Anger – Is It the Answer?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt got tired of smiling that big smile and saying the usual things at all those fancy official White House receptions. So, one evening he decided to find out whether anybody was paying attention to what he was saying. As each person came up to him with extended hand, he flashed that big smile and said, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." People would automatically respond with comments such as "How lovely!" or "Just continue with your great work!" Nobody listened to what he was actually saying, except one foreign diplomat. When the president said, "I murdered my grandmother this morning," the diplomat responded softly, "I’m sure she had it coming to her."
Last week we spoke about the importance of being quick to listen and slow to speak. And I shared how I am very good at getting that one backwards – I am quick to speak, then I don’t even have to worry about listening because there is no time left. I’ve been working real hard at that this week and as of Friday morning, I don’t think I cut anyone off mid-sentence. But God has one more item to challenge us with in v 19 – READ 19-20.
Be slow to anger - wow that is a big one. Doesn’t God get angry? Didn’t Jesus get angry – those two times he went into the temple with a whip, overturning the tables and driving out all the merchants certainly wasn’t done calmly. What about Levi – weren’t his descendents the only ones allowed to be priests because Levi got so angry about the immorality going on around him that he did something strongly about it – that seemed to be done in anger (or at least ‘righteous indignation’) and God rewarded him for it. Shouldn’t we get angry at the contemporary attacks on Jesus, the persecution of our brothers & sisters overseas and the mistreatment of the weak & poor here in our country? It seems that anger is useful and helpful sometimes. So the question our verses raise today is this: “Anger – is it the answer?”
PROPOSITION: Anger is not the means to a more God-honoring righteous life whether as an individual, a group, a church or a society.
I. What is anger? (Prov 16:32)
Well let’s start with a simple definition of anger. Anger is a natural physiological reaction in our body to get us ready for action. When we get angry more adrenaline is released, more sugar is freed, our heart starts beating faster, our blood pressure rises and even the pupils of our eyes open wider. In other words, when anger is released in us, we are put on high alert – we are ready for action. Proverbs 16:32 gives us this picture when it contrasts a patient man with a warrior. "Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city." The implication is that anger actually gives certain professions – like ancient warriors – more power.
A. Response to “rights” being violated Prov 19:11
If anger is a natural response our body has to get us ready for the strongest of action, then what triggers anger? Things like hurt, frustration and being threatened are major areas that fire up many people. But research has shown that the triggers for anger are learned. What fires up one person is different than what fires up another person. One culture gets angry over one set of actions, while another culture’s anger is triggered by a very different set of actions.
I believe there is a common element behind all anger triggers. Prov 19:11 says"A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense." A perceived “offense” is behind this anger. I believe you will find that anger is a response to rights being violated. (repeat) When we see injustice, we get angry because another’s rights are violated. When we hit frustrating circumstances, we can get angry because we think we have a right to a stress-free life. When you get angry – and all of us get angry – it is helpful to stop and ask “what right am I holding on to?” That no one should ever cut in front of me in a car, that the kids should never scream when I’m watching TV, that people should always treat me nice even though I don’t always treat them nice. Or is the reason we get angry because the weak are being exploited, the small are being bullied or the ugly are being picked on. I believe there is always “a right being violated” behind all human anger. That is why all of our physical resources are put “on high alert” so we can reclaim that right – whether for ourselves or for someone else. Some are good reasons & some are very poor reasons.
B. God’s righteous anger Rom 1:18
The Bible reveals that God gets angry and that His anger is always righteous and proper. Rom 1:18 "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness," God has some pretty good reasons behind His anger- people are willfully trampling on the laws of the universe as they sin and causing unnecessary pain for those around them. People are purposefully hiding the truth & deceiving others.
C. Human anger Col 3:8; Ps 37:8
While God’s anger is always right, always justified and always appropriate, human anger is not spoken of so positively in the Bible. Col 3:8 says "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips." Psalm 37:8 says "Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil." Our sinful nature, with its selfishness & pride, has a way of corrupting this natural biological response which gets us ready for action. So our anger is often out-of-place, unjustified, and over-blown. We can get things so confused that when someone points out our failures we are the ones who unleash a wave of anger from the person who is doing wrong. (We have a perceived right to always be right!)
Given that we can’t change the biological aspects of anger – there are only two places we can influence our own anger. On the front end, our true beliefs and values will impact what actually triggers our anger. Remember the triggers are mostly a learned aspect. On the back end, our self-control & mind can greatly impact our expression of anger. It is actually the expression of our anger that causes so many interpersonal problems. It is the expression of our anger that the Bible so often speaks negatively of. Given this broad picture, let’s go back to our passage in James 1:19b-20. READ. There are four simple truths God reveals about anger here.
II. Simple truths about anger James 1:19b-20
A. Anger can come easily in our world James 1:19b
The first truth is that anger can come to us very easily in our world. If James must encourage people “to be slow to become angry,” then the normal situation for people is that they become angry fast. The Bible actually has several different words to describe anger. The one used here is NOT the boiling rage, fly-off-the-handle, fury type anger according to AT Robertson in his book “Word Pictures in the NT.” John MacArthur agrees with this and says this anger is “an inner, deep resentment that seethes and smolders, often unnoticed by others.” It can be particularly dangerous because it is quietly kept. Some people hold on to perceived wrongs for decades – we call old anger by a different name – “bitterness” and that slowly kills people.
Not only does anger come rather easily to humans, but our particular culture pays people big bucks to get others angry. There are ads, articles and staged interviews all calculated to get you angry about their pet causes – they want you to get angry about pollution, global warming, over-population, homelessness, corruption, immorality, wind towers on ridgelines or people who try to stop wind energy. Our culture sees anger as the most effective motivator to get people to take action. So anger is always easy for humans, but it comes even easier in US
B. Anger can control us James 1:19b-20a (Prov 19:19; Numbers 20)
Anger is also something that can control us. READ v 19b-20. We all know times where we have done something very stupid (and unrighteous) because we were angry. The anger got control of us – so God’s righteous life could not be lived. When we allow bitterness to stay in our lives we know it ruins relationships. The anger & thje bitterness end up calling the shots, not us. The result is devastating. Prov 19:19 "A hot-tempered man (that is a person whose anger was controlling him) must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again." In Numbers 20 we are told that Moses unable to control his anger so God would not let him lead the people into the promised land. It is hard to “hear God” when we are distracted by thoughts of resentment, vengeance, hatred or bitterness fill our minds.
C. Anger can be controlled James 1:19b
The third truth is that anger can be controlled. If God calls us to be “slow to become angry” & anger comes naturally, then He expects us to controlled that anger. In fact I believe we can also say that anger is something that SHOULD BE controlled. That is why human anger is spoken about so negatively in the Bible. I love the person who said“Temper is such a valuable thing, it is a shame to lose it!” It is temper that helps to give steel its strength. It is the person who controls their anger that is strong.
So there are two places we can control anger. One is our attitude or beliefs in the areas that trigger anger and the other is our response once the physiological firing up happens inside.
D. Anger doesn’t bring about holy life James 1:20
The fourth truth here is that anger does not bring about a holy life. READ v 20. James is one of those very practical people. His goal has been that we actually are successful in living a godly life. He wants Christians to be living a more God honoring life this year than they did last year. And the fascinating statement God makes here is that a very practical daily life that pleases God WILL NOT come from anger – not even righteous anger. That should get our attention!
It is not that there should never be a time for strong rebuke, scolding and reprimand – Jesus Himself did that to the false teachers, to his beloved disciples and to the crowd – but in terms of spiritual growth those were not the norm. The passage does not say “never be angry” – there is righteous anger (or righteous indignation as my parents generation was fond of saying). But this anger is not a primary tool to move the church or people forward in maturity. (Let’s repeat that because I don’t believe we Americans really believe it). Anger is not a primary tool to move people to maturity.
The reason is not because anger isn’t powerful – it is one of the most powerful emotions we have. The reason is because humans will always corrupt it in time – or maybe better said, anger will always corrupt the person who holds on to it. We actually see this reflected in parenting or work. If a parent or boss only uses criticizing, rebuking, and scolding in anger, it can get that child or employee to do what they want them to do. But they won’t do it willingly. The change won’t be one that lasts but is only there as long as the anger is there. If God’s primary goal was just to get us to do certain things, He could perpetually twist our arms and we would always do right. But that is not the righteous life God is trying to develop in us. God wants us to freely choose to do right. God wants us to delight in doing right. God wants us to be so convinced that doing right is the best that we go around encouraging others to do right. That’s can’t be developed by anger – not even righteous anger.
This is why it is so dangerous when the people of a society begin to look at the police in a negative way – my generation began to call them “pigs”. If we have inner anger and bitterness towards them, we are not going to be able to develop & maintain a positive view of our community. In fact I’ve never figured out why people get mad at the police when they are simply enforcing the laws we enacted and that we want other people to live by. The people we should be getting bad at are those who made the law.
III. Looking at anger differently
Let’s look particularly at this last truth from v 20 that human anger will not bring about the righteous life God desires – not in us and not in another person.
A. Angry at American church or appreciating the good of Jesus’ bride Neh 9:17
It is not hard to find Christian who are angry at the church in America. “The church should being this or that and its not.” You can feel the explosive power just flowing out. And the reason that these people do that is because they honestly believe their anger is justified and if they vent with enough people then the American church will get better. We just have to get enough people angry so change can happen. Back in the 1980’s I use to think that way. But three things changed my attitude completely. The first was one of the titles God gave the church – the bride of Christ. I have yet to meet a young man in love who allowed other people to constantly bad mouth his fiancée. And it dawned on me how these comments looked to Jesus. He’s not going to be happy or bless us when we down-grade the church no matter how righteous we feel. The church is the beloved bride of Christ regardless of her failures. That led me to the second observation. People who piously downgrade the church were rarely happy, together people. It was clear God wasn’t showering them with blessing. It sometimes seemed they were more like petulant children insisting everyone do things their way – and it wasn’t happening. Some people, especially those with the gift of mercy, would try around them, but there wasn’t positive, lasting change. True God inspired revival wasn’t happening. Instead those people were fighting unnecessary battles deep within.
That led to my third observation – even when we are at our worst, God is not constantly angry. Neh 9:17 says of Israel: “They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them," I challenge you the next time you want to righteously condemn the Bible-believing church – either in America or this area – stop and consider how totally ineffective that will be. God has said it won’t bring about righteous living and it may just turn Jesus against you for down- grading His beloved bride. You’ll be surprised how the anger dies down in you.
B. Angry at God’s people or encouraging obedience in God’s children II Tim 2:24-25
Closely aligned to this is when we become angry at God’s people. People in this church aren’t loving enough – why? Because they aren’t doing something for me I think they should do. That is that “rights” thing again, we think we have a right to have everyone focus on us. People in this church aren’t friendly enough - why? Because they don’t do things with me enough. We are all going to be surprised in heaven when God reveals how dysfunctional and selfish so many of our comments about other faithful Christians were. It is not that the church as a whole, or people in our local church don’t need to get better in some areas – we all do – but our anger & complaining is not going to bring about God’s purpose – that is what Jesus is telling us here. Instead God wants us to encourage the good in others. Listen to God’s instructions to the Pastor who recognizes all kinds of spiritual failings in others "And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth," (2 Timothy 2:24-25, NIV) Clearly these people were wrong and God still doesn’t allow the Pastor to constantly lambaste them – because God knows human anger can not produce real transformation and that is what God seeks. It is the reason I have so structured sermons, including setting down topics months in advance, so I do not use them as clubs on people.
C. Angry at degraded society or seeking its redemption Ecc 7:9
You have probably guessed my next point – “Well then Pastor, you probably are now going to say it is not right to be angry at our degraded society? But why shouldn’t we be angry about the little lives lost in abortion, the callous disregard for others in materialism and the pure selfishness & awful pain felt by kids because of our easy high divorce rate.” As Ecc 7:9 says "Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools." Stop deceiving yourself, your anger will not change a degraded society – we want to channel our efforts into seeking our culture’s redemption – however small those steps may be.
In your bulletin is an article about the perverse sensuality that is now in Women’s Magazines. That should make your blood boil because it will corrupt the lives of some innocent young gals and really make their lives miserable. You rightly get angry because the unsuspecting will get hurt. But we don’t stop there. We’ve been brought to this maximum state of action, so we can take some action. But we will not take that action in anger or no long term good will come about. We want to convert anger to right action. Just as we had seen from II Timothy 2, the pastor may be angry at false thinkers in the church, but he is to channel the power that anger has started to come up with intellectual and emotional reasons why they are in error – which he will calmly state. When I publicly stand against sin in our society, I must first let go of wanting to win, otherwise I will rely on things like anger, cheating and manipulation. I do it to give others a chance to change and because someone needs to speak up.
D. Angry at yourself or humility before God James 4:8-10
Let’s just take one more – do you think being angry at yourself is going to please God or bring about the righteous life God desires? Some of you here are trying to punish yourself into God’s good graces – it will never happen. We really have a choice when we mess up. We can get angry at ourself, try to punish ourself until we think we have paid our dues then expect God to be pleased or we can simply come humbly to God with no pretensions, in honesty weep and cry for our wrong quietly in His presence and then just wait. That’s what James will tell us in chapter 4. The exciting result is James tells us that it is God who will lift us up.
Three ministers were talking about what was the most proper & effective ways to pray. There was a telephone repairman working nearby who heard the conversation.
The first minister shared that he felt the key was in the hands. He always held his hands together and pointed them upward as a form of symbolic worship. The second suggested that real prayer was conducted on your knees. The third suggested that they both had it wrong--the only position worth its salt was to pray while stretched out flat on your face.
By this time the phone man couldn’t stay out of the conversation any longer. He interjected, "I found that the most powerful prayer I ever made was while I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole, suspended forty feet above the ground."
The phone man is right – when I am dangling 40 feet up in danger of dying, my prayer will probably be the most intense and honest I have ever done. In the same way, we may have all these experts around us claiming that we must get angry so things can change – but the real change is going to happen when we start with ourselves first. So as we go to prayer, I invite you right now to let go of all those thoughts about how you wish someone else would apply this sermon to their anger problem and instead simply surrender to God saying, “please help me learn to be slow to anger and to not falsely think my anger will bring about the righteous life you desire.” And remember you will not face any anger from God in doing that.