The story is told of a husband who left from work one Friday afternoon. But, being payday, instead of going home, he stayed out the entire weekend partying with the boys and spending his entire paycheck.
When he finally did come home Sunday night, he was confronted by a very angry wife and she yelled at him for about two hours straight.
Finally, she stopped yelling and simply said to him, “How would you like it if you didn’t see me for two or three days?”
To which he replied. “That would be fine with me.”
Monday went by and he didn’t see his wife. Tuesday and Wednesday came and he still didn’t see his wife.
But on Thursday, the swelling went down just enough where he could see her a little bit out of the corner of his left eye.
I shouldn’t have to work too hard this morning to convince you that anger is a sin. It would seem to be rather evident. In fact, whenever we have an angry outburst, we sometimes say, “I lost it.” And it’s true. When we’re angry, we feel that we have lost control of ourselves.
Much of the bad that happens in the Bible occurs as a byproduct of anger. It was in resentful anger that Cain killed Abel. It was in anger that Jonah refused to obey God’s call to go to Nineveh. Jesus’ first sermon, at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, ended in anger. His neighbors tried to kill him because they were so enraged by his words.
A police officer was once asked the question, “What causes you the most fear in your work as a policeman?” And his response was, “Anger. Anger is my greatest fear.” He said he wasn’t afraid of burglaries, muggings, or embezzlements because in those crimes, “nobody has anything against anybody.” But the bloodiest crimes are usually domestic crimes of passion, as we put it. He said that when anger is the cause of the crime, things get horribly, terribly bloody.
He went on to say that, as a police officer, he also feared anger in himself. He said, “I have to keep saying to myself, and to the perpetrators whom I arrest, ‘I’m just doing my job,’ or ‘This isn’t personal.’ The minute I get emotionally involved, the time when I think too much about the crime or the criminal, then I’m apt to get angry and then I am apt to do some very bad things myself.”
It shouldn’t surprise us to know that the Bible contains a lot of warnings about anger.
Solomon said, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14:29).
In Proverbs 22:24-25, he said, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.”
In Ecclesiastes 7:9, Solomon said, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”
In Galatians 5:20, Paul lists “fits of anger” as one of the works of the flesh that will keep us out of the kingdom of God.
In Colossians 3:8, Paul has a list of sins that we need to get rid of now that we’re Christians, and the first two on that list are anger and wrath.
So I don’t think I need to make a long argument for why anger deserves to be listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. You know as well I do that we are at our worst when we are most angry. There is no more destructive element in human nature than that of being quick-tempered. So many terrible things have been said, so many terrible things have been done, so many precious relationships have been destroyed because of a quick temper.
The problem with anger is that we can never know exactly how much damage we’re going to cause. In an unguarded moment, we may speak a word or commit an action that may take years to live down. We may open up wounds that take a long time to heal. We may create resentments that will last a lifetime. All because of anger.
And yet, the Bible also says that our God is a God of wrath. In fact, the second coming of Christ is referred to as a day of wrath, a day when “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” (Romans 1:18).
In Mark 3, Jesus was in the synagogue getting ready to heal a man with a withered hand, and verse 5 says, “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart…” (Mark 3:5)
And, of course, we recall that when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the very first thing he did was to walk into the temple and, with whip in hand, violently drive out the money changers, turn over the tables, scatter the coins, and say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13)
And it’s not just in the Bible. Usually when we picture anger, it tends to be ugly and violent, but there are others times when the passion of anger seems to be a good thing. Whether it’s mothers getting angry at drunk drivers who are killing teenagers, or a campus group that gets angry because there are college girls getting raped on campus, there is indeed something “righteous” about their righteous anger. There is something inspiring about Martin Luther King Jr. denouncing injustice from the pulpit. If he had not been angry at racial injustice, his words would have lacked power.
Righteous anger serves to remind us of the horrible injustices of this world in which we live, a world to which too many of us become settled and accustomed. And rather than urging angry people to “calm down,” perhaps we should be praying, “Lord, give us more righteous indignation.” As someone once said of Jesus, “I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables.”
We will never be able to accomplish anything of significance if all we bring to the table is just apathetic detachment. Martin Luther once said that righteous anger was the motivator for some of his very best work. He said, “I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.” Indeed, much of the greatest good done in this world is motivated by anger. You can’t say that about any of the other Seven Deadly Sins.
And yet anger is a dangerous thing, even when it is a righteous indignation. Because when we are motivated by anger, we are convinced that we are right and the world is wrong, and we tend to act out of that self-centered view.
So is it wrong to be angry or not? Not surprisingly, Christians have been a bit divided on this topic throughout the centuries.
Thomas Aquinas, for example, believed that anger is merely a natural expression of human passion. It is a natural response that is stirred up by threats to ourselves and to others. He said that anger is not inherently bad, but it becomes wrong when it attacks the wrong target or when it gets out of control. He would have pointed to what Paul said in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin.”
Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry, because that’s a natural response. There are times we are all going to get angry. But don’t let that anger lead you to commit sin.” Those who take this view of anger are very careful to distinguish anger, a part of our normal human emotional makeup, from wrath, which is anger in its sinful, excessive, misdirected form.
Aquinas went even further and he said that anger is a response to injustice. Anger requires that we recognize that someone has been wronged, and then we follow that up with a subsequent desire to set things right. Anger is not simply lashing out, but it is a response that seeks retribution and justice. So Aquinas said that anger is the instrument of justice.
But, on the other hand, there have been Christians like John Cassian, who believed that anger is rarely if ever justified. He would have pointed to what James said in James 1:20, that “[our] anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20).
Cassian saw anger as having a blinding effect. The idea is that anger so disrupts our ability to reason and to think rationally that it shifts any real concern about sin or injustice into protecting ourselves, and getting revenge on anyone who may have done us wrong.
Perhaps that’s why Scripture tells us, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). Anger wants to make things right, and the way to make things right is make someone who does what is wrong pay. But vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours.
And so, Cassian would have agreed with Paul in Ephesians 4:31 when he said, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you.” Cassian said, “When [the apostle] says, ‘All anger should be removed from you,’ he makes no exception at all for us.”
And so, we have these two rather different views regarding anger. And while they both agree that any anger needs to be directed at sin, they seem to disagree about whether anger is something we should try to moderate in our lives or work to eliminate altogether.
But, if there is such a thing as a “good anger”, then what is it that marks the difference between good anger and the sin of wrath?
Someone has said that “A person who is angry on the right grounds, against the right persons, in the right manner, at the right moment, and for the right length of time deserves great praise.” I think this quote helps us to identify those areas where we tend to struggle with anger, those times when there is no doubt that the anger in our lives is a sin.
- We are often angry for the wrong reason
As I’ve already pointed out, when it is good, anger is a passion for justice, and it is motivated by a love for others. We get angry when someone we care about is hurt or threatened. You see this a lot in families, where ties of love are the strongest. It is a familiar image that messing with a mother’s children is like messing with a mother bear. You don’t dare mess with those baby cubs, because if you do, you’re going to suffer the wrath of Mama bear.
And the greater our love, the more intense is our capacity for anger. Great love is at the root of great anger. You don’t get angry unless you care. That’s why Aquinas once said that anger is rooted ultimately in love.
But the problem is that I don’t often get angry at the injustices of the world. I don’t get angry when I read about Boko Haran kidnapping girls in Nigeria, or domestic violence, or people starving because of poverty. I may get sad, but I don’t get angry.
No, I save anger for the greater injustices of life, like when I’m in traffic and some guy cuts me off. Or when Sueanne has the audacity to tell me I need to clean the kitchen. Or when nobody bothers to notice all the hard work I put into preparing this sermon.
Because let’s be honest. Most of our anger has nothing to do with justice. It’s got everything to do with selfishness. Oh, I know, we’ll try to make it about justice. We will rationalize our anger by saying, “All I care about is that things are done fairly.” And we will invent all sorts of rationalizations to explain why we deserve what we want, why others didn’t give us what we were really owed, why we need to act this way to claim our rightful share. We can even convince ourselves that getting angry in church is a good thing because we’re just standing up for what God wants, we’re standing up for what’s right.
But the truth of the matter is, I tend to get angry for one reason and one reason only – because I don’t get what I want, and woe to anyone that gets in my way. The only cause worth fighting for is the Me-First Agenda, and as someone has put it, “[wrath’s] purpose and desire is to eliminate any obstacle to our self-seeking, to retaliate against any threat to our security, to avenge any insult or injury to our person.”
When I get it in my mind that things have to go the way I want them to go, or somebody needs to pay, then my anger will always be sinful.
- We are often angry at the wrong people
Have you ever noticed that we don’t always take out our anger on the people we’re actually angry with? The recipient of our anger is often the wrong person, the person who just happens to be closest, most available, or the easiest target within range.
For example, a waitress may end up bearing the wrath directed at the unsatisfactory efforts of the cook. Or maybe you deal with an unreasonable boss all day long and come home and yell at your husband or wife. Or the slightest misstep of an older child may receive the pent-up explosion of the parent who is worn down by two hours of dealing with an aggravatingly whiny two-year- old.
Have you ever been guilty of lashing out at someone just because you couldn’t find or fight the person you’re upset with? In fact, sometimes people are angry with God and because they can’t really do anything to him directly, they end up taking their anger out on people around them.
- We often express our anger in the wrong way
The thing about anger is that it does keep us from thinking rationally and so we lose control, and we end up expressing our anger in the wrong way.
Aquinas said there are three main areas in which we respond to anger improperly. We can get angry too easily (the Bible term for this is quick-tempered); we can get angrier than we should (that is, our anger is disproportionate to the offense); and we can stay angry too long (that’s when anger smolders into resentment and grudge holding). Let’s take a look at each of these briefly.
- We can get angry too easily
I Corinthians 13:5 says that “[Love] is not irritable.” Other translations say that “[Love] is not easily provoked.”
The Greek word translated there is the word “paroxuno”. It conveys the idea of a “sudden violent emotion or action”. You’ve heard of people who “explode” at the slightest thing. That’s the picture painted by this word. Paul tells us that love doesn’t explode at people. There’s a proverb that says, “Anger is a stone cast into a wasp’s nest.” That’s a graphic picture.
When anger poisons our mood, every little thing sets us off. We feel quarrelsome and contrary. We respond to the slightest provocation with bickering, rudeness, complaint, annoyance, cutting remarks, maybe even profanity
Paul says that love doesn’t explode at others when they say or do something that displeases us or when they prevent us from having our own way. Love isn’t touchy; it doesn’t go around with a chip on its shoulder daring anyone to knock it off and suffer the consequences.
- We can get angrier than we should
What makes us angry is usually something small or insignificant, but the way we respond is often excessive. That’s why arguments tend to end up with a lot of shouting or slamming of doors.
But the reason we often get angrier than we should is because our anger is a symptom of a deeper issue. Maybe the oldest child’s angry outburst is not merely from having to wash the dishes two nights in a row while her younger siblings get off easy. It’s more about the fairness of her role in the family, the way her parents always single her out for more responsibility, and the injustice of being held to higher standards of behavior than the other siblings are. Her life is just not fair! And given her self-importance, she feels like this sort of injustice must not be tolerated.
And so, the cumulative effect of her long -nurtured resentments in this area mean that she is already primed and ready for an excuse to bring it up on the slightest provocation. And her reaction will be proportionate to the long years of unjust treatment by her parents, not this single event.
There may well be some occasions in which we have a legitimate grievance, but the way we demand that it be dealt with is excessive, due to overblown anger and an overblown sense of what we feel like we are owed.
- We stay angry too long
Sometimes our anger causes us to explode; other time we just keep it in and let it simmer. Let me give you to get a couple of images to help you understand the correlation between those two reactions. Think for a moment about fire. Picture in your mind someone tossing a lit match into a closet containing an open can of gasoline. The can of gasoline explodes and the building bursts into flames. That’s the first picture I want you to get in your mind.
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. That’s the second picture I want you to get in your mind.
The first picture is one of a bursting flame, the second picture is one of a smoldering fire. If you can keep those two images in your mind, I think you can understand that there are two things that we tend to do when people offend us. The first is that we burst into flames, we react with a quick temper. The second thing we do is that we smolder. We don’t forget what’s been done, and we just sit and think about it for weeks, for months, even years.
In I Corinthians 13:5, Paul says that love “is not resentful”. The NIV says that love “keeps no records of wrongs” (NIV). The Living Bible says that love “does not hold grudges”.
The Greek word used here is an accountant’s word; it literally means to keep a record or make a calculation. It was originally used for what the accountant did when he entered records into a bookkeeper’s ledger. Now the reason a bookkeeper writes things in a ledger is so he won’t forget them, right?
This is the picture that Paul is trying to paint. Here is a man keeping a ledger of mistakes that other people make. Whenever someone does something wrong to him, he writes it down in his ledger so that it will never be forgotten. And that’s precisely what some people do. But Paul is saying here is that “Love doesn’t keep a running record of all the wrongs done to it. Love doesn’t hold a grudge for things that are done to it.”
Think back just a minute about all the bad things that people have done to you all throughout your lifetime. Think back to elementary school, junior high, high school, as you begin your career — all the way to the present.
Some of us accept that invitation much too eagerly. We’ve got a lot to remember. We remember all the times someone has said something bad about us or lied to us. We remember all the times we’ve been cheated out of something or didn’t get a fair shake. We remember all of the times people didn’t do what they promised they would. We remember all of the bad things that have ever been done to us by others.
And the result is that we become bitter and miserable people. We act coolly toward certain people because of what they did one time. We avoid speaking to others altogether. We gossip about those we resent. We refuse to help others who are in need because of what they have done to us in the past. We spend our time in fantasies of getting back at another person, giving them what they deserve.
Of all the expressions of anger, I think this may be the one that’s most common. I’ve not watched too many Christians fly off the handle, but I’ve known many, many Christians who held a grudge for decades.
All of these expressions of wrath move us beyond being upset about an injustice and wanting to set it right. Rather, they are more interested in hurting someone, to make them pay, to inflict punishment on them because we’ve been wronged.
Anger, when it is a holy emotion, has justice as its object and love as its root. Both love and justice are focused on the good of others. Justice is all about giving to others what they are due. Good anger is expressed in passionate efforts to make sure others get the respect they deserve, to bring about the end of oppression and tyranny, to give due punishment to those who cause injury and damage, to give equal treatment to the marginalized.
If we are motivated by good anger, our actions will be motivated by love. The love that underlies it, keeps it in check, because love does not seek to destroy someone, but to set things right.
Bad anger, on the other hand, is selfish. The wrathful seek revenge, not due punishment; they protect their own honor and cause at all costs, instead of defending what is truly good or deserved. There is no love or justice ta the root of this kind of anger. Bad anger’s goal is hurt someone, not to help someone.
When we take for ourselves the responsibility for making everything right, and rely on our own power and plans for bringing about justice, our anger becomes excessive, aroused too quickly and too easily and ends up smoldering too long in resentment.
The problem with human wrath is not merely the damage to others it may or may not inflict, but the heart-problem behind our anger.
So how do we know if we have a problem with anger?
One suggestion for self-examination is to try keeping a journal for a week. The journal is meant to be a record of the times you get angry. Write down what it is that makes you angry. Then rate how angry you get, on a scale from 1 to 100. After the week is over, shut the journal and put it away for another week
When you come back to it later, you’ll find that the journal’s records allow you to take stock—after you have cooled off – to examine why you get angry. Look for reoccurring themes or “triggers” that make you mad. Triggers may fall into one of several categories, including:
- Other people doing or not doing what you expect them to do
- Situational events that get in your way, such as traffic jams, computer problems, ringing telephones, etc.
- People taking advantage of you
- Being angry and disappointed in yourself
Look for patterns that emerge. With evidence in hand, you can ask: Was I angry too often? Was I often too angry? Do we find ourselves still feeling resentful about anything that happened? Frequently, reactions that seemed perfectly justified and rational at the time look petty and self-serving in retrospect, and the situations that brought about our anger seem more trivial than genuinely offensive.
It is only when we identify that we have a problem that we can move toward a solution.
“Search me, O Lord, and see if there is any anger in my heart.”