The Article About Anger That Might Make You Angry
I have to confess, I was reluctant to write and publish this article about anger, because I’m concerned it will make people angry. But maybe in spite of my better judgment…
If you follow my Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ accounts you know I put up scripture on these almost every day. More than one person has criticized me for it, but what can I say–I’m a Jesus nerd. I’m completely fascinated by this ancient Jewish Rabii, so much so that I just can’t help myself. I want to learn as much as I can about him and I want to share him with others. Anyway, recently, on Facebook, I posted the words from Jesus, “…I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:22) And a friend of mine, Danny, asked in the comment section, “What do you think is meant by ‘brother’?”
Now some friends ask questions I can answer off the top of my head, and other friends ask questions that require digging around in the scriptures. Danny’s questions tend to fall into the latter category, so, I dug around in the scriptures to see what the Bible says about it. And what I found probably isn’t what you’d expect.
Who Is My Brother?
The easy part is addressing the specific question, “Who is my brother?” I think when you heard this question, you might have had another scripture come to mind. The one where the expert in the law asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responded with a parable that made it clear, that the emphasis of the scripture in question, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” was about love, and not identifying who’s a neighbor and who’s not a neighbor. I think in the same way, Jesus’ words, “…everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” is about the anger we sometimes find in our hearts, rather than identifying who’s our brother and who’s not. (Luke 10:25-37)
Jesus’ statement about anger is part of his great Sermon on the Mount, where he also says, “…whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
And, “…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew Chapter 5)
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is saying: It’s not just your outward action, but the real issue is in your heart, the inner workings of your soul and your mind. It’s not just the act of adultery, but it’s the lust inside of you. It’s not just the act of murder, but it’s the anger inside of you. And of course everyone of us feels lust, and every one of us feels anger. So Jesus makes us all equally guilty. He levels the playing field.
None are righteous, no not one. (Romans 3:10)
We’re all sinners.
We’re all dependent on God’s grace. We’re all dependent on Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross, on our behalf. We can’t earn our way because of this inherent quality common to all humans: we’re all sinners. And one of those sins common to us all is anger. We all get angry.
The Surprising Part
Most of my life I heard Bible teachers–Bible teachers I love, and appreciate, and respect–teach me to “Be angry and sin not…” That’s from Ephesians chapter 4, verse 26. They said, “Paul tells us to ‘be angry’, so we can be sure that anger’s not a sin. It’s what we do with anger that can be sinful.” And they pointed out that God expresses anger in the Old Testament. And they told me that Jesus became angry when the Pharisees didn’t want him to heal on the Sabbath, and when he drove out the money changers.
I really liked that. Because it gave me permission to be angry. If I saw some injustice, or something I disagreed with, or some innocent person who was hurt by another, I could crank up the righteous anger. And it felt good when I did.
But then one day I became angry with Kathy. It was the day I threw the plate in the sink and slammed the front door of our house on my fingers as I stormed out. I’ve told the story before. There I was, standing outside our front door, I could already see the color of my throbbing fingers changing to black and blue. I desperately needed ice and ibuprofen, but I was too proud to go back in. So I drove around aimlessly until the pain became greater than my pride. On my way back, less than a mile from the house, I turned on the local Christian radio station hoping for inspiration. And the first words out of the speakers were, “…the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)
Those words were from an interview with Brant Hansen, the author of the book Unoffendable. Given the circumstances I thought it might be a good idea to read that book, so I’m reading it now. That book, and more importantly, researching what the Bible has to say about anger, has made me realize something. The Bible doesn’t say about anger what I thought the Bible said about anger.
“Be angry and sin not,” is certainly there, in the Bible, in black and white. But every one of the Bible teachers who leaned on that verse when they taught about anger, also teach that we should never take a verse out of context. Every Christ follower knows that’s true. And I can’t remember a single time when any of those Bible teachers ever did take a single verse out of context.
Except when it came to anger.
Because just a little further down the page from “Be angry and sin not,” we see in the same chapter of Ephesians, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31)
Let all anger be put away from you, we’re instructed.
Also, consider this: In all the wisdom literature in the Bible, anger is always associated with a fool, or foolishness. Always.
In Colossians 3:8 we’re instructed again. “You must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
Psalm 37:8 says, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”
And then there’s the scripture in James, “…the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
And then there’s Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount.
And there’s more besides.
It’s overwhelming. When you really dig around and see what the Bible says, as a whole, not just one verse out of context, but as a whole, it’s overwhelming. I don’t think I ever saw this until recently because I didn’t want to see it. When it comes to what the Bible teaches about anger I like that one verse, Ephesians 4:26. And I like it all by itself. Because when it comes to what the Bible teaches about anger, my perspective requires that I take this verse in isolation. To justify my personal anger it’s necessary to take Ephesians 4:26 by itself, out of context. The part that comes later in the same chapter that says, let all anger be put away from you, I want to edit. I want to interject a little phrase into that verse that says, “…except for righteous anger.” That’s the phrase I want to add to the other places in the Bible that talk about anger too. That’s how I operate. I love the parts of the Bible I agree with, but there are a lot of places where I’d like to add a little phrase, or include a little qualifying statement, so I can fit the Bible into the framework of my own personal preferences and worldview, and make it match my current patterns of thought and behavior.
But What About God and Jesus’ Anger?
Some Bible teachers have said that we can (and even should) be angry because God and Jesus were angry. But the reality is, some things that are permissible or allowable or even good and desirable for God and Jesus, aren’t good and desirable things for us.
Vengeance is like that. We love a movie like Taken with Liam Neeson. “I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills… Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it.”
But of course the bad guys didn’t let his daughter go. And it felt so good to watch Liam Neeson have his vengeance. But the Bible doesn’t provide for our own personal vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
And judgment is like that too. Judgment belongs to God. Because for us, judging others only results in judgment against ourselves. (Matthew 7:1-5) Jesus Christ is the one appointed by God as Judge, and I’m glad for that. It’s amazingly freeing when you realize, God wants Jesus to judge, and He commands us to love. I’m thankful for that. I want God to have the position of Judge because His judgment is perfect. If I were judge, my human frailties and limitations would surely make a mess of things. (John 5:27, Acts 10:42)
Anger is in the same category as vengeance and judgment. It makes sense because of His perfection. My anger is imperfect and never produces the righteousness of God. My anger can be capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, and morally ignoble. But His anger is appropriate because He is perfectly just and incapable of making a mistake. (Packer)
Why Would God Want To Withhold Anger From Us?
Like everything else God wants to withhold from us, He wants us to put away all anger because it’s destructive. It’s destructive to the one who becomes angry. The Amplified Bible says in Proverbs 14:30 that “A calm and undisturbed mind and heart are the life and health of the body, but envy, jealousy, and wrath are like rottenness of the bones.” How true that is. According to the Cleveland Clinic a big focus of heart disease research used to be on type A personalities but now researchers have determined that “it’s the specific characteristic of anger–or hostility–that stresses the heart and leads to an eventual cardiac event.” Men who are quick to anger are more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack.
Anger causes a cortisol dump into your system. Anger alters the balance in the nervous system of your heart. Anger increases inflammatory markers. Anger kills.
And it doesn’t just kill the person carrying the anger.
Anger kills relationships too.
Love Gone Wrong
I’ve heard it said that an emotion is not a sin. But I’ve also heard it said that emotions gone wrong are sin. That’s easy to see with love and lust. Lust for another outside of your marriage is love gone wrong. It’s a twist on the emotion of love, and it’s a sin. (Matthew 5:27-30) Anger, strangely, is also the emotion of love gone wrong. All you have to do to see that is ask yourself what you’re defending the next time you feel angry. When I’m running late I get angry at bad drivers in traffic. But what I’m defending is how I’ll look to the people who expect me to be on time. I’m angry because I love to look good to others.
I once heard a wise man define anger this way: Violated expectations. When I expect someone to behave a certain way, and they don’t meet my expectations, I become angry. The Pharisees expected Jesus to not mess with their religious hierarchy and to fall in line with their religious customs, but Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, and they became angry. So they killed him.
They became angry because Jesus was a threat to what they loved: their position of power in Jewish society and the traditions of men in their religious system.
I’m afraid we find ourselves in precisely the same place as the Pharisees. There’s power in anger, and when we’re angry we’re afforded a position of power. Our tradition is our established patterns of thinking (and behaving). What Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, and what God tells us to do with anger throughout the whole of scripture, threaten them both.
References and Resources
Brant Hansen, Unoffendable, Thomas Nelson, 2015
Joseph Scheumann, Five Truths About the Wrath of God, Desiring God, 11/4/2014
J.I. Packer, Knowing God, IVP Books, 2011
Image via Wikimedia Commons