“Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s and under their lips is the venom of asps.” Psalm 140:1-3
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” Romans 3:13
Over the course of doing lay ministry work, there are two things guys seem to primarily struggle with… and the other is anger (guess the first one?). In reading this text from Psalm 140 today, I was struck by a thought I’ve had recently about anger and aggression (something I’m tempted to frequently and must be on the look out for): how 1) anger so often stems from fear and anxiety, which stems from a lack of trust in God’s loving promises, but also 2) how that animal-like response of rage that some are more prone to than others can be stoked into flame by taking in violence, its exaltation and letting it dwell there. And our culture is full of it. We are welcoming violence into our hearts and it is shaping us. Even if we’re not taking in violent content and images, just go read some social media comment threads. It’s enough for me sometimes.
Just as the liturgical traditions of Scripture reading and prayer can shape our thoughts, but even more importantly, our hearts (and the neglect thereof can as well), so also the worldliness we take in and dwell upon within our hearts, namely violence in this case, can shape us, causing violence to dwell there to become a part of our very character. It may be unintentional in terms of the outcome we desire as believers, but the outcome results nonetheless, and can be like a law of nature: a certain force produces a certain outcome, a specific input results in a specific output.
Regardless, because of the inattentiveness involved in taking in violent content of various kinds, you (I) can easily become a person of violence (at a heart level, not necessarily acting out initially), maybe not overtly, but a person just boiling underneath the surface, at a subconscious level, as a part of our modus operandi. And in situations of trial arising from the course of normal living, our natural, fleshly response can be one of fear and anxiety, distrust of the Lord’s goodness and promises in the Gospel, thus resulting in anger and violent words that cut others if and when they cross us, even for the most benign things.
Is removing all violent content the answer though? It may certainly help steer our affections and what we’re dwelling upon, sure. Cutting out the source of flame-fanning and filtering your intake is strongly advised. But avoidance isn’t the solve all because it doesn’t really fix the heart of the problem. Besides that, we live in a world of violence, bombarded by news agencies who make this all too plain and common before our eyes.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus speaks to the heart of the issue, cuts through it all concerning the real nature of anger (the Thing itself) and the violence in our hearts, something the mere removal of violent content intake won’t fix:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Anger is serious business, so serious in fact that Jesus connects it directly with murder. If you are an angry person, as in, this is part of your very makeup, violence and murder dwell in your heart. Jesus raises the bar of the commandment forbidding murder to the point that if you’re unjustly angry or unforgiving, angry beyond measure, full of rage, you’ve broken the commandment. This is something over time I’ve had to sort through and come to terms with as the root cause of my short temper. Acknowledging the violent nature of my heart and its tangible results before God has been immensely freeing, albeit humbling. It’s exposed all kinds of other things like pride, arrogance, self-importance, idolatry of convenience and pleasure, and a host of other interconnected wicked things dwelling within still in need of mortification.
But even then, what can solve this and set us on a new path of peace, joy, patience, and rest? How can the anger and violence in our hearts be subdued and mortified? By fixating, obsessing even, dwelling upon, marinating, soaking our hearts in the truth of God’s free grace and immense mercy, His unmerited love toward us when we were turned away from Him, His enemies, violently opposed to Him. In love, He took upon Himself the cross, an instrument of horrendous, extreme violence, in order that we would be a people freed of violence and murder in our hearts, where we instead find peace, love, joy, patience, all the fruit of the Spirit in its place. Jesus bore the Father’s righteous and just anger against sin in Himself, wrath meant for us but absorbed in Jesus, that we may find rest and peace in our inner being in Him and become a people of silent submission and joy before Him and His presence, instead of a people of tumult, restlessness, fear, and anger.
The venom of asps is under my lips. Lord remove the poison of murderous violence from my heart. How prone to wander I am and speak and act out evil coming from within. Thank you God for the violence-removing grace of Jesus’s blood shed in violence, that we may be welcomed into His light and the warmth of His sheltering arms in eternal rest.