Unholy alliance: anger & gospel

Background Scripture: James 1:19-27 Devotional Reading: 1 John 3:14-20.

The Letter of James was one of the last books to make it into the New Testament. It was not until the middle of the 4th century AD that it appeared among the church fathers. There was much controversy as to whether or not it should be regarded as authoritative for Christians, but with the influence of Sts. Jerome and Augustine, it was accepted in the Latin-speaking church by the 7th century AD and by the Greek-speaking Syriac church in the 8th century.

One reason for the delay was the controversy over the identity of James. He begins the letter identifying himself simply as “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ to the twelve tribes in dispersion” (1:1). There were at least five possible Christian leaders by that name: James the son of Judas, not Iscariot, (Lk. 6:16); James, son of Alphaeus (Lk 6:15); James the younger (Mk.15:40); James the brother of John (Mt. 10:2) and finally James, called the brother of Jesus (Mk. 6:3). But, despite various theories, we do not know which James it was, nor does it really matter. This epistle stands on its own merit. Besides, the writer does not identify himself as Jesus’ brother. There are only two, indirect references to Jesus in the whole letter.

The Epistle of James is more like the Old Testament book of Proverbs than a New Testament-era letter. Proverbs is actually a collection of short, pithy statements providing instructions on how a Jew is to conduct himself in daily living. James’s book is primarily a book of proverbs and suggestions regarding how Christians are to conduct their lives. In the first chapter he touches on Christian wisdom, just as the book of Proverbs is concerned with wisdom and marked as one of the Bible’s wisdom books. (1:5; 3:13; 5:19). I call this to your attention because it helps to explain the way James organizes this letter, why he returns again and again to the same or similar themes, particularly the question of whether it is faith or works that saves us. Quick and slow

Let’s return to the concern with which we began: the Christian and his or her anger. James shows surprising insight into the experience of anger, either the receiving or the giving of it: “Know this, my beloved brethren, let every man be quick to hear…” (1:19). Anger is often the result of making an emotional rather than rational response to what someone has said or done. I have seen this in hundreds of church meetings. We get angry because we have not heard correctly, or we often are the target of anger because someone has misheard what we said. Listening carefully may save you from being the purveyor of anger or the victim of it.

Next, James says we shall be “slow to speak.” Many disputes are the result of jumping to conclusions before someone else is finished speaking. A woman once said she found that, if someone said something she thought insulting or blaming, she found that by failing to reply right away enabled the other person to clarify his or her remarks. Too often we snap back when we feel threatened, our words serving as substitutes for physical responses. Often I’d like to tell writers of letters to the editor of our newspaper to take several deep breaths before they pen angry replies. Slow to anger

James goes on to say “…slow to anger.” But we are often quick to anger because our society impresses upon us the need to retaliate and inflict as much pain as one receives. James counsels us: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (1:26). James also calls for mercy: “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). Anger is contrary to Christ’s teachings: “And the tongue is like a fire. It is a world of wrong, occupying its place in our bodies and spreading evil through our whole being. It sets on fire the entire course of our existence with fire that comes to it from hell itself” (3:6 Good News for Modern Man).

Several decades ago I studied, wrote, and taught on the subject of managing stress. I studied the works of Dr. Hans Selye, who is generally regarded as one of the great medical pioneers of the 20th century and the father of research on stress. “Life,” says Selye, “is largely a process of adaptation to the circumstances in which we exist.” It is our failure to adapt successfully that produces the destructive wear and tear on us. Research on anger indicates that when a person becomes angry there is an increase of adrenalin released in the body. The feeling of that adrenaline is in a way pleasurable to us and we may increase our anger in order to overdose on our own adrenaline. But we can be cured of that addiction – if we want to be.

James counsels us to meet the seductive appeal of anger with prayer. “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:13-15). None of us are condemned to be angry and anxious. It is something we consciously or unconsciously choose. And what we have chosen we can let go of – with Christ’s help.