We’re going to talk about anger this morning. I know that that is a hypothetical topic for you all -no one here has any anger issues, right?
Anger is difficult to pin down. We recognize it easily when we see it, but ask me to define it for you, and I’ll have to think on it for a while.
And after thinking about it, I have realized that anger is far more prevalent in my life than I had realized.
My early life was saturated with anger. The air in my house was thick with it.
My father, carrying a volatile emotional mixture of disappointment and stress, would erupt with rage after a couple of cans of beer. Extended family gatherings at times ended with shouting matches and sometimes fists flying in the front yard.
My brother and I, just 14 months apart and sharing a bedroom in a tiny house, carried our father’s anger and unable to return it, redirected at each other. At any moment we were primed for a cage death match.
Over the years I learned to bury the anger, but marriage unearthed the boiling cauldron I had never dealt with. What do we do with anger?
This morning in James we will see the Christian view of anger: what to do about it, why to do it, and how to do it.
Let’s read James 1:19-21.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
The first thing I want you to see in James 1:19 is the phrase “beloved brothers.” Beloved, we’ve seen that word before. The Greek is agapetos. Your place in this vast universe is a beloved child. We know James as sort of the stern uncle among the NT writers. But the repeated uses of the words beloved and brother reveal a deep affection in James. Everything in this letter comes from a tender love.
How should I live as a Christian? If I am going to follow Jesus what do I do? What should the world around me see when they look at my life?
They should look at me and see someone who is quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
What is anger?
The brilliant theologian Jonathan Edwards defined anger as “an earnest and more or less violent opposition of spirit against any real or supposed evil, or in view of any fault or offense of another.”
The distinguishing feature of anger is the violent opposition. There are other ways we respond to evil or offense, but anger is the violent emotional response we experience.
Robert Jones wrote an excellent book on the topic of anger, titled Uprooting Anger. In the book, Jones describes 5 aspects of the anger response.
- Anger is an active response. It is something we do, not something we have.
- Anger is a whole-personed response. It is more than emotion, it involves our feelings, but also our beliefs, actions and desires.
- Anger is a response against something. It does not arise in a vacuum. At the same time it is not caused by something outside of ourselves.
- Anger involves a negative moral judgment. It is negative because it says “this is wrong” and “this must stop”. It is moral because it makes a judgment and it is moral because everything we think, say and do is done before the face of God who gazes into the depth of our hearts.
- Anger involves a judgment against a perceived evil. Because anger comes out of our hearts, it is a product of our perceptions which are not always reality.
Not everyone experiences or express anger in the same way. It can be expressed and it can be concealed. People tend to be anger revealers and anger concealers. Another way to say that is we are skunks and turtles.
When a skunk is threatened or angry, everyone in the room is going to know. A turtle, on the other hand, will quietly retreat and conceal their emotions in moments of anger.
Anger is a violent opposition of spirit against perceived evil or offenses.
Anger is moral. Anger is a choice. Anger is a seed which bears fruit which we will encounter later in life.
There are three general types of anger in the Bible: divine anger, righteous human anger and unrighteous human anger. Anger is not always a bad thing.
The early church theologian Tertullian described the goodness of God’s anger, writing that God “can only be completely good if he is the enemy of the bad, so as to put his love of good into action by hatred of the bad, and discharge his wardship of the good by the overthrowing of the bad.”
As image bearers of God, humans can express a righteous anger which is good.
In Ephesians 4:26, Paul explains the relationship between anger and sin -“in your anger do not sin”. Anger is not equated with sin, but it often leads to sin.
When love and evil coexist, there will be anger. Should I be angry when I see footage of a man being strangled to death by someone who is paid to serve and protect? Absolutely. Should I be angered when I see someone’s hard won business destroyed by looters? Absolutely. But notice that anger can’t do anything about events like that.
Martin Luther write that anger is an alien quality in God. It is not an essential quality of his character. What does that mean?
We say that God is love, but we don’t say that God is anger. Why is that?
God loves because He is love. God reacts in anger to injustice and sin, not because he is anger, but because He is love.
Love exists because God exists. Anger exists because sin exists.
Anger is like an igniter. Those of you with a background in engineering or chemistry are familiar with the function of igniters, they are used “primarily to enflame other, more difficult-to-ignite materials.”
Anger is explosive, but it is volatile. It serves its function when it ignites the fires of love and compassion and justice. These are the proper qualities of the divine. Anger is auxiliary, it exists only because evil exists. Without evil there is no anger.
Because of the persistent crookedness of our hearts, human anger is more often sinful than righteous.
How do I know if my anger is good?
Jonathan Edwards offered some tests for the quality of our anger, noting that anger is unrighteous:
- When it is a desire for personal revenge.
- When there is no fault at all in the person that is its object.
- When anger is stirred at the faults of others because they cross us and not because they have crossed God or our neighbor.
- When it is far beyond what the case requires.
- When it endures.
It is because men are selfish and seek their own, that they are malicious and revengeful against all that oppose or interfere with their own interests. If men sought not chiefly their own private and selfish interests, but the glory of God and the common good, then their spirit would be a great deal more stirred up in God’s cause than in their own; and they would not be prone to hasty, rash, inconsiderate, immoderate, and long-continued wrath, with any who might have injured or provoked them; but they would in a great measure forget themselves for God’s sake, and from their zeal for the honor of Christ. The end they would aim at would be, not making themselves great, or getting their own will, but the glory of God and the good of their fellow beings.
-Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits
I’ll share one more helpful tool to diagnose our anger. This comes from counselor David Powlison – 7 questions to ask about your anger.
- Do you get angry about the right things?
- Do you express anger in the right way?
- How long does your anger last?
- How controlled is your anger?
- What motivates your anger?
- Is your anger “primed and ready” to respond to another person’s sin?
- What is the effect of your anger?
So anger can be good, but is more often sinful. What should we do when we feel angry? We are quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
Friday night Aunt Joy pulled a sheet of fresh, gooey chocolate chips from the oven. Immediately every child and several of the adults in the house dropped what they were doing and ran into the kitchen to devour a handful of cookies.
They were quick to eat warm cookies. We should be quick to listen.
That means we take a listening stance. (This is what we’re learning in our DNA groups – Listen for the heart, ask good question, then speak the truth in love.)
When we are quick to listen, we recognize that perception does not equal reality. We practice active listening – we continually say things like, “what I hear you saying is…” and we are prepared to shed perceptions which aren’t accurate.
Milton wrote in Paradise Lost that “the mind can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven”. We do that don’t we? How much anger comes from misperceptions and misunderstandings?
We should be quick to listen. And we should be slow to speak and slow to become angry.
Imagine if Aunt Joy had pulled out a tray of kale chips from the oven. The children would have found chores and distractions to keep them from the kitchen. They would be very slow to eat kale.
We should be slow to speak. It has been said that “anger is a feeling that makes your mouth work faster than your mind”.
We should be slow to anger. One way to think of that is that we should lengthen the wick on our anger.
The stoic philosopher Seneca wrote that “The greatest remedy for anger is delay.”
That’s why we teach children to count to ten when they are angry. Just a few seconds can diffuse the volatility of our emotions. It can give us a chance to properly frame or interpret the event that caused our anger.
There is an interesting story about the 20th century business leader John D. Rockefeller. Once an executive in his company, Standard Oil, made a mistake which cost the company 2 million dollars. A partner came into the office expecting to experience a tirade from Rockefeller. Instead, he found him calmly writing on a piece of paper. At the top of the page were the words: Points in favor of Mr. ______.
That’s what it looks like to be slow to speak and slow to become angry.
That’s the what. Now James moves into the why. Why should we be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry?
Because human anger doesn’t bring about the righteousness of God.
That’s our first priority isn’t it? The righteousness of God.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
– Matthew 6:33
Anger will not produce righteousness. Why not?
Try throwing something at your spouse in a conflict and see if that produces peace
Try shouting at your child in anger and see if their hearts are filled with respect and love for you.
Try sending an angry email to your boss and see if that helps them come around to your way of looking at things.
Try leaning on your car horn when you get cut off on the road, give the guy who did it the bird and see how that creates peace and order on the road
Try pouring out your outrage into the comment section on Facebook and see how that contributes to the cause of reason and truth
Try opening up the vent on your anger and see how that produces maturity and self-control
Spend a few weeks stewing on the insensitive thing that was said at DNA group and see how that fosters friendship
Man’s anger does not produce the righteousness of God.
The Bible is filled with warnings about the fruit of anger:
a. Anger leads to bad choices. (Proverbs 14:16-17)
b. Anger reveals my folly to the world. (Proverbs 14:29)
c. Anger leads to more anger. (Proverbs 19:19)
d. Anger corrupts the heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)
e. Anger causes conflict and division. (Proverbs 15:18)
f. Anger is a gateway to many sins. (Proverbs 29:22)
g. Anger is contagious. Proverbs (Proverbs 22:24)
h. Anger hurts others. (Proverbs 12:18)
Choices made, words spoken in anger are seeds which will bear fruit and it’s not the kind of fruit you want to eat.
So we should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
But it’s hard! I know it’s hard. Sometimes trying to manage our anger can feel like we are standing on the shore trying to soak up water with a mop. It just keeps coming.
Here’s what you have to understand this morning: the gospel is not good advice, it is good news. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand Christianity.
The Christian message is not ultimately a message about what you have to do.
The gospel doesn’t just tell us how to pull weeds out of our lawn, it shows us how to get an entirely new lawn that is healthy and lush and resistant to weeds.
In verse 21, we see that good news. James shows us two sources of tremendous power to change: a new identity and a new power within us.
The phrase “put away” comes from a word which means literally to take off, as in clothing. How do you change unrighteous anger? You take it off like a dirty t-shirt.
This is possible because of the new birth. When Christ died on the cross, he bore our sins on his shoulders. He was buried with them. When he rose from the grave, sin stayed in the grave.
Anyone who comes to Christ in faith can join with him in his death and resurrection. Romans explains that process in chapter 6:
We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.
– Romans 6:6
When the New Testament describes the process of change, it speaks of putting off the old self and putting on the new self.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires . . . and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness
– Ephesians 4:22, 24
After hurricane Katrina sent ocean swells flooding over the dikes into New Orleans a group from my church in Colorado chartered a bus and drove to the city to help with the clean up efforts. I’ll never forget the experience of stepping off the bus when we arrived, when the driver opened those doors a smell like death crept. The whole city was filled with it.
Our group went into houses which had been flooded to remove everything that had been damaged by the water. At the end of the day all we wanted to do was rip off the clothes we were wearing which were covered in God knows what and reeked of decay.
The smell stuck with me for weeks, but when I took those clothes off and took a shower, the decay was gone.
If you are a born again child of God, repentance is as simple as taking off a soiled shirt. It’s not who you are, it’s just the reside. It is an external layer to be removed.
The word “rampant” can also be translated as leftover. The New American Standard Bible uses this sense – “all that remains of wickedness”.
As born again followers of Christ, anger is not who we are. It’s a leftover. It’s an old shirt to be taken off. So how do we take off anger?
Pride is one of the primary causes of unrighteous anger.
We put off anger when we humble ourselves. When we feel anger at others’ faults, it helps to remember our own faults.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
– Matthew 7:3-5
How often and in how many ways have we crossed or violated goodness and truth and righteousness? How many opportunities have we provided God to be angry with us? How many times have I attempted to push him off of his throne and take his seat?
Pride is God-playing. The first sin was the desire to be like God (Gen 3:1-6)
Anger rises when we take over the throne and attempt to rule as lawgiver and judge.
Jones describes some of the ways we lay down our own law:
When Thou drivest thine automobile, thou shalt not turn to the left or to the right in front of me, except thou signalest thine intention to do so with thy turn signal.
Thou shalt not let the sun go down on my phone call or e-mail, but thou shalt return it today, while it is still called today.
Thou shall love me the way I want to be loved, with thy whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Top put off anger I remember that the throne does not belong to me. I am not the lawgiver. I am not the judge.
That’s the new nature. Then James reminds us of a new power: the Word of God which is implanted in our souls. The Word is like a seed which takes root and grows up to become healthy and fruitful.
To receive with meekness the implanted word is the opposite of resisting. It is saying yes with humility in response to God’s Word. “I believe what the Word says is true. I will obey what the Word tells me to do.”
The best remedy for anyone struggling with anger is to memorize and mediate on the Word of God.
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
– 1 Peter 2:23
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
– Mark 10:45
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown