Anger is often in the news. There seems to be a lot of anger in politics, both by politicians, and those reacting to them. There’s a lot of anger in sport. Even in children’s sport, friends who referee have told me how difficult it can sometimes be, when they get yelled at, or even threatened by angry parents watching from the sideline. A few years ago, a Greek Orthodox priest in Sydney pleaded guilty to a charge of grabbing one of his parishioners around the neck after a church committee meeting. Whether it’s politics, sport of even religion, anger is often in the news.
Perhaps some of you today are angry about something. If you’re not, don’t worry you soon will be! Sometime later today or in the next week you will be angry. You might get annoyed by people at work, it might be something said or done at home that frustrates you, it could be another driver on the road, it may be remembering something done to you in the past.
In his book, uprooting anger, Robert Jones writes: ‘Anger is a universal problem, prevalent in every culture, experienced by every generation. No one is isolated from its presence or immune from its poison. It permeates each person and spoils our most intimate relationships… Sadly this is true even in our Christian homes and churches.’
Anger is something we all experience, whether we are Christians or not. How should Christians be responding to anger? If we’re children of God, if we are turning from sin, and trusting in Jesus, if we’re being filled with the Spirit, how will our response to anger be different? Let’s notice four things as we look at Ephesians 4:26-27
1. Be thankful for good anger
Ephesians 4:26 in the NIV says In your anger, do not sin. The ESV says, Be angry, and do not sin. Either way it’s clear, that anger by itself is not always sinful. There is such a thing as good anger. The Bible tells us God gets angry, yet God is always good.
God’s anger is very different to human anger. God is slow to anger, God never loses control when he is angry, his anger is always righteous, always good.
Humans are made in God’s image. We can display God’s good anger. “When Moses’ anger burned at those worshiping the golden calf, he burned in the image of God.” (David Powlison). That’s a profound thought – our anger can on some occasions reflect God’s image.
The clearest example of perfect anger is in Jesus: Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely… Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger … deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, (Mark 3:1-5, NIV)
Jesus sees these religious leaders, more concerned about their own rules than the plight of this man, and he is angry. He sees hard hearts, people who don’t love, who only care for themselves.
In a world where is so much injustice, it is good to have a God who is angry about evil, a God who is doing something about it, a God who will ultimately put everything right.
I’ve heard people say, they don’t like the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for sins, because it sounds like an angry God. They’re right, it does! But why is it so bad to have a God who gets angry? Don’t we all sometimes get angry when we see injustice or evil in the world? Why do we get angry? If there’s no ultimate right or wrong we should never get angry at anything. One reason we get angry is because we are all made in the image of a just God, who gets angry at injustice.
We should be thankful for good anger. It’s better to be angry than apathetic about evil. Yet one problem all of us have is a tendency to think that most of our anger is good anger..
2. Be wary of sinful anger
v26 In your anger, do not sin. Our anger can, and very often does, lead to sin. Here are two practical questions to ask when we feel angry is to…
a) Ask: Is my anger right?
At the end of the book of Jonah, we read: When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? … I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 3:10-4:4)
Jonah is angry, because he hated the Ninevites. He wanted God to destroy them. When they repented, and God had mercy, Jonah was furious, he was pouting. God’s question to him is a good one for us to ask when we feel anger- is it right for you to be angry? In that passage, Jonah thinks his anger is right, but God keeps questioning him to expose his lack of compassion. Very often like Jonah, we think our anger is right, but if we honestly look at our motives, our anger too often shows the lack of compassion or concern for others that Jonah’s did.
b) Ask: Is my anger causing harm?
Here’s an old, diagram, (by Jay Adams), which says that anger usually shows itself in two extremes:
We either blow up, and yell, scream, maybe hit your brother or sister, then perhaps you feel better but everyone else feels worse. Or, we clam up, internalise our anger, so we feel worse. Either way, the problem doesn’t get addressed.
Which of those, is the most common way you handle anger? I’ve seen both in my life, times when I blow up, speak more loudly or aggressively than I should, or times when I internalise it. I’ve noticed with my wife, a number of times when she’s done something that annoys me, not deliberately, but I notice that I often become colder in my attitude to her. Not necessarily the silent treatment, but definitely a lack of warmth. I kind of stew in self-pity. Of course we laugh when we hear extreme examples of couples who don’t talk to each other for years, but we all show anger to some extent, and that anger is often just harming ourselves and others.
It’s helpful to specifically name some of the sins your anger leads to. Did your anger lead you to be unloving in the way you spoke to your spouse, did it lead you to be disrespectful in the way you spoke to your parents, or rolled your eyes at them, did your anger lead to you speaking rudely or unkindly do your non-Christian work colleague, and fail to display to them the gospel of Jesus?
I read recently of a Christian man who owned a business. After a number of years of sharing the gospel, he wondered why no one in his business had become a Christian. He asked an honest friend and the friend said to him. I think I know the answer. You have a bad temper, you are harsh with your employees, you often criticise them unfairly. They just don’t see Christianity working in your life. The man thanked his friend for being so honest. He went home and confessed his sin to God, and asked God to help him change. The next day he called his employees together and he confessed to them, his sinful anger. He said he was asking God to transform him in this area, and help him to become kinder and gentler. Over the following months as his life was transformed, so were a number of his employees. They started taking Jesus seriously, when they saw the difference Jesus was making in helping him overcome anger.
3. Let your anger point you to your heart
Notice v26 says: In your anger, do not sin, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Some people ask: Does this mean that if you moved to Antarctica you can hold onto your anger a lot longer because the days there can get really long? That’s not the point. Our tendency is to hold onto our anger, to let it linger, to hold onto grudges. But God is saying, don’t let your anger linger, nip it in the bud. But how do we do that?
If you look closely you’ll notice that the phrase ‘In your anger, do not sin’ is a quote, the footnote at the bottom of your Bible, will tell you, where it’s from : In your anger, do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. (Psalm 4:4). Anger is an opportunity to search our hearts. Anger is an opportunity for us to grow, because our extreme emotions or reactions, tell us there is something deeper going on in our hearts that we need to look at.
I remember at a home with a married couple, and both of them were just screaming at each other. There was intense anger in the room, both of them thought the problem was the other person, that’s what we all tend to think, but Jesus says…The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart… (Matthew 15:18)
We can’t blame other people or situations, for what is coming out of our mouths. We might think our anger is caused by that person, or that situation, but the real problem is within us. Others may wrong us, but I can’t blame them for the way I react. What comes out of our mouth comes from our heart. Here are 3 helpful things in looking at your heart:
a) Ask God to help you see your heart attitudes
David’s give us a great prayer, to the God who knows us completely: Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24).
When you’re feeling angry, ask God to help you to see what is in your heart. Pray that God will help you to see how easily we’re self-righteous like Jonah, and fail to look deeper. Ask God to open your to what’s driving the anger, so that through this anger you’ll be able to grow.
b) Ask what desires or cravings your anger points to
James says… What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? (James 4:1)
We can’t blame others for our anger, what we should do is look for our desires. Sometimes when we’re angry it’s good to ask, what were the circumstances, that lead to me becoming angry. Asking this question may help you to notice patterns in your life, perhaps times of the day or circumstances, when you are more prone to anger, noticing that, can sometimes help you become more aware and prayerful in those situations, but we need to go deeper.
When Jonah says to God, I’m angry enough to die, what’s at the heart of that anger? What’s making him say that he’d rather be dead than see the Ninevites receive mercy? It’s not just his circumstances even though they’ve been extreme – he’s been in a horrific storm, he’s been thrown into the sea, he’s been swallowed by a big fish, and then vomited out, there’s a lot going on for him physically and emotionally, yet there’s something more than that, God’s question ultimately looks at his heart.
When Rachel gets angry at Jacob in Genesis 30:1 and says, Give me children or I’ll die, we can feel her pain, the pain of not having the children she so desperately wants, yet what does it show about her heart? We’re not Rachel, so we need to be careful, but it does seem to indicate that at that moment, what she loves or desires more than anything else is not God, but children. It’s not wrong to want children, but it is wrong when the desire becomes greater than our love for God. Anger often helps us see the idols of our heart, the things we are clinging to, craving, or desiring more than God.
Anger can help us grow, if through it we see our idols, and recognise how much greater God is than the things we are craving. Anger can help us to look to our good and loving God for satisfaction, rather than the other things we are craving.
c) Look for pride and selfishness
I think that often if I look what’s underlying the anger in my life, often it’s one of these two things – I’m proud and I’m selfish. I like to think of myself as a pretty relaxed driver, I hardly ever use my horn, I don’t make a practice of yelling at other drivers. But I remember one time a few years ago, sitting in the overtaking lane. I was going at the speed limit, slowly overtaking the cars on the inside lane. Suddenly a car came right up behind me and sat right on my bumper bar. That really annoyed me. I didn’t want to go any faster, and break the speed limit, but I didn’t want to pull over and let him pass either, because there were cars there that I was passing. So what I did, was I accelerated a little until it was safe me to change lanes, I let him pass, then I came right back out again and sat on his bumper bar to see how he liked it. At that moment I was full of anger. I was behaving foolishly. What was going on in my heart? I realised later that I was trying to play the judge. He was doing the wrong thing, but it’s not my job to punish him for doing the wrong thing is it? If he drives foolishly, he may get booked by the police, and if he avoids them, ultimately God will judge him, just as he judges us all. My anger showed that in my heart I wanted to be the judge. Pride makes me think that I have the right to be the ultimate judge, rather than God.
It’s helpful to remember Jesus attitude in hardship: 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 Pet 2:23) Jesus knew, even in the midst of great hardship, that in the end justice would be done. He could entrust himself to God’s justice.
4. Recognise our battle with anger is spiritual
v27 says: do not give the devil a foothold. Our tendency often is to minimise our anger, treat it as though it’s not that big an issue, or as though there’s nothing that can be done, we say it’s just the way I am, I can’t change. The Bible sees it more seriously. To sin in anger is to give in to the temptation of the devil. Anger can actually become addictive, we can get into a pattern, it might bring about the results you want, people give you what you want when you are angry, so you keep doing it. Or you might secretly enjoy holding onto that grudge. Anger is a spiritual battle.
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. (James 1:19-20).
Human anger is a spiritual problem, it fails to display God’s righteousness. When we’re feeling angry we need to learn to listen, firstly to God, secondly to others. We may feel as if they are wrong, and we are right, we just want to tell them how wrong they are, but the Bible says: listen.
These verses in Ephesians are in the middle of a passage where Paul is telling us to put off the old and put on the new. He’s not calling us to do the impossible, he’s showing us what is possible in Jesus. If our trust is in Jesus, we are not just forgiven, we are new creations. God’s Holy Spirit is in us.
The gospel of Jesus gives us power to be growing through anger. It’s as we grow in our grasp of much we have been forgiven by God, how kind and gracious God has been to us, that we are able to be kind and gracious to others. The way we act in our anger, can be a demonstration of the power of the gospel to change lives. Growing through anger is a life-long process, we’ll never see perfection, but by God’s grace, we can see real change. Anger can lead to real growth, that models the gospel, and brings glory to Jesus.
(Edited transcript of sermon preached at MEC 14 April 2013. You can listen to or download the sermon here )
 From ‘Uprooting Anger’. Also cited in Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins, 121.