Have you ever gone to bed angry? Do you remember when you first heard that pearl of wisdom? Just uttering those words today sounds so profoundly preposterous. I think my Grandmother Andrews was the first person to tell me, “Be angry, but do not sin. Never let the sun go down on your anger.” I believed her. I was also seven at the time. I promised I would never let the events of any day interfere with the sleep I so desperately craved. I think initially I could have pulled it off, except I wasn’t an only child. Thinking back, I was probably having that conversation with my grandmother after one of my sisters had driven me crazy.
Now I realize even if my parents had spared me the massive responsibility of being a brother, I would have eventually found myself in interaction with other human beings. Relationships are hard, especially when they include people. Even our greatest joys can become opportunities for discontent. The most beautiful words Deb ever uttered to me were, “My love, I’m pregnant.” Suddenly simple tasks like the naming a child caused many a sleepless night. Then Martina arrived! It is unbelievable how much a child can change our time honored routines.
Once Pandora’s Box is opened, practical concerns are often no longer resolved in a day. Dreams are interrupted with the nightmares of financial matters, vocational questions, parenting guidance, and perhaps the worst of all, which family do we stay with this year for Christmas?
Here are a couple truths. Life is hard because sharing is hard. Life is hard because always telling the truth is hard. Life is hard because not always getting your way is hard. Throw in all of the other external factors that disrupt our lives and sometimes sleeping becomes hard.
I am guessing nothing I have said so far surprises anyone. So allow me to express my irritation with the author Ephesians for offering such a simplistic response to such a complicated dilemma. I know how destructive sin is. I am aware that anger, even when exercised in a holy manner, can become a bit wrathful. But what confuses me the most is the presupposition that I live as God lives; forgiving one another, loving one another, and caring for one another. Now that is really hard. I understand Christ is the standard bearer for all that is good and holy. But does God have a clue how difficult it is to go from sun-up to sun-down and be expected to resolve every single conflict before the night-light is extinguished? Doesn’t God ever go to bed angry?
I would hope that God never sleeps, but that misses the intention of the question. God certainly encounters darkness. Within the recesses of that darkness does God struggle with the disappointments of what God witnessed in the light? What must God be thinking at the end of each day? I know if I were God I would be taking Prozac.
The Old Testament expresses God’s disappointment by speaking of God’s anger. This disappointment is often followed with the threat of The Wrath of God. Job and Psalms mention God’s wrath over 40 times. Ironically the Gospels hardly mention wrath at all. Romans and Revelations are the only New Testament books that mention the wrath of God more than five times. In the case of Paul, the phrase is always followed by the words “saved from”. I find that to be rather comforting. I would rather be saved from God’s wrath than experience it.
Nonetheless, the Old and New Testament are in complete agreement in portraying the profound tension that exists between God and humankind. The Bible begins began with the marvelous myth of Adam and Eve. Paradise was created. Everything but cable TV was provided. The only prohibition was instructions concerning a particular piece of fruit. I have often thought if God doesn’t want us to sin than God should not have given us appetites.
The story exposes several truths about humanity. We are inquisitive. We are independent. We lie when we need to and indulge ourselves when it serves our purposes. Such is the nature of humans. The story warns these characteristics can result in miserable and precarious situations which touch every fabric of our personal lives. Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. Such is the wrath of God. But does God lose sleep every time we bite into the wrong apple?
Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, who has had a tremendous impact on my understanding of God writes,
“You always knew that you need God more than anything; but do you not know that God needs you. Who would human beings be, who would you be, if God did not need them and did not need you? You need God in order to be. God needs you, for the very meaning of your life.”
Buber suggests we tinker with the opening statement Genesis and change it from, “In the beginning, God created”, to “In the beginning, a relationship emerged.” That is what the prologue in Genesis is all about. It begins the story of a relationship between humanity and God that runs throughout the entire Biblical text. Sometimes the relationship goes sour. But this does not halt our quest for a better understanding of who we are and who God is. This search can challenge us to move from the question, ‘Do I believe in God?’ to the much more personal, ‘Do I live God?’
Before you roll your eyes, let me point out that Buber’s theology did not emerge from some hippie commune in the 1960’s. He lived in Germany until the late 1930’s. His words reflect the times in which he lived. His words rise from his own bewilderment that an omnipotent God would not extinguish the fires of Auschwitz where many of his friends and family members perished. He writes of a weeping God, a God who appears in the midst of a powerless people, choosing to be submerged in the depths of an unspeakable tragedy. Folks like Buber and Elie Wiesel have helped me to not only grapple with Auschwitz, but with the tragedies of my life, including My Lai, and 9-11 and more recently the shooting of children at places like Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. It has helped me question the seemingly lack activity in the midst of these tragedies? The notion that God is omnipotent seems heretical in the light of the human inspired catastrophes that consistently tarnish the human landscape. Why doesn’t God act? Is God incapable? Where is our dethroning of Pharaoh?
It was once explained to me that God’s inactivity protects the precious free will of humanity. I bought that for a while. But now, as I reeamine the Biblical relationship that exist between God and creation, as I struggle with my self-perceived notion of the inactivity of God, my heart pushes me to move from my own angst, and reconsider the transformational of the significance of the cross. That journey has stirred with in my soul.
What if the cross stands as an affirmation of the non-violent love of God even in the face of a world that too often turns to hate, rage, anger and war? What if God, though Christ, has declared that The Almighty will no longer impose suffering on humanity but will become a fellow sufferer? What if God, overwhelmed by the tragedies of creation was no longer able to sleep? What if God decided rather than starting all over again, God would step into the world? And what if God knew this holy of plan would only work if there was restraint shown toward those who challenged Jesus?
God not only came among us, God became us. God felt pain, rejection, torture and even death. And then God voluntarily came to back from death to stand with us, not above us, in our pilgrimage to transform this world.
In the 1990’s I had the joy of listening to Desmund TuTu. My goodness was he a little man. But as he spoke, he grew. By the time the sermon concluded Desmund must have been seven feet tall. He spoke as someone who understood what it meant to be powerless and yet as someone gifted with an authority of which most of us can only dream. It was his reckless belief in love and reconciliation. It was his extraordinary ability to understand the fear and the hurt and even the dreams of his enemy. It was the love of God playing itself out through the words and deeds of this tiny little giant. I thought, “When he returns home to South Africa, someone is going to kill him.” Then a voice from within said, “But they cannot kill his soul.”
One night God went to bed angry. I imagine God tossed and turned, struggling all night with the sin and rebellion that caused the suffering God witnessed. When God awoke, a new creation walked on this earth. Folks called him Jesus.
God emptied God’s self and became a servant. Jesus listened, Jesus engaged, and Jesus suffered. Jesus became us and we were transformed.
Often the hardest thing about anger is it keeps us from understanding the position of our adversary. I’m not talking about solving international disputes. I’m talking about the personal conflicts that ruin our nights. God emptied God’s self. How often do we empty ourselves to understand the view from across the room? We prefer to see ourselves as omnipotent. Have you ever considered that perhaps we aren’t? Have you ever considered that our righteousness often does more harm than good? Maybe those with whom we struggle are suffering as much as we are. Maybe they are also losing sleep. Maybe they desire a new point of intersection. Maybe they even desire reconciliation.
Paul said, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Like God, put away, bitterness, wrath, anger, and slander. Be kind and forgiving, like the God who has forgiven you.”
How is this possible unless we learn to imitate God? Not God the all-powerful, not God the omnipotent, but the God in Christ who gave himself up for us. I suspect when we discover how much we need God, we will also discover how much we need each other. And then, perhaps, will we sleep.