Have you managed to avoid ever getting angry? … Let me try something easier. Have you managed to avoid getting angry this week? … Well, have you managed to avoid getting angry so far today? After all, Jesus said, “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.” If I had to come before a judge each time I got angry, I’d be in court any number of times every day. I might as well move in.
It seems to me that anger is a part of life, pretty much every day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Without feeling anger sometimes, we could let circumstances take advantage of us. Anger can give us the energy to defend ourselves and defend others who are helpless or vulnerable. What I hear Jesus saying is not that the anger itself is bad, but how we handle it is what matters.
Even God gets angry sometimes, and for good reasons. Listen to what David had to say in Psalm 18:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies. …. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. (Psalm 18:2–7)
David called on God when he was in trouble, and God was angry at the treatment David was getting.
God even got angry with his own chosen people, when they behaved badly and didn’t follow his ways. Actually, this happened fairly often, because they had plenty of chances to get off track.
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake. (Psalm 79:5–9)
Time after time the people of Israel wandered away from their God, and the God who loved them let them experience the consequences of their behavior. Their distress, of course, was intended to bring them to repentance and back to faithfulness.
We even see times when Jesus was angry in the gospels. We can all remember one time when
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:13–16)
Jesus didn’t quietly go to the temple management to ask for a change in policy. His zeal for the holiness of the temple was unavoidable. His forcefulness got everyone’s attention to a disgrace they had simply gotten used to.
Paul is very clear that our anger should not get in the way of our relationships with each other. He said to the people in Ephesus:
… putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:25–27)
Anger happens, but we need to deal with it and not let it fester. When we have a problem with someone, we need to deal with it right then. Once we go to bed angry, all sorts of unfortunate ideas can roll around in our heads. “He must have …” “She must be …” Before you know it, we can find ourselves justifying paying the other back. Maybe even with interest.
James talks about the way that we can easily be led into sin. He said: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. (James 4:2)” We see something that our neighbor has, and we want one too. We can see our neighbor’s faults, and it doesn’t seem fair that they have all the good stuff, and we, who try so hard, don’t get our share. Next thing you know, we’re angry about the unfairness of it all. And once we get angry, doing something to equalize things doesn’t seem so bad.
It’s even worse when the advertisers get ahold of us. Whether it’s the high-priced chocolate or the fanciest car, they’re constantly showing us how much people with all the goodies are enjoying themselves. You should be having so much fun when you take a bite of chocolate. And how come my hair doesn’t swirl around and shine even when I use their shampoo? We’re bombarded with pictures of how great it feels when we have their products, but the products never seem to live up to their promise. Worst of all, we’re constantly told that we deserve the best. No wonder we get angry at the ones who seem to have it all.
So what do we do with our anger to keep it from leading us into major sin? We need to deal with it quickly, before it grows into something worse. Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23)”
Notice that Jesus isn’t specific about what the issue might be. What the other person has against you could be their fault or it could be your fault. They could have stepped on your toe, or you could have stepped on theirs. It doesn’t matter what the cause was. If there is something between you, you need to take the first step to fix it, before you come to God. This is not an easy assignment.
If you’re the one who caused the problem, the solution is in your own hands. You are the one who can repent of your action, and go to apologize and make amends. We all know that making things better isn’t easy and may take some humility and effort. But when we’re in the wrong, resolving the problem is something we can do for ourselves.
When someone else has hurt us, the solution to the problem is a little different. We’re hurt and justifiably angry, but we still need to do what we can to resolve it. Jesus gave us a recipe for this kind of situation in Matthew 18. He said,
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17)
Of course Jesus didn’t really say “another member of the church”, because there weren’t churches in those days to be a member of. The actual word he used in Greek was “ἀδελφός” (adelphos), and the translation in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. ” This brother (or sister) can be any person with whom you share some kind of relationship.
So what do you do when someone sins against you, does something that hurts you or even seriously harms you? According to Jesus, first you try to talk with that person yourself. What should you say? Well, “You turkey, you really screwed up!” is not a good way to start. You may feel like that, but it won’t be helpful. And Paul says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up (Ephesians 4:29.)” So you need to think about what you can say that the other person will hear. You need to explain yourself, say what you feel and what happened to you, in a way that doesn’t attack the other person. This will take some thought.
But what do you do when the other doesn’t listen to your best attempts to reach out? Then another process from scripture becomes important. In the law it says, “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. (Deuteronomy 19:15)” You don’t go around gossiping, but you find two or three others to help show the one who hurt you the harm that was done. It the person still don’t hear you, then you get the help of the church community. Hopefully when people who care about both of you are involved, the other will be able to hear. But what happens if all this sympathetic help doesn’t resolve the problem?
This last resort is a recommendation that’s often misunderstood. Jesus says that this person should “ be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus says to treat this person like a stranger. This has led to the process of shunning, of treating this person like an outcast, and not speaking to them at all. But Jesus doesn’t say to treat them badly. He says to treat them with the same courtesy you would give a stranger. You’re supposed to treat them like a person with no history. You don’t have to be angry with them, because you don’t even know them. But you do owe them the same courtesy you’d give anyone else you don’t know. You can greet them, give them directions, even help them in trouble, but not invite them into your home or your life.
However, Jesus gave us an even more difficult commandment. He said, “I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:27–28)” Anyone who thinks that this is easy hasn’t tried to do it.
Jesus isn’t talking about strangers, people you don’t know. He’s talking about people who are in your face, and not in a good way. He’s talking about people who hate you, and none of us like to be hated. We’re supposed to love the person who turns away when we smile, the person who pushes us out of the way, the person who doesn’t return our calls, or the person who hates us because of our family, our race, our faith, or our ethnic background. Plus we’re supposed to love those who mistreat us, those who actually do us harm. This includes the one who stole the job we were waiting for, the one whose nasty child hurt our child on the playground, the one who stole our wallet and wrecked our credit rating, and even the one who ignored us when we were desperately asking for help. The people we really want to see fall into a mud puddle, or worse, are the very ones that Jesus expects us to be nice to. We’re supposed to love even those who cause us serious pain and suffering.
Love is willed intention and action for the good of another person. It’s not a feeling and not simply doing what they want, or what think they want. It’s not something that can be “earned” or “lost” by particular actions or behavior. Love respects the other’s identity and does what is for that person’s own good. Love prevents others from doing harm or evil, since supporting good also means discouraging sin. Loving enemies doesn’t mean approving things they’ve done or agreeing with positions they hold. We’re expected to be fair and kind to truly wicked and ungrateful people, just the way God is fair and kind to all of us.
Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, to wish the best for the very ones who make us angry. I think that we all try, at least sometimes, to love our enemies. I hope that we all feel that sometimes we’ve actually succeeded in loving our enemies. But here is a test. I don’t remember who first asked me this question, but it brought me up short. The question is “How would you feel if you knew that your enemy, the one who caused all that trouble, was going to get into heaven?”
Get into heaven? Not only would I have to put up with them here on earth, but live with them for all eternity in heaven? That was asking too much. I might try to live with them here, but I always thought they’d get what they deserved when they came to judgment. Aargh! Why should they get a free pass?
And then I realized what I was thinking. If I can have forgiveness of my sins through Jesus, so can anyone and everyone else. People I like and people I don’t like are all equally welcome to come to him. In fact, I’m supposed to want that. I’m supposed to hope and pray that even the nastiest and most evil people on earth will come to Jesus and find forgiveness.
My prayer shouldn’t be “Lord, give them what they deserve” but “Lord, welcome them into your love and your kingdom.” I hope that I and all of us can grow to truly pray for the good of our enemies with an open heart.
While we’re still on this side of eternity, we’ll still experience anger, probably pretty often. I believe that as long as we don’t let anger drag us into sin, there’s a lot we can learn from it. Our anger shows us how we feel. It warns us when we’re threatened. It lets us know when we see or experience injustice. It makes us aware that an issue is too important to ignore.
When I was a manager in business, I was told that anger is too valuable to waste. You don’t just spread it around, or it becomes meaningless. You save it to use as punctuation. When you’re talking, feeling is the difference between a period and an exclamation point. “Don’t ever do that.” is different from “Don’t ever do that!” When something is really important, you let your feelings show. This way people can tell when they need to pay attention.
Anger can be the energy behind your effort to make changes. It can fuel the motivation that gets you going to right a wrong. It can give you the strength to keep going in the face of opposition. Using your anger, directing it, can provide the determination to make a real difference for the benefit of others. Jesus is clear that anger is not to be used against others. Taking the advice of Jesus and Paul, to be angry without sinning, makes it possible to turn anger into the energy to do good.