'We all spent our time among them and lived in that way, acting in the passions of our flesh and the will of our thoughts and natural instincts; and just like the rest, we were by nature fixed in our anger; and anger loomed over us, even as those who deserved it.'
I have mentioned before that some Greek words are not translatable into a single word. In this verse we truly have a translator’s nightmare. In the original language Paul says simply that we were 'children of anger', which is a Greek and Hebrew idiom that is so multilayered in its possible meanings it would take a paragraph to do it real justice in translation. The best I could manage in this attempt at translation, trying not to let it get out of hand, was to expand it into three phrases. One sense of it is a meaning we could recognise: to describe people as children of anger is something akin to what we would mean by saying of some one that “anger is in his blood”. We would not be saying that anger flares up from time to time, but rather that he is set in it.
Most of us have known people who are continually angry. We’ve listened to them complaining over and over again and being constantly indignant and we see that they are so driven by it they won’t listen to anyone who wants to try and help them be released from this. However, there are plenty of people who are not like that - could Paul’s words be applied in any way to them?
I remember hearing a Christian speaker make an interesting comparison (which I think came out of his rough Glaswegian up-bringing). He said that if a man had a fall-out with his wife which ended up in her calling him names and storming out of the house, he might say 'there she blows', expecting that she will probably calm down soon enough and be back (I imagine he was thinking of the typical phlegmatic man in this scenario!). If, on the other hand, she looked at him coldly, took her wedding ring off her finger and calmly chucked it out of the window, then he would know he was in real trouble. The illustration stuck with me and I think this is because it touched on something profound. In the first scenario the woman’s anger flares up and can be expected to calm down. In the second scenario the woman’s anger has been frozen and set, so to speak. In becoming frozen it has become something immovable. The anger that is not expressed openly but buried and covered over with coldness and indifference is the most difficult to deal with of all – whether this anger is towards other people or God. It has become a fixed position, but at the same time hidden so that the person will usually not admit to it. I once got to know a retired man who came across to me as a solitary soul. He showed himself to be very intelligent and we had some interesting conversations on all sorts of subjects. As he talked about his past there was a running theme of him falling out with people, along with a distrust and disdain for those he had fallen out with. I was glad he was happy to have a friendship with me and we were starting to build up what I thought was a good friendship. However, one day he left a phone message asking me to return some books he had lent me. I replied that I would but there were two of the four books he had listed I had no memory of borrowing; I admitted my memory was hardly perfect so I would check to see if I had them. I was very doubtful because he said I had asked to borrow them and yet the titles he gave were not ones that would have aroused my interest. On looking I couldn’t find any trace of them. To my consternation he turned on me, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was trying to deceive him about the two books. A switch inside him seemed to have been pulled and I felt I was suddenly on altogether different ground. I wrote to him trying to assure him of my having acted in good faith and offering to buy him copies of the two books that he said were missing from his shelves but, if he read the letter, he was quite unmoved. At this point I sensed that his anger had hardened into implacable distrust and there was nothing I could do to allay it and, for the time being, our friendship was over. I tried to be philosophical about it, seeing that this was in line with a pattern to be observed in his accounts of other events in his life, but in one final phone call he was so rude and unpleasant that I found an anger welling up within me against his attitude. Some time after that, I bumped into him quite by chance at a bus stop. He ignored me completely (I was sure that he had seen and recognised me). His anger and distrust had settled and hardened into something that expressed itself in terms of coldness and distancing. This experience gave me a glimpse of how it is for God dealing with a human race whose anger and distrust of him will not budge. If you talk to people about God, the most common objection you will meet is expressed in the question, 'If there is a God, how come there is so much suffering in the world?' or, 'If there is a God, how come I’ve had such a hard time of it?' By implication people feel that God, if he is there, is ultimately to blame for all this. On occasion they let it be known to God what they think of him. For the rest of the time they profess not to care; they have no desire to try and get in touch with him and they will not acknowledge him. In their hardness there are times when men are so offensive or so evasive when the truth is crying out to them that God can’t help feeling the anger welling up within him towards them, however much he yearns to have a friendship with them again. This explains the doubled-edged side of Paul’s words. People are settled in their anger and this makes them liable to think and act in ways that arouse anger in God. They also arouse anger in each other. We see this most obviously in conflicts between communities – Arab and Israeli, Protestant and Catholic in Northern Island, Sunni and Shia in Islam, right wing moral majority and left wing liberals in the US. Outsiders look on and can observe that each side gets angry with the other and each side provides cause for anger in the other. The distrust is implacable on both sides; each side justifies everything they think and do as a justified response to the wrong in the other side. We see similar conflicts in personal relationships. Anyone who doesn’t have the spirit of Christ at work in them is prey to this, even if it often is manifest in quite subtle ways.
For those of us who are in Christ, we can take heart. Yes, we may still get angry sometimes and not always with good reason. On occasion Jeremiah and Moses got angry with God, but they were still men of God and they got over it. A child may get so upset with her mother that she loses it and says, 'Mummy I hate you!' but the mother knows she will get over it and express her love for her again. Many of us, if we are honest, would admit to having got upset with God - I certainly have - but we get over it and it doesn’t take away from our commitment to him or the fact that we belong to him. We may get angry but, thanks be to God, we are not 'children of anger'.
This is why God is so insistent that we be always ready to forgive. He doesn’t have a problem with us being angry when we have been wronged, but he will not accept it if we get locked into it. He will not have us behaving again like the children of anger.
Clcik below to listen to the audio of Andrew's talk.