee shops now usually go something like this: “Can you believe what those conservatives are doing—they hate everyone who is different from them?” Or, “look at those liberals, they’re at it again, poisoning the minds of our children.”

And as we are immersed in this outrage society, I wonder if it can’t help but seep beyond just our political or theological opinions, into our personal lives and relationships. I’ve noticed in myself over the last couple of years that I’m a bit quicker to get angry at someone for something than I used to; and I’ve noticed in myself that it kind of feels good to be outraged by something—especially if it feels like a righteous anger.

And we always feel justified in our anger, don’t we? How many people do you know who would admit, “I feel angry about such and such, but I know I shouldn’t.” No, it’s always, “This person or this issue or this situation ticks me off, and I have a right to be angry about it!” Like Jonah we say, “You’re darn right I can be angry about whatever I want to be angry about!”

And anger doesn’t always have to directed outwards. Many of us I know can also struggle with anger at ourselves, at mistakes and limitations, anger that our bodies or minds don’t work the way they used to or that our life hasn’t turned out the way we wish it did.

And I want to say that being angry in and of itself is not wrong. I’ve heard a number of sermons on how being angry is ungodly and unChristlike. That’s not true. Jesus flipped the temple tables; the prophets are filled with anger for the injustices they see; and half the book of Psalms is written by angry people. After all, anger is just a human emotion and we can’t help whether we feel it or not.

And I think there are times when being angry is warranted and productive. Scripture is replete with examples of righteous anger motivating change. We see examples in our society too.

But I don’t want to talk about righteous anger today. I want to talk about the anger that sits quietly in our souls and eats us from the inside out. I’m talking about the anger that we choose to hold onto because it feels good to hold onto it. I’m talking about the anger we hold onto because it’s easier to feel angry than it is to feel hurt or afraid. I’m talking about anger that isn’t productive, but just destructive. I’m talking about anger that we don’t know how to let go of.

As I was sitting with this story of Jonah this week, the question that kept coming to my mind was, “What does your anger cost you?”

Usually we think of the outward consequences of our anger. It can cause us to hurt others or say things we wouldn’t otherwise. Or we use anger to pressure someone else into changing or admitting wrong. We usually think of how our anger affects others. We rarely think about what it costs us to hold onto anger.

Jonah holds onto his anger, and we see that he is willing to let it cost him his life. He is so angry at the Ninevites—a group of people that he honestly has pretty good reason to be angry with—that he would rather die than let go of his anger.

We might read this and think, that’s silly, Jonah, or that sounds like an exaggeration for the sake of the story. But I’ve known people who are willing to go to the grave with their anger at a family member rather than seek to make amends. I’ve known families ripped apart by hurts and angers that are decades old. It is amazing how often we are willing to hold onto anger even when it does us great harm.

When I was in high school, there was a girl I really liked, Taylor. And she liked me for a little while too, but I was new to the whole dating thing and I dragged my feet for too long because I was scared and she eventually moved on, but I didn’t.

I knew that she had moved on and I tried to pretend that I had moved on too, because that’s what you do in high school.

And one day, a few weeks after I had found out Taylor had moved on and I was trying to move on as well, my good friend, Mark, asked me how I was doing with the whole Taylor thing. And I said I was doing great and that I had moved on. I figured maybe if I said so enough that it would actually be true.

And Mark encouraged me and then he asked if it was ok if he asked Taylor out. Apparently he had liked her for several years and I later found out she had liked him on and off. Oh, to be in high school, right?

To make a long story short, Mark and Taylor ended up dating a couple weeks later, and it absolutely gutted me. I was angry. I felt betrayed by two of my best friends. But mostly I felt hurt. The thing about anger though, is that in the short term it’s a whole lot easier to let yourself feel angry than it is to let yourself feel hurt.

So I chose to hold on to my anger and it festered and my friendships with Mark and Taylor both suffered. But I was willing to hold onto my anger even if it cost me those precious friendships. That’s what anger can do to us, right? And then at a certain point we’ve held onto something for so long that we aren’t sure how to let go of it.

There’s an old fable about an old man teaching his student about anger. The wise man hands the student a burning coal and instructs him to hold it tightly. As the student feels the pain of the coal gripped tight in his hand, he is supposed to learn what happens to us when we hold onto anger. It burns us and scars us.

We live in a culture that feeds off of and profits from our anger. It encourages us to hold onto it. It whispers that you have a right to that anger, so hold it tightly.

But I think we’ve underestimated what it costs us to hold onto anger for too long.

So what can we do with our anger then? How do we end up not becoming like Jonah where the anger we’ve chosen to clench tightly has become a poison to our own soul?

As I was asking myself this question, an old verse I had to memorize in Sunday school, but that I hadn’t thought of in years popped into my head. It’s from Paul’s book of Ephesians: “Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”

I love the permission Paul gives us. He says, “Be angry”. It’s a passive imperative, which basically means, “Go ahead and let yourself be angry.” Maybe Paul understood how destructive repressed anger can also be.

But he goes on to say. Be angry, it’s part of the human experience, but your anger doesn’t give you permission to sin.

And perhaps most importantly, and most insightfully Paul concludes with, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” In other words, let yourself be angry, but don’t hold onto it too long. Don’t let it fester. Don’t let it burn you like a hot coal.

Did you notice in our Jonah story how God lets Jonah feel angry for a day? God even grows a plant to give him shade to help with his sulking, which I think is extraordinary!

But after one day, God causes the plant to wither and confronts Jonah about his anger. “Do you have a right to be angry, Jonah? Do you have a right to be angry about this plant that you didn’t grow or about these people whom you didn’t create and whom I love?”

I wonder if that’s a question we should ask ourselves more often? “Do I have a right to my anger? Do I have a right to hold onto it until it burns me and the people around me?”

Anger is part of the human experience. But I wonder if most often our anger isn’t really about being angry. I think that anger is a mask we wear to protect us from hurting or from being afraid or from accepting that life is not as firmly in our control as we would like.

And Paul’s words and Jonah’s story call our attention to how much anger can cost us if we choose to hold onto it.

My anger at Mark and Taylor—as trite as it feels years later—wasn’t really about being angry. It was about being hurt. And I eventually was able to confront that and let go of my anger before it ruined our friendships for good.

“Be angry, but don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” What if we all chose to live with that guideline? What if we chose to reject the contemporary notion that we have a right to hold onto our anger endlessly and instead took the very very hard, but very very healing step of offering forgiveness. Sometimes it’s other people you need to forgive. Sometimes you need to start by forgiving yourself.

If it’s true that anger burns us like a hot coal, then I also think it’s true that forgiveness is like fresh water poured over a wound, a healing balm.

I wonder if this is why forgiveness was one of the most important parts of Jesus’ ministry. Anger burns, scars, destroys and divides us from others and ourself if we hold onto it for too long. Forgiveness, choosing to open our hand and let the burning coal fall from it, has the power to heal our hurts and fears. I’m not sure there’s anything more powerful that can change our society and our own lives right now than a little more forgiveness. Amen.