How to overcome anger–and other things that cut us off from the flow of the Spirit

At the church we attend, we are still in a sermon series titled “Flow,” the living water that Jesus promised would flow from within us if we go to him and drink (John 7:37-38). Jesus was talking about the Spirit (7:39), who lives within all those who belong to him (Romans 8:9).

As the flow of the Spirit works in our lives, we produce “fruit”–or rather He produces that in us: love, joy, peace, patience and so on (Galatians 5:22-23). Those things all sound great to me, especially in contrast to what Paul calls the works of the flesh (the NIV has “sinful nature”): hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, envy, and the like (Galatians 5:19-21).

Last weekend’s sermon (MP3, study guide) was about overcoming resentment or anger; this is the first of four major impediments to the Spirit’s flow in our lives, with the acronym “RAGS”:

  • R: resentment; mismanaged anger
  • A: anxiety, mismanaged fear
  • G: greed, mismanaged appetites
  • S: superiority, mismanaged self-esteem (or insecurity)

Now the good news is that we don’t have to conquer these things ourselves (which is anyway impossible); the Spirit wants to lead us in the way of life and peace (Romans 8), and our part is to stay connected, or as Jesus said, to abide in him so that we can bear fruit (John 15:5).

Resentment

So how do we overcome resentment, anxiety, and the rest? In 2006, I wrote this essay on overcoming anger, and our pastor provided two additional practical steps to take:

First, this week when you start to feel angry, he said, invite the Holy Spirit to manage your anger (Ephesians 4:26-32). Apparently some studies have found that there’s a ¼-second delay between the impulse to say or do something and the decision to act on that impulse. In that life-giving ¼-second, we have a chance to invite the Holy Spirit into our feelings and to heed him, rather than grieving him (Ephesians 4:30).

This is a great idea and very important, but it’s awfully difficult. Which brings me back to the idea of training, mentioned in my 2006 essay on this subject — it’s step#1 in the second list, and by the way please note steps 3-4 on that list.

The second step our pastor mentioned is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us when we should get angry. In Montgomery, Alabama, black people were routinely required to get off the bus after paying their fare, and then re-board through the back door. Sometimes the driver would drive away while the black person was walking toward the back door. This happened to Rosa Parks in 1943. The anger-related sin here is that white people did not get angry; they allowed this unjust system to persist.

Anxiety

In 2008 I wrote this essay on overcoming anxiety, and again our pastor added two very practical and important steps to take so that we can stop being timid.

One is to let God’s perfect love wash over you until the fear begins to leave — because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Yes, I know, that verse in its context is talking about the day of judgment, but as Peter tells us, God wants to lift us up, and we can cast our anxiety on him because of his great care for us (1 Peter 5:6-7).

The second way to grow out of timidity that our pastor mentioned was this: Don’t let your anxious thoughts cause you to say “No” to tough challenges or to God’s calling. Paul tells us in Romans 12:1-2 to present our bodies as living sacrifices, and to be transformed by renewing our minds. This takes training.

Here’s how I think of it. Maybe you’re familiar with John 7:17 — “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know for himself whether I’m speaking from God or just making this stuff up” (a rough paraphrase). This I take to mean that as I surrender myself to God, I get a clearer view of what it is that he wants; I become better able to tell whether something is from God, versus something that some guy just made up. Might that give me more confidence to actually do what needs doing? You bet!

The other passage that I think of related to this is John 14:21-23. Here it is in the NIV:

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

John 7 talked about wanting to do God’s will; this verse talks about actually doing it. And as I do what Jesus commands, I show my love for him. Then Jesus reveals himself to me so I come to know him better. And verse 23 says it’s even better than that — he makes his home with me! Christ in us is our hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

And so, as Paul told a young pastor named Timothy, God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). With God’s spirit comes the power to do God’s will, to follow the Spirit, to develop the fruit of the Spirit.

Conclusion

Reading this, you might come away with the impression that I have this all figured out. Uh, that would be a “No.” I’m still on the steps in my plan that says “Do that for 20-30 years and repeat as needed” — with our pastor’s additions. After a few more (20-30 year) iterations, I think I’ll be closer to where God wants me to be in terms of anger and anxiety.

Finally, we haven’t heard the sermon on greed or superiority yet; I encourage you to take a look at the online sermon page for February 2009 to see the rest.

Update (November 2009)

Here are links as they appear on the website today:

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