Anger: A Growth-Killing, Soul-Chilling Sin, Part 2 “Anger’s Deadly Effects”

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.

Last Time...

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.


  1. Bill Mac says

    I know that I have brought this up before and risk opening a can of worms in this thread, but I truly believe one of the root causes of Christian anger in America, at least in my circles, is right wing politics. Now before anyone gets angry (irony alert) with me, hear me out.

    Most evangelical Christians are Republicans/Conservatives, for reasons that are obvious and for the most part, good. I am, practically every Christian I know is. That’s not the problem. The problem is what I will call the Fox News effect, although I’m not just talking about Fox News. I’m talking about rabid right wing punditry. Evangelicals (in my experience) are enamored with right wing pundits. I like them well enough at times and agree with them much of the time. But the problem is these right wing pundits have a job to do, and that job is to be angry, and make everyone else angry. And it my opinion it works too well on Christians, and as Dave points out, it can have a deleterious effect on our spiritual lives.

    • Dave Miller says

      I’m not sure about chicken and egg here, but I certainly believe that politics, in both the extreme left wing and the rabid right wing is driven more by anger than reason.

      did you see the furor over Obama’s selfie? That was turned into some kind of major incident.

      This does reinforce a point. We tend to act in anger but cloak those actions in high minded terms.

      • Doug Hibbard says

        I’m looking for where C.S. Lewis wrote about the issue of seeing every thing your enemies do as evil–I think it’s in Mere Christianity.

        He would recoil, I think, at how we can’t let an “enemy” ever do something right–be it a political one (right wing treatment of President Obama, left wing treatment of President Bush), a religious one (note treatment of MacArthur, Driscoll, Caner, Graham, Blackaby, Huckabee, etc..), or even a sports one (SEC-haters, Yankee-haters, etc.)

        Some behaviors are truly evil, some beliefs are evil. Some are simply questionable, others are benign. President Obama being in a group pic with 2 other world leaders before a memorial service starts? Mostly benign–and a big fat nothing if someone else wasn’t taking a picture at the time! We are hassling the man about picture-taking during a time it’s inappropriate to take pictures based on….someone took a picture!!!!

        I think we’ve crossed that line, where everything done by our “enemies” draws condemnation, whether it deserves it or not. John MacArthur had a cheeseburger for lunch! How evil! And worse, Mark Driscoll had a staffer order him the exact same lunch as MacArthur! Then Ergun Caner claimed to have ordered a halal lunch, which never got delivered because Blackaby didn’t feel led to actually bring it.

        And we can find fault with all of them over this.

        • says

          Some of that I blame on the entrenched Bulverism (a.k.a the subject/motive shift, a.k.a. the circumstantial ad hominem, or the genetic fallacy) of modern public discourse. Once you allow speculating on an opponent’s motive (in place of actually reasoning about their arguments) as ‘legit’, practically everyone does it. And once everyone is doing it, the discussion is no longer about whose arguments are correct, it’s about whose motives are ‘correct’. And ‘winning’ is no longer about having the better argument, it’s about ‘showing’ that your side has righteous, good motives while the opponent only has evil, bad motives. At that point, anything that puts the opponent in a bad light is ‘fair game’. I think we’re at about that point (and have been, for a long time). Add in feeling just self-righteously justified in saying anything negative about the opponent (I think self-righteousness adds fuel to a lot of public anger), while feeling self-righteously offended if the opponent says anything negative about us, and I think you’re pretty well got the current state of public discourse nailed. As Lewis put it, “Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs”. Methinks we’re there.

          • Doug Hibbard says

            Last Pastor’s Conference, there was a preacher who talked a lot about vision.

            I had always thought we were here to preach the Gospel, not to get the church to follow my vision, but he checked that for me.

          • says

            Doug: You saw “Beaver” instead of “Bulver”. Beaver was a nice enough TV character. I don’t want to crush him. Bulver is something else entirely.

            Dave: C. S. Lewis provides a much better introduction to Mr. Bulver than I do. Google “Bulverism”, and click on the link for a copy of the essay where Mr Lewis introduces him. I do note (oh, horrors!) that my own blog post on the subject has been relegated to the second page of that search. I guess that means that more people are playing attention to it and writing about it on the internet.

        • says

          It is very true though, that the current resident of the White House is the first to engage in the moral indiscretion known as a “selfie.”


          • Doug Hibbard says

            Ah, but did he do so because he’s the only that would, or because he’s the only one with the technology?

            Because having been in Arkansas during a specific governor’s reign, who then became president, there’s several cell phone related indiscretions that I’m pretty sure were missed just for lack of tech.

  2. says

    I’ve long found verses 23 and 24 fascinating, as it’s something of a reversal of the way we usually preach on this. Normally, it’s you being angry at your brother, and going to your brother to be reconciled in order to deal with your own dangerous anger. Verses 23 and 24 teach that if you’ve given your brother a reason to be angry at you, you don’t leave him in the spiritually dangerous condition of being angry at you. And this comes at a priority over your normal spiritual activities. You’re not only responsible for dealing with your own anger, you’re responsible for dealing with the situation where you’ve given your brother reason to be angry at you.

    Now, what kind of change would it bring if we applied this to blogging?

        • Dave Miller says

          I think your point is helpful, but I am kinda looking at the bigger picture – that we cannot divorce our relationship with God from our relationship with the redeemed (or even lost people).

          Translating the specifics here can be difficult. The sacrifice for our redemption has already been made, so we don’t have to stand at the altar waiting to make a sacrifice for forgiveness.

          But we cannot discount offenses between ourselves and the brethren as we seek Christ. If I have been offended, or if I have offended (and not sought reconciliation) I need to take that seriously.

          • says

            I don’t think I disagree with that. I had actually forgotten about the particular observation I made until I saw your post, but over the years it seems that every time I’ve heard someone preach on this passage, whoever preaches on it seems to preach as though Jesus had said ‘So if you are offering your gift atthe altar and there remember that you have something against your brother’ (oddly enough, after I posted that comment, I listened to one of my pastor’s sermons via a podcast and heard him doing the same thing). In a way, it’s not surprising, as that’s the obvious practical application. Anger is dangerous, and can get you in a lot of trouble, so you need to protect yourself from that danger. But Jesus goes beyond that and says that you need to protect your brother when you’ve given him reason to fall into that same danger. As many times as I’ve heard this missed, I thought it worth bringing up.

            I’m not sure that I see the activity referred to in the passage as offering for sacrifice. It’s referred to as a gift, not an offering for sacrifice(unless I’m missing something in the meaning of the term). This strikes me more as something on the order of a thanksgiving offering, something that would be done by a person in good relation with God. And Jesus is indicating that reconciling the relationship takes priority over even that good spiritual activity.

            That reconciling the relationship takes priority over even a good spiritual activity like thanksgiving seems to me to bolster your point.

  3. Greg Harvey says

    Other notable uses of the Greek “enochos” that is translated “liable” in the version of Matthew 5:22 that you use:

    Matthew 26:66 (KJV because it preserves “guilty” as opposed to “deserves” in HCSB, ESV, and NASB):

    “What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty (enochos) of death.”

    Mark 3:29 (HCSB): “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never as forgiveness, but is guilty (enochos) of an eternal sin.”

    1 Cor 11:27 (HCSB): ” Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworth way will be guilty (enchos) of sin against the body and blood of the Lord.”

    Hebrews 2:15 (HCSB, note that in this case a better English cognate might be “bound” rather than “held”):

    “and free those who were held (enochos) in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.”

    And last on my list (but maybe the most powerful):

    James 2:10 (HCSB): “For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty (enochos) of breaking it all.”

    the ESV/UK might even be better:
    “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable (enochos) for all of it.”

    Cognates for enochos/liable? “guilty”, “bound”, “held”, “accountable”.

    I only had ten minutes to assemble this. Hope it is a useful addition to the discussion!