One of my favourite songs of the 90’s is Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis – but the truth is we all get angry from time to time. We may not turn green like The Hulk, but anger is a real emotional response to what displeases us. Sometimes our anger doesn’t show and we are able to contain it, but other times it’s obvious to all.
Recently I’ve been angry at having to stay indoors, and angry at people for ignoring social distancing; I’ve been angry with myself when making mistakes, angry about an annoying fly in the house! And I’ve even been angry with a knife for not cutting through cucumber!
How silly and wrong of me.
Perhaps you can think of times during this lockdown when you have been angry. Maybe you expressed it, or maybe you supressed it, but anger is something we are all familiar with. Is it always a bad thing though?
This past week there has been civil unrest in America and protests in many other countries in response to the terrible murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I felt angry too that this man died in such a way – his life was shown no regard. There should be no place for racism in our world. All people, regardless of anything, have intrinsic value because humanity is made in the image of God.
And yet the response to this tragedy and crime highlights that there are other deep-rooted angers at work in the hearts of people, proven by the mindless criminal behaviour that has wreaked havoc and caused much damage, including to human life.
Each one of us, I’m sure, has experienced the pain caused by someone who was wrongfully angry, and we have all hurt others too by words said or deeds done in anger. That’s why the Bible warns us about this.
Galatians lists anger as one of the works of the flesh, and Colossians 3:8 instructs us to put anger away from us. James though appeals to us to be slow to anger (1:19). He doesn’t say, “don’t be angry”, but, “be slow to anger”.
How does that make sense? Don’t be angry, but be slow to anger?
James is quoting from Exodus when Moses went up to God on Mount Sinai to receive The Law.
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”
This description of God as being slow to anger and abounding in love is repeated several times in the Old Testament. We sometimes refer to God’s righteous anger. And that is the correct word order, because God is not fundamentally angry – he is fundamentally righteous. His anger stems from His being right in all His ways. And when people pervert what is right it displeases Him, for it vandalises His glory, it damages people, and it robs us of our joy in Christ.
As those who are made in the image of Him who gets angry, we too anger. But sin distorts that likeness, meaning our anger is often swift and evil. And so we see that there are two types of anger – the anger of the flesh, which is sinful and destructive, and godly anger, which is good and just.
And it is the latter that we are called to.
Ephesians 4:26 says,
Be angry and do not sin.
It is right that we be angry at despicable acts like the murder of George Floyd. Jesus got angry – He called out the hypocrites and flipped tables – and yet in everything was without sin, for God’s anger is founded in His love.
All anger is love, for we are passionate to protect that which is most precious to us. Our problem with anger is really an issue of our affections, or rather, of our misplaced affections.
Jonah was sent to Ninevah to call it’s people to repentance, and when they responded he became angry because he didn’t think they deserved God’s grace. And then he got angry that a plant that shaded him from the sun withered. Both times his anger was founded in a selfish, self-righteous love, rather than in love for God and for others.
How easy it is for us to love ourselves more than anyone or anything else. We can all be like Jonah, can’t we. We don’t always get angry about what we should be angry about, and we do get angry about what we shouldn’t!
There is some merit in addressing the symptoms of our anger, for it is wisdom not to let a bull into a china shop. Before James tells us to be slow to anger, he says we should be quick to hear and slow to speak. How many arguments and offences could be avoided if we followed that advice! There’s a reason why God gave us two ears and only one mouth!
But just like weeding gardens, if we really want to deal with something we need to tackle the roots, and the root of all sin is our sinful hearts. It is therefore appropriate to consider our heart motives when we get angry.
Yes, it’s true that in Christ sin is no longer our identity – we are holy and new creations. But in these bodies of death and in this fallen world our struggle with and inclination to sin is real and lifelong. That’s why we are told in Galatians 5:16:
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh
The next time we feel angry therefore, let us ask ourselves why we do so. Is our anger motivated by a love for God and others, or is it motivated by pride? And that doesn’t just apply to being angry, but to every action! Why do we do what we do? For God is looking at our hearts. We need to continuously be applying to our lives the Gospel, for we are prone to wander.
When we realise that our anger is fleshly, may we bring it to the cross in repentance, and receive Christ’s forgiveness afresh and His power to forsake it. Let us say sorry to God and to those we have hurt. And when others angrily hurt us, may we forgive them and give our pain to Jesus, knowing that vengeance belongs to Him, and if those who wronged us are in Christ then He died for their sin, as He did for ours.
Keep peeling the layers of the onion, and we struggle with unrighteous anger because we disbelieve the perfect love that God has for us. Jesus has provided us with the greatest banquet we could ever desire, and yet we pig ourselves upon jam sandwiches. So instead of seeking counterfeit satisfaction, approval and significance and getting all angry about it on the way, why not feast upon the real thing?
1 John 3:1
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
May we grow in our experience and enjoyment of God’s abounding steadfast love that sets us free from the power of sin and protects us from unrighteous anger. And may His love inflame our affections and fill us with the courage to stand up against evil for the sake of Christ and the furtherance of His Kingdom in this world and in the hearts of people.