Angry Harping

I love absurdity (which could be why I get so many laughs from British humor). And, if you’re anything like me, the title of this entry, “Angry Harping”, probably got you thinking about some frowning person plucking the strings of a harp with extreme gusto – maybe the guitar part to Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog? Considering the type of person generally thought of as a harpist, that’s a scene of massive incongruity. It’s like Mick Jagger playing Vivaldi, Jeremy Clarkson driving a Smart car, Emeril Legasse eating at Peter Piper Pizza, or Mike Tyson playing squash … it just doesn’t fit!

However the real reason for naming this article “Angry Harping” is because I’ve noticed – as I’m sure you have – that when people get angry, they tend to harp on everything that ticks them off. At least I know that’s my problem. Something sets me off on the path to anger and then I find myself nit-picking the driving of the idiot in front of me, or the writing of the moron who keeps emailing me, or the dupe that voted for “that” dunderhead, or the berk who thinks that the world is going to end because of human CO2 emissions. When you get angry, it’s easy to find something else for your anger to feed on.

Think of the times you have gotten really angry or at least the times when frustrations have piled on one another. Haven’t you noticed during those times that you’re much more likely to snap at your loved ones? To find fault with your friends? To yell at your co-workers? To curse? To kick your dog?

That’s precisely why Paul, in his famous passage on living as a Christian (Ephesians 4) wrote, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:26,27, NIV). Now notice a few things about this passage:

First, Paul does NOT say, “Do not be angry,” he says, “In your anger do not sin.” He recognizes that anger has its uses and is the appropriate response to certain circumstances. All one has to do is read the story of Jesus’ tear in the Temple courts to know that there is a time and place for anger (see Mk 11) – more on this in a moment. So, when presented with the injustices and evil of this world, anger is appropriate.

Second, though Paul doesn’t condemn anger in itself, he gives strict guidelines for it. Specifically he says to, “not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Now, when you compare that with my illustration of Jesus’ rampage in the Temple courts in Mark 11, you’ll notice that Jesus came into Jerusalem and “went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mk 11:11). Since Jesus came in, looked at everything, but then left until the next day, it could be argued that Paul’s admonition to “not let the sun go down while you are still angry” doesn’t make sense.

But, as with everything in scripture, we must take the principle and apply it appropriately. We could surmise that Jesus’ response was not completely steeped in anger like ours is when the work starts to pile up on our desk, or the bills outstrip our ability to pay them – after all, Jesus was/is God and has a better capacity for control than we do.

Also, you’ll notice that Mark’s account doesn’t say that Jesus was angry when he first saw the situation. Instead it looks like He was rather calm. He walked in, looked and walked out. It was the next morning that a resolute Jesus wove together a whip and drove out the money changers and those who monetized religion.
Furthermore, Mark makes it abundantly clear that, even in (what we would call) His anger, Jesus was still concerned with the Father’s business. In verse 17 He even quoted scripture (try that next time the car won’t start or the kids draw on the wall).

Because Mark includes the portion about Jesus coming in, looking then heading off to Bethany for the night, you also get the impression that he was attempting to communicate that Jesus was completely in control of His anger – rather than the other way around. Too often, when anger comes upon us, it seizes us to our core and we can think of little else. We snarl and rage at the thing making us angry at the time (or anything/anybody unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity) and we miss how there might be an opportunity for a lesson out of it. One reason Jesus may have gone out to Bethany for the night with the intention of coming back to drive everyone out in the morning was that He wanted maximum impact for His actions. More people would be in the Temple courts in the morning than at night, therefore more would see the point He was making about true religion. Even if this wasn’t the case though, it is clear that Jesus was in control of His anger – which is the main point for us.

(Back to Paul’s instruction now) Third, Paul gives the instruction to bring an end to your anger before the sun goes down because it can “give the devil a foothold.” When we get wrapped around the axle with the things that make us angry, harping on it and dwelling on it, it takes our focus away from the big picture of spiritual life.

You’ve heard the saying “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” Well, it is completely applicable to an angry life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve become focused on the object of my anger and forgotten my real mission, the really important things going on around me. An even more poignant paraphrase of the ‘forest for the trees’ saying might be, “Can’t see the swamp for the light bulb.” Do you remember Eastern Airlines Flight 401 that crashed in the Everglades because the pilot and crew were fixated on whether a gear malfunction light was incorrectly lit? That’s exactly what can happen when we focus on the small things that bother us to the exclusion of the big spiritual battle raging around us. That’s what Paul is warning when talking about going to bed with anger resolved in order to not give the devil a foothold, and just as imperatively it is beautifully illustrated by Mark in his account of Jesus in the Temple – Jesus was IN CONTROL.

We must remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12, NIV) – which means that the small, nit-picking things that we angrily harp on in this transient, entropic world are of the least significance when compared with the weightier things of the spirit –a clear principle preached by Paul and illustrated by Jesus in a much more memorable way than seeing a harpist angrily plucking out Black Dog.

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