Proverbs (5) — Control Your Anger

We continue this morning in our series on the book of Proverbs, with a focus on wisdom. The essence of wisdom is the ability to make good decisions. And so, we spent an entire lesson talking about how to make good decisions.

And then, we talked about the importance of taking godly advice, because there is some wisdom to be gained from making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, but it is even more important that we learn how to get wisdom by learning from the mistakes of others, or learning from the wisdom that others are willing to share with us.

And last week, we talked about the words that we speak. Because most of the decisions we make in life involve the words that we choose to say (or not say). Solomon tells us that there is great wisdom in being able to say the right words at the right time.

This morning, I want to look at another area of our lives where we need the wisdom of God to make good decisions – both in the things that we say and the things that we do. Because there is a time in our lives when we are most likely to make poor decisions, a time when many of us will act or speak without first thinking through what the consequences might be for what we say or do.

And the time that is most likely to happen is when we get angry. And so, Solomon talks a lot about the importance of controlling our anger. But, before we get into the lesson, I’d like for you to watch this brief video:

SHOW VIDEO

The lady in this video referred to anger as a “necessary” sin, because it falls into a category of sins that many people not only don’t believe is wrong, but they have the attitude, “I don’t have any choice. I just can’t help it.” Now, we don’t put most sins in that category. We understand that adultery is always wrong. Stealing, that’s got to be wrong.

But there are some sins which, if we’re honest, we have to admit are easier for us to justify. We might say that these sins are more acceptable or more respectable. Some might even say “more necessary.”

For example, the sin of lying. It just seems to be the case that everybody does it. Or the sin of gossip, which we talked about last week. It’s hard to live your life without hearing other people talk about other people, and some folks find it virtually impossible not to share with others what they hear. But, as we said last week, we don’t have to say everything we think, we don’t have to share everything we know, and we don’t have to repeat everything we hear.

And I think the sin of anger falls into that category of sins that we find it very easy to justify and rationalize. How many times have we said something like, “Well, if they hadn’t done what they did, then I wouldn’t have gotten so upset.” It’s not our fault. We have every right to be angry. Because people are stupid, people are irresponsible. Or maybe we say, “This is just how I deal with things. What’s the problem?”

What we want to do this morning is to try to get beyond our excuses and talk honestly about sinful anger. And, as we do so, I need to point out that anger itself isn’t necessarily a sin. In fact, I believe there’s such a thing as “righteous anger”. There are times when God is angry. There were times when Jesus got angry.

Anger itself isn’t a sin. And I would go so far as to say that it is virtually impossible for us to avoid anger. The dictionary defines anger as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” While the word “hostility” is pretty strong, I’d say that all of us have a lot of moments in our lives when we are either annoyed or displeased.

The issue for us, and where the importance of wisdom comes in, has to do with what we do with our anger. Because just to feel annoyed, displeased or upset about something isn’t wrong. In fact, there are times when I think we ought to feel more anger than we do.
• I think we ought to be angry when there is social injustice.
• I think we ought to be angry when there is prejudice and hatred.
• I think we ought to be angry when there’s bullying that takes place in our schools.
The problem is not the anger itself. The problem, first of all, is what makes us angry. The key to understanding righteous anger is by knowing the motivation. There is a big difference between being angry because there are people being mistreated in our society, and being angry because somebody just pulled in front of me and took the parking space that I wanted.
And the second problem with anger is how we choose to deal with it.

In fact, that’s essentially what Paul said in Ephesians 4:26-27. He said, “Be angry and do not sin.” Or as some translations put it, “In your anger, do not sin.” In other words, you may feel angry but as long as you don’t respond in the wrong way, you’re not sinning. “In your anger, do not sin.”

And then Paul goes on to say, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Paul says, when you get angry don’t give the devil a place in your heart. Don’t give the devil room to set up shop. Don’t let him use your anger to lead you to do something that’s wrong. Rather, have the wisdom to be able to make good choices about how to handle your anger.

In the book of Genesis, there’s a story about two brothers, and we see how anger led one of them to do the wrong thing. There was Cain and there was Abel, and both of them came to the Lord to make an offering. And we’re told that Abel made a good offering, but Cain didn’t, and so God rejected Cain’s offering and here’s what happened next.

In Genesis 4:6-7 (NIV), the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” Then God said, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” He’s saying, “You’ve got a choice. And your anger can either lead you to do what is right or what wrong” — “but if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door, and it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

God wants us to know that whenever we get angry, we have a decision to make about what we’re going to do with that anger. God says, don’t give the devil a foothold in your life. Because if you make a poor choice in a moment of anger, sin is crouching at the door and it desires to have you.

There are a couple of destructive ways that we tend to deal with our anger. In the past, I have typically used fire to demonstrate those two ways. And I think that’s appropriate because 15 times in the Bible, God uses fire as a metaphor for anger. And it’s an appropriate image because fire is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very useful thing if it’s channeled in the right direction. But when fire gets out of control, it can be very destructive.

Picture in your mind someone tossing a lit match into a closet containing an open can of gasoline. The can of gasoline ex¬plodes and the building bursts into flames. Anger can be very much like that. It can be explosive.

Then the fire department comes and they put the fire out, but not until it has destroyed the house. The house is nothing but a pile of charred ruins. The fire department leaves thinking the fire is out, but underneath the ruins, the fire is still smoldering. It may smolder for days, for weeks, even for months. And anger can also be like that. It can smolder. We don’t forget what’s been done to us, and we just sit and think about it for weeks, for months, even years.

So, the question is, “How should we handle our anger? How do we avoid making bad decisions, and how do we develop the wisdom we need to make good decisions in those times of anger? To get an answer to those questions, let’s turn now to the book of Proverbs. And let’s start by taking a look at what Solomon has to say about some of the characteristics of anger

I. Anger makes it difficult for us to think clearly

I think this is the most dangerous characteristic of anger. When we are angry, it is very difficult for us to think clearly. And so, any decisions we make while we are angry tend to be rather poor decisions. The flare of anger overrides our judgment, and we do things we would never consider in a calmer moment.

I love this quote – “Anger is a feeling that makes your mouth work faster than your mind.”

Solomon put it this way — “A wise man is cautious and avoids danger; a fool plunges ahead with great confidence. A short-tempered man is a fool…” (Proverbs 14:16-17, TLB). The NIV says in verse 17, “A quick-tempered person does foolish things…” The Message says, “The hotheaded do things they’ll later regret..”

And my guess is that Solomon isn’t telling you something here that you don’t already know. We all know from experience that we’ve done some foolish things when we were angry. When we lose our temper, we tend say things we know we shouldn’t have said, and do things that we’re going to be sorry for later on.

“Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back.” (Proverbs 29:11, NLT). One of the characteristics of a fool is his inability to hold back his anger. A wise man, on the other hand, keeps his temper under control, even in a confrontation.

“People with understanding control their anger; a hot temper shows great foolishness.” (Proverbs 14:29, NLT).

Will Rogers put it this way. He said, “Whenever you fly into a rage, you seldom make a safe landing.”

So, if we know that anger makes it difficult to think clearly, we can use that information to our advantage. I’m sure you’ve all heard the advice to count to 10 when you’re angry. What you may not know is that that advice came from Thomas Jefferson. He actually said, “When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, [count to] a hundred.”

And there’s actually a medical explanation for that. When we get frightened or angry or challenged, our body releases hormones. We call it the “fight-or-flight” instinct. During this time, our heart rate is elevated, our adrenaline is pumping, and our judgment is clouded. It actually takes more than ten seconds for the “fight-or-flight” instinct to subside. It takes 20 minutes. So we actually need to do more than count to 10. Or 100. If it’s not a matter of life or death (and it rarely is), we need to wait about 20 minutes before responding.

If you get an e-mail that makes you angry, don’t respond right away. Wait at least 20 minutes. If you feel the need to write out a response immediately, then wait at least 20 minutes before hitting the “send” button. Do whatever it takes to avoid giving an immediately response in a moment of anger. Because Solomon was right. “The hotheaded do things they’ll later regret.”

II. Anger stirs up strife

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that anger is one of the biggest problems we face in trying to maintain good relationships with people in our lives. So, it only makes sense that if we can develop more wisdom in dealing with our anger, it will greatly improve our relationship with everyone around us.

“A hot-tempered man starts fights and gets into all kinds of trouble.” (Proverbs 29:22, TLB). The phrase translated “a hot-tempered man” is literally in Hebrew a “possessor of anger.” This is the person who is characterized by anger. Anger is not an occasional problem with him. Anger is a built-in part of his character. Someone like this has a spiritual problem that goes deep into the heart. And it results not only in fights and arguments, but “all kinds of trouble”.

If you have a short fuse, if you’re always losing your temper, if you walk around with a chip on your shoulder, if you’re just waiting for somebody to say something that will irritate you, then you’re going to leave a trail of hurt feelings and unhappiness behind you.

“A quick-tempered man starts fights; a cool-tempered man tries to stop them.” (Proverbs 15:18, TLB).

“Fools start fights everywhere while wise men try to keep peace.” (Proverbs 29:8, TLB).

Solomon says the alternative to anger is to be cool-tempered and a peacemaker. I love this quote from R. T. Archibald. He said that peacemakers are those “who carry about with them an atmosphere in which quarrels die a natural death.” Which is a beautiful thing. But, anger stirs up strife.

III. Anger wants to pay others back for what they’ve done

And here’s where we really get to the root of the biggest problem with anger. Because, most of the time I get angry, it’s because I don’t get what I want. I don’t get what I think I deserve. Someone else has done something to offend me and I got my feelings hurt.

In Romans 12:19 Paul said, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: `It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

One of the things we need ask to ourselves whenever we get angry is, “Do I want to pay someone back for what they’ve done? Do I want to get even?” Because if we do, we definitely have a sinful anger that we need to get under control.

Solomon put it this way — “Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults.” (Proverbs 12:16, MSG)

The story is told that in the late 1800’s, Alfred Lord Tennyson invited a Russian nobleman to his estate. And early one morning this nobleman took off with dogs, guns and servants to go hunting. At mid-day he returned and Lord Tennyson asked him how he did. He said, “Not very well. I shot two peasants.”

Lord Tennyson thought for a moment and he said, “No, in America, we pronounce it with a ‘ph’ sound here. It’s ‘pheasants.’ You shot two pheasants.” The Russian nobleman replied, “No, I shot two peasants. They were insolent towards me, so I shot them.”

We may chuckle in disbelief at a story like that. But how many times in the news have we heard stories about road rage, where someone gets upset while driving and responds with verbal insults, physical threats, sometimes even assault with a weapon?

Solomon said, “Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs.” (Proverbs 19:11, NLT). A sensible and patient person knows how to avoid quarrels and stay out of trouble because he is not easily offended. Patience and longsuffering is a mark of wisdom, and it will lead us to make good decisions. And Solomon says that when we choose to overlook an offense rather than retaliate, we earn the respect of those around us.

IV. Anger hurts us more than it hurts others.

“Hot-tempered people must pay the penalty. If you rescue them once, you will have to do it again.” (Proverbs 19:19, NLT). I think what Solomon is saying here is that there’s only so such we can do to help someone who is hot-tempered because there are consequences that come from anger, and we usually can’t keep those consequences from playing out.

A hot-tempered person will repeatedly end up in trouble. And he doesn’t learn from his experiences, so it does little good to rescue him. He will only lose control again and suffer the consequences again despite your best efforts to help him.

I think some of those consequences have to do with relationships with other people. It’s easy to lose a connection with our family or friends because of our anger. But many of the consequences of anger have to with how we ourselves are affected.

Someone has said, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” In other words, if you allow yourself to become angry enough to lash out at someone else, you will suffer the negative effects of anger as much or more than your intended target.

It’s true. Doctors tell us that there is a clear link between anger and hostility and our health and well-being. Anger leads to a long list of both short-term and long-term health consequences, including an increased rate of heart disease, stroke, a weakened immune system, even early death.

And so, if you can’t find a way to deal with your anger for any other reason, you need to do so for your own benefit.

V. The antidote to anger is self-control

“It is better to be slow-tempered than famous; it is better to have self-control than to control an army.” (Proverbs 16:32, TLB). In Jewish culture, a soldier was highly respected as a necessary defense against enemies. But Solomon said that controlling yourself is worthy of even more honor than taking a city in battle.

“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” (Proverbs 25:28, NLT). The man who lacks self-control is like a city that cannot be defended because its walls have been broken down. Let me give you an example.

In 1975, tennis great Arthur Ashe was playing the arrogant and rude Ilie Nastase, nicknamed “Nasty” Nastase because he was so volatile on the tennis court. It was the Masters Tournament in Sweden. Nastase was at his worst that day — stalling, cursing, taunting, and acting like a madman. Finally, Ashe put his racket down, he walked off the court, and he said, “I’ve had enough. I’m at the point where I’m afraid I’ll lose control.”

The umpire said, “If you leave the court, you’ll forfeit the match.”

Ashe replied, “I don’t care. I’d rather lose the match than my self-respect.”

I wonder, how many of us would have had the self-respect and courage to forfeit a match when we were in the right and the other person was clearly in the wrong? How many of us would have been willing to lose money and drop in the rankings when it was the other guy who was at fault?

In that one statement, Arthur Ashe demonstrated his character and a dedication to integrity. And, at the same time, Ilie Nastase was demonstrating the devastation that happens to people when they can’t control themselves.

Solomon was right. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” And “It is better to be slow-tempered than famous; it is better to have self-control than to control an army.” Few things demonstrate that like the contrast between Ashe and Nastase.

How Do We Improve?

Scripture says, “If you’ve got a problem with anger, then you need to control it.” But how do we do that? Some will say, “I can’t. I just can’t control my temper. It gets away from me.” But, the truth is, you can control it. How many times have you found yourself engaged in a heated discussion with someone with your voice getting louder and louder?

“Honey, I’m sick to death of dinner being served late! And you’re going to Kohl’s again just because you got a 30-percent-off coupon? You want to tell me about all the money you’re saving, but you’re not saving money, you’re spending money! And I’m sick and tired of it!”

Then the telephone rings and you say, “Hello. Oh, John, hey, how are you? Oh, I’m doing great, thank you. God has really blessed me. Yes, I’m planning on being at church on Sunday. I’ll see you there. God bless you. Have a great day!”

The first thing we need to do is to admit that the problem is not that we can’t control our temper; the problem is that we won’t control our temper. And as long as we continue to deny that we have a problem, as long as we blame it on our red hair or our Irish blood or on everyone else who does things to irritate us, or whatever else we may choose to blame it on, we’ll never get any better. We have the ability to control how to react when we get angry.

So how do we control it? I’ve already suggested one way, which is to take time to cool off when we’re angry before we say anything, write anything, or do anything.

But, since most of our anger is the result of us getting personally offended, one very important thing we can do is to learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. Because that’s what love does. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:5-7 (TLB), “[Love] is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong…If you love someone, you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him.”

What if, when someone walks by you without talking to you, without paying attention to you, instead of getting offended and upset, you say to yourself, “I don’t know what’s going on in his life, but he’s probably dealing with stresses at work, or bad news from the doctor, or any of hundreds of other possible problems in his life.”

Or that person in the office next to you who can’t seem to stop talking, what if you just thought to yourself, “You know, she’s a single mom and these are probably the only adult words she’ll speak all day, because the rest of time, she’s just dealing with toddlers.”

If we would just learn to give other people the benefit of the doubt and recognize there are probably things going on in their world that we don’t know anything about, then perhaps our first reaction would not be to get angry, but to say a prayer for them. And God can change us from people who explode in anger to people who make peace. And, the truth is, that’s who God made us to be.

James says in James 1:19 that “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. When we are slow to anger, we become more like God. Seven books of the Bible say that God is slow to anger. It doesn’t say he never gets angry. But it says that he is slow to get angry.

And if we could develop humility so that we would no longer carry a chip on our shoulders, just looking for someone to tick us off. And if we could show love by choosing to give people the benefit of the doubt, the result would be that we would become slow to get angry, and in the process become a lot more like God.

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