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1 The man Adam knew his wife Eve intimately. She became pregnant and gave birth to Cain, and said, “I have given life to [Hebrews sounds like Cain] a man with the Lord’s help.” 2 She gave birth a second time to Cain’s brother Abel. Abel cared for the flocks, and Cain farmed the fertile land. 3 Some time later, Cain presented an offering to the Lord from the land’s crops 4 while Abel presented his flock’s oldest offspring with their fat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his sacrifice 5 but didn’t look favorably on Cain and his sacrifice. Cain became very angry and looked resentful. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why do you look so resentful? 7 If you do the right thing, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
Cain said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?”
10 The Lord said, “What did you do? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder [Exodus 20:13], and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.
20 But you didn’t learn that sort of thing from Christ. 21 Since you really listened to him and you were taught how the truth is in Jesus, 22 change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires. 23 Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit 24 and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness.
26 Be angry without sinning [Psalm 4:4]. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.
31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
Genesis 4 was an archetypal tragedy. God warned Cain that his anger with his brother Abel and with God had lethal risks. Cain ignored God, acted out his anger against his brother, and killed him. God said, sadly, “Your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Jesus said clearly that contempt, anger, even angry words that tear down and injure others are as morally vicious as the physical act of murder. Ephesians advised, “Don’t let the sun set on your anger”—i.e., deal with anger promptly.
Dear Jesus, when you lived here, evil made you angry—pious people who misrepresented God and hurt innocent people. Help me be angry about the things that make you angry. But help me, also, to live with your patience and mercy. Amen.
As I started reading the Scriptures for today, my first thought was, “Oh, this is going to be so easy.” Because, hey, I’ve not murdered someone and I know that would be really bad, and so I can dust my hands and be done. Happy Friday!
Except… I have been angry before. And I have let that anger sit and grow, and full transparency? I might actually kind of sort of be the queen of festering.
I’m going to speak to my fellow women for a moment. Almost all of us have been raised to become a product of what the Nagoski sisters call “Human Giver Syndrome” in their book Burnout. Amelia Nagoski defines it as “the false, contagious belief that women have a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others” * and therefore, that women are not supposed to yell or be angry. Soraya Chemaly continues this in her book, Rage Becomes Her, saying “Many of us are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others… As girls, we are taught not to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.” **
The problem with this is that anger is a basic human emotion that stems from the “fight, flight, or freeze” response of the sympathetic nervous system. We were created with this emotion, this response, in order to save ourselves in a variety of situations. So what happens when we have this thing inside of us that we are told must never show? Or when it shows, it is often pushed onto emotional issues or deflected?
I hadn’t read books such as Burnout or Rage Becomes Her until very recently, so for most of my life, I just learned these unspoken rules and absorbed this unspoken narrative about anger. I’ve spent almost 30 years taking this emotion and squeezing into a little, tiny box inside of myself instead of coping with it. That box can only get so big before it bursts. And it usually bursts at someone I love… kind of like Cain.
Let me give two quick examples: Some angers are small, like when my child repeatedly kicks her muddy shoes onto the back of my clean car seat and now there is dirt everywhere even though I’ve told her a HUNDRED times to stop. I can pack that away pretty easily without screaming at her like I might want to in the moment. Then there are big angers, like when I was in a room presenting work I had put my all into only to be pushed aside and quieted so that someone else could own it. I packed that away because I learned that’s what I should do, but that box just got a whole lot bigger. By the end of the week, my box is pulsing and just waiting for the next thing… So when my husband comes home and leaves all of his dirty dishes in the sink, which is a small anger, it’s the one that pushes everything over the edge and I lose it, saying things I don’t mean at a pitch that really only my dog can hear.
Here’s the point: It’s okay to be angry. It’s impossible not to be. This world is full of things that we should, indeed, feel angry about. What we should not do is box it up for the sake of “keeping the calm”, as it really does the opposite, or immediately hurl it at someone else. Instead, Jesus calls us to confront our anger, talk about it, shine a light on it. Repurpose the energy that comes with that anger into action towards solution. Set healthy boundaries and create new narratives that honor anger instead of feeding it. “Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness.” (And no, do not post that hurtful, angry comment on Instagram or Facebook. Speak about it with Jesus in mind and maybe even face-to-face first.)
* Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books
** Chemaly, S. (2019). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Atria Paperback.
* William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew—Volume 1, Chapters 1–10 (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976, pp. 139-140.
** Timothy Gombis, study note on Ephesians 4:26 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 369 NT.