Have y’all ever been just going along with your life minding your own business and then POW something happens to trip you up, and then sin enters your life? Well, I have. The sin I struggle with the most often that just ambushes me like that is rage. I am sometimes just overtaken by an awful, self-indulgent rage. Rage really is self-indulgent. It’s not generally outward focused at all. It seems like it is, though. Rage is always someone else’s fault. Like if I hadn’t gotten cut off by that jerk in traffic then I wouldn’t have thrown what amounts to an adult temper tantrum in my car, yelling and cursing and flipping the bird. That’s what we think in the heat of the moment, but actually, anger is usually a secondary emotion.
A secondary emotion is a reactive emotion that can be so intense that it covers up the primary emotion. This accomplishes two things, it hides our true motivations sometimes even from ourselves, and it prevents us from seeming vulnerable. An example is I get cut off in traffic and I rage, pulling my car into the left lane and zooming angrily past. Now it might have been so swift that I didn’t notice it, or the injustice of the traffic infraction may have completely overshadowed it, but rage was not my first reaction to being cut off. My first reaction was a sudden, sharp intake of breath followed by adrenaline flooding my system and shocking my nerves. This is also known as fear. It’s frightening to have a car suddenly in front of you where there wasn’t one before. The fear is like a lightning bolt, a momentary flash that lit up my system and then disappeared. The rage is the subsequent crack of thunder that follows and rumbles on for quite a while longer. The fear caused me to slam on my brakes, and the rage is the impetus behind my bad behavior that follows. In road rage incidents this can be termed “I almost died, and now I must kill.”
Being a Christian, I am not supposed to sin, but being a human I know I will fail at this. Thankfully, God created repentance. Not every sin is a thought-out, calculated infraction. Many times sin is reactive to situational incidents in our lives such as road rage. we get tripped up by the unexpected, and rage or anger is a weak point for many people. Satan likes to exploit our weak points to his advantage.
Last Saturday I was coming home from spending eight hours with my church friends at a leadership meeting, planning for the Fall semester. I was not stressed, I was happy, I was filled with Jesus, I was listening to Christian music. As I turned into my neighborhood a car appeared behind me, suddenly right up on my bumper. The speed limit on that road is 25 which I will admit is sort of hard to maintain without riding my brakes, so I try to keep it between 25 and 30. The road is twisty and people park in the street which means drivers have to keep alert to avoid hitting a parked car or an oncoming car. I was immediately irritated with the vehicle behind me. Didn’t they see all these other cars? Did they think the speed limit sign was just a suggestion? As I turned onto another main road further on the car turned as well and I could tell they were about to swing into the opposite lane to go around me. This is where my self-indulgent, egotistical rage emerged. What I should have done is to pull over to the right and just allow them to pass. I should have realized that I am not law enforcement and it’s not my job to police people speeding in my neighborhood. I could have taken down their license plate and called the actual police. Friends, I did none of those things. I am ashamed to say I pulled further to the left, trying to block them from passing. When they did pass, my middle finger came up – for the first time in a very long time – and I sped up to catch up to them, and took a picture of their license plate, and then continued to follow them for a while before finally pulling over, turning around, and going home. My heart is beating fast again just recounting this. Yes, that driver was driving recklessly in a neighborhood, speeding, tailgating, and driving into oncoming lanes. But when I reacted with rage, I became just as guilty as they were. I lost my standing as the driver who was in the right, in fact, I practically threw it away. In the end, I didn’t call the police, because how could I justify my own actions? I felt horrible about it almost immediately and wished I could apologize. I will never know how my sin in that situation may have affected the other driver. It might have rippling repercussions I can’t imagine.
Remember what I said about rage being self-indulgent? Most sin is self-indulgent. It’s predicated on lies like, “I deserve this,” “There’s no harm in this,” or “This is all someone else’s fault,”. You go along with those little lies until suddenly you find yourself in a situation so out of control that you have a hard time even retracing your steps, asking yourself “How did I even get here?”
At Celebrate Recovery, before anyone speaks either at the mic or in small group, this is what we say: “Hello, I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ. I struggle with alcoholism, codependency, and anger. My name is Liz.” There’s a reason we preface all our speech like that; it’s like a little microcosm of the 12 step process. We acknowledge that we believe in God, that we have weaknesses, and we admit the nature of our wrongs. This serves to remind us every time we speak, that Jesus is Lord and we are not; that we are weak but He is strong. It also serves as a miniature confession of sins for which we are currently in repentance.
Speaking for myself, going to CR was hard at first. I started calling it “soul chemo”. No one goes to chemo because they want to. They go because they have a disease and this is the best available cure. Even walking into CR is an admission that you need help. You can’t maintain any facades in there. Just coming inside and sitting down means “I am broken.” I didn’t become an alcoholic by carefully examining myself and my own actions and motivations. I didn’t get there by being so well-adjusted. I landed there after years of sweeping my emotions under the rug and dulling my pain with wine. I justified my drinking in so, so many ways. I considered the complete lack of boundaries that was a consequence of my codependency as simply loyalty to my friends. I had listened to Satan’s lies and believed them. I believed the lies that I was an angry person because I just have a bad temper, like having brown hair or blue eyes or freckles. I had been self-indulgent.
When I prayed for sobriety and received it, I thought all the rest of my problems would simply fall into place. Imagine my shock when, even sober, I was still an angry, boundary-less mess! I hadn’t dealt with the root causes of my addiction, I had been laboring under the misapprehension that the alcoholism itself was the problem, and not merely an unhealthy method of coping with a myriad of other problems.
In Ephesians 4:26 Paul writes, “Be angry, and in your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” We are really good at the first part, the being angry part. It’s the second part that trips us up. Anger itself isn’t sinful. We know this because Jesus became angry. When we look at what caused Jesus’s wrath, and how He reacted to it, we can see what true righteous anger looks like.
In Matthew 12 Jesus butts heads with the Pharisees when they chastise Him and His disciples for healing on the Sabbath. He then gives a speech, speaking to them like children who haven’t studied, and makes the mic drop statement: “If only you had known the meaning of ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:7-8
They just won’t let it go though, so He then heals a man’s hand right in front of them, and calls them “You brood of vipers,” because He knows their thoughts and sees their sin which they keep hidden in their hearts, as plainly as if they were wearing it as a sign on their chests.
Perhaps the most famous example of Jesus’s rage is when he drove the money changers out of the temple in Matthew 21:12-13:
12Then Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. 13And He declared to them, “It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
This event is sometimes referred to as “the temple tantrum”. Jesus is literally flipping the tables and accuses the money changers of changing the temple from “a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7) to “a den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11).
Since we know Jesus never sinned, we know that this “tantrum” is not a tantrum at all but an example of righteous anger. Another term for this event is “The cleansing of the temple,” which comes a little closer to the truth. The purpose of what Jesus was doing was to prepare the establishment of the New Covenant, whereby people needn’t atone for their own sins via animal sacrifice, but instead accept the sacrifice of the Lamb of God (Jesus).
Anger itself isn’t sinful, but it can lead to sin when we engage in inward-focused, self-indulgent rage. Righteous anger helps us to fight injustice, to protect the vulnerable, and to call out spiritual blasphemy.
Eventually I have come to love CR, and really miss it when I’m not able to go (which is fairly often, unfortunately). I have learned to celebrate Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:
“So to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. 10That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
What is the spiritual thorn in your side? My sins are many, including rage. I struggle with how to overcome it, and I know I can’t do it alone without the help of the almighty God. But my thorn serves to bring me back to Christ when I believe I am self-sanctified. When I forget that I am a sinner, my sin reminds me. When you feel the stab of that thorn, return to God and repent, remembering that His power is perfected in our weakness.
When we walk through life facing no trials, we are lulled into a false sense of security believing we don’t need Christ. We do, though. Every human on earth needs Christ, from the beleaguered, poverty-stricken people in third world countries, to literal kings living in luxurious palaces whose every whim is catered to instantaneously. Everyone has a thorn, but it’s possible you’re dulling the pain with other distractions. Lean into it instead. Lets give our sins to Jesus, we are weak, but He is strong.