June 3, 2018: Anger Vs. Contempt by Kathy Kwon (Matthew 5: 21-22)

I first want to thank you for having me here at Canadian Memorial. I

know it’s always a risk when you invite someone new, and this morning

you took a risk on a guest preacher who will be speaking on anger…

Maybe to ease you into it, I’ll start off with a metaphor. I personally love

metaphors. I think they’re some kind of magic. Every metaphor, of

course, breaks down at a certain point, but for awhile there the

metaphor just runs and you get this glimpse into the fact that the world

is all connected and that truth is everywhere and in everything.

 

One of my favourite metaphors from Scripture is the metaphor of a

garden, because when this metaphor runs, it seems almost endless.

There’s something about planting and tending, pruning, diversifying,

soil, seed, fruit, seasons, harvest, growing, sowing and reaping. The list

goes on, and the potential metaphorical narratives seem infinite. But the

narrative I’d like to sit with today is of our hearts as the soil from which

the Kingdom of God grows. My heart, your heart, this community’s

collective heart—

 

Our hearts are the soil out of which the Kingdom of God here on earth is

coming.  Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a sermon about personal piety. But it is simply to say that you and I are in this world. Our actions bear

consequences. And they come from somewhere. We as individuals

nonetheless play a part in systems of oppression or systems of

reconciliation. So, there are two stories I’d like you to imagine—maybe to actually write out the stories in your own mind.

 

One is the story of what kind of soil your heart has been, is, is becoming.

Soil actually carries a history in it. Soil agronomists or agricultural soil

scientists can actually identify certain aspects of the life of particular

soil by studying it. The thing about soil is that in order for it to actually be

soil, it requires organic material—it has to be infused with things that

are alive in order to be life producing. Otherwise it’s not actually soil, it’s

just dirt.

 

The story of good soil is very interesting, because it’s filled with life—its

filled with living organisms like earthworms and insects and

microorganisms. But..it’s also filled with things that have died to feed

the living parts of the soil. The decaying dead organisms also provide

life to the soil. And so that cycle of life and death is carried out within

the soil and the nutrient richness of that soil is determined by whether

that cycle involves life and life-giving death.

 

What life is in the soil of your heart? What death is in the soil of your

heart?

 

The second story I’d like us to consider is what sort of seeds have you

been, are you, will you be planting in your soil? What is the story of

what you plant in your heart? What is the story of your harvests? Are

they sustainable? How many more seasons of faithful tending and

patience before the apple seeds you planted years ago finally become

fruit-bearing trees? Or how many more rotations of eroding crops using

eroding practices and products before your soil finally turns into a

desert?

 

As we have these two running stories of our soil and seed hovering in

the back of our minds, I’d like us to consider the seed of anger.

The seed of anger: what are we talking about here? Some of you might

be saying to yourself “Ah, I’m good. I’m not an angry person.” Probably

for the average person the best test of that would be to place a hidden

camera in whatever vehicle you might be driving and send you off into

rush hour traffic. I’ll be the first to admit that that is when my true self

comes out.

 

But yea, what are we talking about when we say anger? And is it bad?

The short answer is not necessarily. Ephesians chapter 4, for example,

says “in your anger, do not sin.” Or actually the literal translation is “Be

angry, and do not sin.” So in this instance, Scripture makes a distinction

between anger and sin.

Sometimes we should be angry. Sometimes anger is the only correct or

reasonable response to a situation. And I speak more emphatically to

women, people of colour and anyone else who falls under that culturally

conditioned category that says it is socially unacceptable for you to be

angry. Sometimes the appropriate thing is to be angry. And that doesn’t

make you aggressive or “the B word” or petty or overly-sensitive.

Sometimes anger validates your humanity and it empowers. And those

are good things. So that caveat there: anger and sin are not one and the

same.

Scripture also makes a distinction between largely two different types

of anger.

For the most part, we find two Greek words translated in the New

Testament as anger: thumos and orge. Thumos anger is the type that

fires up in a passion. It’s the explosive, passionate temper kind of anger.

It is the source of crimes of passion. Orge anger, on the other hand, is the

premeditated sort. It’s the kind of anger that settles and turns into a

disposition towards something or someone. Orge anger is a seed. Now

technically we’re still in neutral territory here. God’s anger, for example,

is most often orge anger against various things categorized under sin

and evil.

Part of the problem I imagine, is that, of course, we humans do not often

have the capacity to hold orge anger in the long-suffering way that God

can without it destroying us. When we are set ablaze—even with

righteous anger—we are in danger of the fire within us burning us up if

it is not directed towards life-giving action. So when Scripture talks

about orge anger with respect to people, it’s most often not neutral. This

isn’t the anger that we slip into in a moment of passion. This is the anger

we choose to hold onto—to let it burn within us. This is the anger that—

if we let it—grows murder in our hearts and precipitates death.

And this seed of chosen dispositional anger towards—this orge anger—

is the word used in our Scripture readings from this morning.

Matthew 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not

murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to

you that if you are angry (orgizo) with a brother or sister, you will be

liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable

to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of

fire.”

Here Jesus goes one step further and says that it’s not just orge anger of

its own accord that leads to judgment and death. No, it is specifically the

kind of orge anger that leads to insults and degradation of another

person. A good friend of mine provided me with a great semantic choice

to describe this kind of anger, and that is contempt. Contempt is

condescension through a self-determined moral hierarchy.

According to the Gottman Institute a la clinical psychologist Dr. John

Gottman, “contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over

[someone].”1 Gottman is a really interesting fellow; he’s conducted 40

years of research on marital stability. And what he found was that the

presence of contempt in a marriage is the single most accurate indicator

that a marriage or relationship will not survive. Contempt is so

significant in its ability to kill something, to lead to death, that using this

indicator, Gottman could predict the likelihood of divorce in couples

with over 90% accuracy.

Matthew 5 is not about threats of judgment, court, and hellfire. It is a

plea in the face of the reality of what happens to us when we cultivate

the seed of contemptuous anger in our hearts. Death. Matthew 5 is

saying, “Do not plant in your hearts the seed of contempt. It will kill all

of the living things inside your soil. You will produce bad fruit and it will

affect your relationships. It will burn you up from the inside out. And

sometimes it’ll take its sweet time doing it.” One day you wake up and

you are filled with a general posture of bitterness, cynicism, resentment,

judgmentalism. These are the fruits of a heart from the seeds of

contemptuous orge anger.

Time for a till, maybe.

Maybe we don’t relate to the idea of being angry people. I certainly grew

up with the notion that anger is dangerous and should never be toyed

with. But what I found was that anger still comes. And by not naming it,

1 https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticismcontempt-

defensiveness-and-stonewalling/ it turned into something else—something that festers. Maybe we are not the thumos angry sort, but perhaps we foster in our hearts contempt for someone or a group of people. People we have deemed as morally inferior.

Christian philosopher Dallas Willard described contemptuous anger in

this way. He wrote that contemptuous anger when indulged “has in it an

element of self-righteousness and vanity. Find a person who has

embraced [contempt], and you find a person with a wounded ego.”2

So what do we do with all of this? Where do we go from here?

James 1:19-20

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen,

slow to speak, slow to [become orge]; for [the orge of people] does not

produce God’s righteousness.”

When it comes to anger, both Matthew 5 and James 1 are concerned

with righteousness, otherwise interpreted as right-relatedness. The

righteousness that Scripture talks about and we as Christians seek in

this world is reconciliation. To act righteously is to act in such a way that

enacts reconciliation—that establishes right relationship with

ourselves, one another, creation, and the Creator.

Many of you will know that the Matthew 5 passage comes from the

Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about—among other

things—what it looks like to be the “city set on a hill.” To be the “salt of

the earth” and the “light of the world”. What it looks like for our rightrelatedness to exceed that of the “scribes and Pharisees”—to exceed

that of “the Law or the Prophets”. And that right-relatedness is not

simply a matter of do’s and don’ts—rights and wrongs. It is a matter of

soil and seed; it is a matter of our hearts and what we plant in it—what

we let grow in it.

Are our hearts full of fertile soil filled with living things with life? And

are the seeds we plant in our hearts capable of producing the fruit of

God’s reconciliation—the fruit of God’s Kingdom?

2 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

These are far more difficult questions to ask than who’s right and who’s

wrong, because suddenly we realize that we take on some responsibility

for participating in the gardening process. We are not just victims of our

own circumstances, we are not fruit-bearers simply by believing the

right things. We are invited to be co-gardeners. We are planters and

pruners and tenders. And we can plant seeds of contempt, or we can

plant seeds of reconciliation.

And the crazy thing is that it doesn’t start with Liberals vs.

Conservatives or right vs. left or any other theoretical and ideological

categories we can come up with. Rather it starts with the heart of the

individual in community. Matthew 5 is talking to you and someone close

to you: “if you are angry with a brother or sister.” Though it does not end

there, the work of gardening certainly involves our own soil. We can

help the soil of communities, we can help the soil of neighbourhoods, we

can help the soil of systems with the good fruit we are bearing out of our

own soil.

Our hearts—my heart, your heart, this community’s collective heart and

beyond—our hearts are the soil out of which the Kingdom of God here

on earth is coming. It involves us and that is good news. Amen.