By Pastor Glenn Pease
Near the end of the last century a group of minors in a mid-Western state became angry. They expressed that anger by igniting a carload of coal and pushing it down the mine shaft. Like most who act in anger, they could not foresee the long range consequences of their action. When the burning coal struck the bottom of the mine it spread to the layers of coal within the earth, and 52 years later it was still burning. It consumed 12 million tons of coal, and burned over an area of 10 square miles. Now and then a road would cave in that had been undermined by the eating fire. Property values in the whole area were greatly reduced, and all of the people suffered. One farmer even dug up roasted potatoes from his field. All efforts to quench the fire were fruitless, and so a moment of anger led to a lifetime of living with the consequences.
What those minors did illustrates what millions of individuals are doing daily by letting their lives be controlled by anger. Add the letter D to the word anger, and you have danger. In a state of anger we are only one letter away from danger. This means all of us live dangerously, because all of us get angry. It is a universal human emotion, and the saints must wrestle with this trial, along with all the others they face.
James does not say we are to eliminate anger. He says we are to be slow to anger. James is too realistic and practical to think that the saints will never feel angry. Anger in itself is a normal and legitimate human emotion, but it is so little understood that most men fail to find its values, and let it be expressed in destructive, rather than constructive, ways. There are no sinful emotions; only sinful uses of them. Anger is no more sinful than joy, for God and Jesus experienced both of them.
Anger handled properly will make a Christian more effective in living the Christian life. Anger is a form of energy, and energy has to be used in some way. You cannot destroy it. You have to channel it, and like atomic energy, you can channel it to purposes of destruction, or to purposes of construction where it will be helpful rather than harmful. When we are dealing with anger, we are dealing with a powerful energy which will serve the cause of good or evil, and, therefore, it is important for Christians to understand all they can about this energy which they possess.
Since most of the energy of anger is used for evil, the predominant emphasis of Scripture is on the peril of anger. In verse 20 James makes it clear that the anger of man is not a fit instrument for doing the will of God. The chances of being just and merciful when you are angry are about as great as the chances of removing a sliver gently with a wood saw. It is just not the right tool for the job, and anger is just not the right tool for expressing God's righteousness. That is why we read so many places in Scripture of the peril of anger, and the need to forsake its path.
Psa. 37:8, "Cease from anger, and forsake wrath."
Psa. 14:17, "He that is soon angry dealeth foolishly."
Pro. 22: 24-25, "Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man thou shall not go lest thou learn his ways and get a snare to thy soul."
Pro. 29:22, "An angry man stirreth up strife, and a furious man aboundeth in transgression."
The Old Testament looks at anger as folly, but in the New Testament the language is even stronger, for anger is seen as one of the gravest of sins.
Matt. 5:22, "But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother with a cause shall be in danger of the judgment." Paul, in several places, lists anger, strife, and wrath as the sins which make the saints carnal. He writes in Titus 1:7, that a bishop must be blameless, "...Not self-willed, not soon angry." All that the Bible says about the peril of anger is backed up by studies in modern psychology.
On the other hand, we dare not close the door on the positive side, and so before we look further at the perilous power of anger, we want to look at-
I. THE POSITIVE POWER OF ANGER. James implies there is some value to anger by putting it in the same category with speaking. He says we are to be slow to speak and slow to anger. He does not say give up speaking and anger altogether, but recognize that both can do more harm than good, so use your tongue and your emotion of anger very cautiously. Nitroglycerin can do a lot of good, but it can also blow everything to pieces if handled carelessly. So it is with both speech and anger. Speaking can be used for the glory of God, and so can anger. Paul makes this clear in Eph. 4:26: "Be ye angry but do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your anger." So, it is possible to be angry and not sin, and this means there can be a positive side to anger.
Two things characterize a positive Biblical anger. 1. It is slow in coming. 2. It is fastin departing. Prov. 14:29, "He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding, but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly."Prov. 16:42, "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty...."Eccles. 7:9, "Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry." Counting to ten is a Biblical idea. All of these texts emphasize the point James is stressing. We are to be slow in anger. Paul stresses the point that we are to quickly settle the issue of anger and not let the sun go down on our wrath. Anger is to be hard to come, and easy to go.
Jesus is our ideal in everything, and he reveals in his manhood the ideal of positive anger. The wrath of the Lamb is not our ideal, for what Jesus does as Lord is not for our example. It is what He did as man that is to be our guideline to follow. We have no right to play God, but we have a responsibility to be all that man can be by God's help, and that means to be Christlike. If we examine our Lord's anger, we discover that He was slow to anger, and when it did come, He expressed it, and did not hold a grudge. Jesus became angry with His disciples when they persisted in their blindness. He rebuked them and said, "Oh ye of little faith." When Peter insisted on holding Him back from fulfilling His purpose, He sharply responded, "Get thee behind me Satan."
Anger expressed toward a loved one, not to hurt them, but to inform them, or prevent them from folly, is a positive anger, and is often necessary to maintain a good relationship. Husbands and wives who use anger properly never have to suffer the negative us of it. Jesus used it to communicate His frustration with those whom He loved. If we do not learn this, we often let frustration go until it explodes, and that kind of anger is never positive.
A wife felt for years that her husband did not share his part of the cost when they went out for an evening with other couples. It griped her, and she resented it, but she supressed it. Supressing anger is something like trying to keep and inflated inner tube under water. Part of it pops up, and while your struggle to get that part under, it pops up in another place, and finally you lose control and it leaps to the surface. Supressed anger will pop up someplace else if it is not expressed. Millions of people don't know it, but their physical problems are the result of supressed anger. If you don't let it out, that energy has to do something, and it usually does harm to your body or mind. It is like trying to hide a fire: Something is going to get burned.
Getting back to our story, the wife ended up with a need for therapy, and in a group session her resentment came out. When she let her husband know about it she discovered that he had contributed his share all along in a quiet and unassuming way. The point is, had she expressed her anger to him, and got it off her chest how she thought he was a cheap skate, the truth would have come out in the open, and the problem would have been solved before it became an issue. Positive anger informs others of your hurt, and is not a means by which you hurt others.
Anger is energy, and energy moves us to action. The only way we ever get any problem in life settled is by someone getting angry and deciding to get to the bottom of it. The people who strive for excellence are those who get angry with mediocrity and shoddiness. Jesus did this when He drove out the money changers in the temple. That was positive anger because its purpose was not to do harm, but to protect others against a great injustice and evil. If you can watch people being treated unfairly and unjustly, and not get angry, you are not being Christlike in your attitude.
Prisons were vile hell holes until John Howard lost his temper, and did something about it. Slavery was entrenched in our society until Lincoln got mad, and hit it hard. Hospitals were terrible nightmares for the sick until Florence Nightengale got angry, and hurled her anger at government officials until things were changed. Most of the great changes for good in the world begin with an angry saint. A wife said to her husband, before you go to work give the maid a scolding. He said I thought you were satisfied with her. I am, but she is beating carpets today and she always does it better when she is angry. Some things are done best when we are angry, and this is especially true when we fight evil.
Martin Luther said, "When I am angry, I can pray well and preach well." When you are angry you really care, and caring is what counts. The man who lets nothing bother him, cares about nothing. If you do care, and have the compassion of Christ, you will be angry at all the forces that mistreat and injure people. Anger at evil is one of the ways the energy of compassion is produced. If men never get angry at evil, there is no power generated in them to work for a change. Jesus had a healthy anger against injustice, and He made His protest. As God, He judged those who refused to heed His protest as a man.
The positive anger of a Christian is anger that motivates us to protest against evil. It instantly becomes a perilous power, however, if we take it upon ourselves and try and carry out the judgment of God. Anger which motivates us to fight unjust laws and practices is positive, but anger which leads us to destroy the lives and property of the guilty, is anger which does not work the righteousness of God.
The positive anger of Christ is brought out clearly in Mark chapter 3. Jesus entered the synagogue, and saw a man with a withered hand. Jesus had compassion on him, but He saw the Pharisees watching Him to see if He would heal on the Sabbath. Verse 5 says,"And He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart." Jesus did not care what they would do, for He knew it was right to do good on the Sabbath, and so He healed the man. He did not start a fight with the Pharisees and seek them do them injury. Positive anger drives us to do what is good and constructive. The prejudices of people should not move us to fight them, but to help the people they oppress. That is letting the energy of anger be used in such a way that it becomes a virtue. That is being angry and not sinning, as Paul commands.
Anger without compassion is not positive anger, and will always do harm for the cause of Christ. Spiros Zodhiates tells of a church which had two candidates who came, and both preached on hell. They both used the same text, and had the same Biblical position, but the people voted for the second rather than the first. When asked why, they said the first one spoke as if he were glad people were going to hell, the second one seemed sorry for it.
Both had the doctrine right, but only one had a Christlike spirit. The truth of Christ without the love of Christ can never accomplish the work of Christ. That is what Paul is saying in verse 20. The anger of man just will not do the work of God. Only that anger which is controlled by the spirit of Christ can be used for such a positive purpose. Look now at-
II. THE PERILOUS POWER OF ANGER. Anger has always been one of the seven deadly sins, but few Christians treat it as a serious sin. They have to ignore the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, and the whole of Christian history to do this, but this is a small obstacle for the human heart which is deceitful above all things. We can easily deceive ourselves into believing that anger is a mere trifle, and not to be compared with the sins
we condemn in others.
One of the reasons we minimize the sin of anger is just because it is so common among the saints. Like the world, we tend to think if something is common, it must be okay. If everybody is doing it, it cannot be wrong to do it. If everybody loses their temper now and then, it is perfectly normal, and therefore, acceptable. We follow this logic because we hate to face up to the fact that we all have a tiger in our tank that can suddenly give us power to do evil. June Callwood in her book, Love, Hate, Fear, Anger And The Other Lively Emotions writes, "One of the most appalling discoveries a person can make about himself is to meet the hell hound of anger he contains. A glimpse of this inner hyena leaves a man shaken and confused."
Cain rose up and killed his brother in anger, but he was not a freak, he was normal man who didn't know how to control the energy of anger. It has happened to born again Christians. In a fit of anger they have killed someone. More than one Christian has served a prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. I read of one who got in a fight with his boss and gave him a push. The boss hit his head on a piece of metal and died. Of course, this was not the intention of the Christian who pushed him, but that is the nature of anger. It tends toward accomplishing evil ends rather than the righteousness of God.
Moses, the meekest man alive, and greatest man of God of his day, let his anger get the best of him. He struck the rock he was to merely speak to, and God punished him for this act of anger by preventing him from leading Israel into the promise land. Angry saints can be dangerous to themselves, and to others. Studies have shown that when anger takes over the rest of the brain is as if it was paralyzed. That means anger can turn a man into a robot gone bezerk. There is no control, and one is not subject to the leading of reason,
common sense, or the Holy Spirit.
Anger is a primary cause of prejudice. If you are angry at how life is going for you, and angry at yourself for being poor, or angry because you are not shown respect because you are not rich, anger may be supressed and come out as prejudice toward others. A test at Yale revealed this. A group of men were asked to fill out a questionnaire on their feelings toward people of another race. After the questionnaire was filled they were promised and exciting night of entertainment. They were in a good mood as they anticipated a great evening, and they had a high degree of respect for the minority group they were being questioned on.
Then it was announced that the evenings entertainment had to be canceled for some organizational meeting that meant nothing to them. They were angry and aggravated, and in that state they were asked to fill out one more form. The results revealed a radical change in their attitude toward the minority group. Prejudice and negative feelings of all kinds were brought out as they expressed their anger. The point is, and angry man cannot relate to others honestly. Anger creates all kinds of destructive negatives which hurt us and others. How can you prevent this? The answer is found in the total context in which James deals with anger. All of your problems come from within. They are not from God. The battle is with your own self-image. Anger is aroused by anything we feel is a blow to our prestige. Dr. Dolby, Professor of Psychology at Baylor University said, if you say his knowledge of Spanish is poor, he is not the least upset, for he does not think of himself as a student of Spanish. But if you question his knowledge of psychology, his anger begins to rise rapidly. The person who feels he is being attacked or belittled will be angry.
The best defense against anger is your confidence in your status before God. If you have assurance of God's approval and acceptance, you will not fear the puny pin pricks of peoples perverted tongues. All you do when you get angry is reveal your own lack of self-respect. The man who does not easily get offended can let criticism role off him like water off a duck's back. He is secure in his relationship to Christ, and because he knows who he is, and what his worth is to his Lord, he does not have to defend his ego with anger.
Christian maturity involves a total acceptance of ones value. This includes the ability to accept failures as part of the process of growth, without any need to blame God, self, or others. If you are like a pile of gun powder ready to flare up every time a spark of personal offense is produced, your problem is a poor self-image. You lack an adequate supply of the water of life that can keep you cool.
As followers of Christ we need to let the Spirit of Christ be the controlling influence that enables us to experience the positive power of anger, and escape the perilous power of anger.
We mutter and sputter,
We fume and we snort.
We mumble and grumble,
Our feelings are hurt.
We can't understand things,
Our vision grows dim.
When all that we need is,
A moment with Him.