In late September of 1993 I attended an associational pastors’ conference out in the sticks somewhere in Eastern Iowa, where we watched the “Fresh Encounter” Series by Henry Blackaby. It was a night of personal revival for me. The Spirit of God held a mirror up to my heart and soul and showed me who I really was. It was not a pretty sight, but it was life-changing, as God called me to a life of holiness and spiritual passion.
I went home with great expectations as to what God might do at Northbrook Baptist, assuming that if he brought me a personal revival he was going to do something amazing at the church I pastored. For the next 11 months, nothing could be further from the truth. It was as if every evil thing hidden in that church came to the surface. Strife abounded. I was confused and angry. Why did God do this work in me if he wasn’t going to work in the church? We prayed and the church struggled. I preached and the church struggled.
I was praying with a group of Cedar Rapids pastors and one of them came to me one day and said that Claude King was going to be in CR for a conference at his church. He had no Sunday morning responsibilities and my friend wondered if I wanted to have Claude come and speak. It was August 7, 1994. It had been nearly a year since God had used the curriculum Claude helped Henry Blackaby write to change my life, but I was losing hope that good things were going to happen at the church.
Claude had a good message that day, all about how God would build his church and how we could trust him to do what was right. But it was God who was speaking to me that day, more so than Claude. God, once again, was calling me on the carpet, this time for a very different reason. The Spirit helped me to see how angry I had become; angry at the people who fought what I believed that God wanted to do, who resisted the renewal of the Spirit and had attacked me. But the Spirit was making it clear to me that I had become the problem. My anger was hindering the work of God in the church more than any sin that people might have been doing. When Claude King ended his message, I stood in front of my people in tears and repented of my anger, of the grudge that had been building in my heart.
That day was a turning point in the life of Northbrook Baptist Church. A mini-revival broke out there that day, one that lasted for several years and altered the church dramatically. God was at work in own time, even if that confused me. But the events of August 7, 1994 served to reinforce a lesson that I knew, that I had preached, and that I have often failed to apply.
My anger not only fails to accomplish the work of God, it actually hinders it.
In the last post, I explored anger – the determination to seek to act vengefully toward someone who has caused you pain, whether in word or deed – and asserted what I will reassert here. You will never walk in spiritual power while you hold a grudge. You will remain stuck in neutral, wondering where the vitality, intimacy and joy of your relationship to Christ has gone, until you deal with anger and obey the commands of God to return good for evil and love your enemy. I remain convinced, on a practical level, that anger is the single greatest spiritual issue that is preventing Christians from becoming what they ought to and can be in God’s kingdom.
Anger is the growth-killing, soul-chilling sin that all of us struggle with but Jesus warned us we must not take lightly.
In this post, I would like to examine Matthew 5:21-26, and draw some perspectives and instructions from what is taught there.
Look at Matthew 5:21-26
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Again, it is important to note here that the sin we are discussing is not an emotion, but an action, a choice. We all get upset and lose our cool at hurtful and irritating events or people. It is not the emotional response that is the problem, but the action you take thereafter. Will you let God’s grace cover the offense, or will you strike back with angry words, with gossip, with vengeful actions? It is that choice to act on our anger that is the sin about which we speak today.
Let us look at some of the facts that this passage establishes about the danger of the sin of anger.
1) Anger leads to more destructive sins.
Jesus begins the passage discussing murder, a sin that is so serious that God established in Genesis 9:6 that one who commits murder forfeits his own life. It is a crime, and a sin, that brings not only God’s judgment but also earthly consequences. Then, in verse 22, Jesus indicates that anger, while certainly a lesser sin in terms of consequences, is a similar sin in that also brings God’s judgment.
Anger is the starting place for a lot of sins that create havoc in our lives. We are all injured by life and by the people who share our road. The real question is not whether we will be angered, but what we will do when anger wells inside. When I choose to walk the path of anger, of vengeance, of striking back, I have taken the first step on a very dangerous road. While few of us ever go far enough down the road far enough to commit murder, we stop at a lot of destructive places along the way. Marriages are destroyed, parents and children are estranged, churches implode, friends separate; all because we choose to walk down the road of anger instead of the path of grace.
2) Anger offends God.
When you read Matthew 5:22, you come away with a clear conclusion. Our anger and disdain for one another, especially within the body of Christ, is offensive to God.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
The middle of the three warnings here speaks of human judgment, being “liable to the council.” But the first and third warnings speak to the danger of divine retribution more than human. One who acts in anger toward a brother is “liable to judgment” – the same way the penalty for murder is described in verse 21. Murder offends God; so does an angry, vengeful response toward another. The third warning goes to one who speaks words of disdain toward another – such a one is “liable to the hell of fire.”
Two action are prohibited here. First, we are not allowed to act to hurt those whom God loves and for whom Christ died, regardless of how that person has treated us. As the redeemed of the Lord, we are required to be agents of grace even to those who have injured or infuriated us. Since God is the creator and the rightful and righteous judge, he is the only one allowed to balance the books and dispense justice. I am not allowed to do it and neither are you. Second, we are permitted to disdain others or to treat them as worthless – by word or action. Human worth is rooted in the fact that we bear the image of God and are objects of God’s love. We may not treat people as worthless without incurring the ire of the Creator.
When I am angered at another person, I must be careful not to offend the God of heaven by my response.
3) Anger hinders worship and spiritual pursuits.
In verses 23 and 24, Jesus uses an illustration of a man going to the Temple to offer a sacrifice. He remembers as he nears the altar that there is someone with whom he has an issue, someone who is angry at him. Jesus advises him to leave his gift at the altar and go to seek reconciliation with one whom he has offended.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
It would be a mistake to focus on literal scenarios here. As you are standing and singing during church, and remember someone with whom you have a broken relationship, you need not necessarily leave church to go and find that person. There is a deeper principle at work here.
You cannot freely walk with God while your relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ are broken. Your relationships to God’s people matter when you come to worship God.
The story I told at the beginning of this post illustrates this. I could not adequately lead a church when I was angry at it as well. My anger interfered with the work of God. Too often, we have divorced our relationship with God from our relationships with God’s people. Certainly, Paul indicates in Romans 12:18 that we can only do “so far as it depends on you.” I cannot control the behavior and actions of others. But I responsible to show kindness, grace, love and honor to all of God’s people, even those who have angered or hurt me.
It is self-deception to believe that I can hold a grudge, strike back at those who have injured me, hold on to my anger and bitterness, and still worship God and walk intimately with him.
4) Anger enslaves.
Have you ever heard this one? I have no idea where it came from, but I think it is absolutely true. “Sin takes you farther than you want to go, it holds you longer than you want to stay, and it costs you more than you want to pay.”
Anger is exhibit A in support of that thesis. You get angry and you think you have every right to say a few unkind things, to tell a few people how the person hurt you, to strike back in some subtle or not-so-subtle ways. But when you do that, you put yourself on a journey of sin – a journey that will take you places you never thought you would go and cost you far more than you expected it might.
But there is something else that Jesus hints at in verses 25 and 26. Anger has an enslaving effect on those who harbor and nourish that anger. It is a particularly ironic enslavement. I am angered when someone mistreats me in some way. I am the victim. But when I respond to that injury in anger and vengeance, I put myself into bondage. The longer I hold that anger, the thicker the bonds grow.
In trying to punish the person against whom I am angry, I am instead punishing myself.
This is no small issue. We live in an angry world and we are angry people. But our anger does not accomplish the work of God and it wreaks havoc in our lives. Anger is an enemy of the soul; it quenches the Spirit and hinders growth and vitality.
NEXT TIME: I will conclude this series with some specific strategies for dealing with anger.