A seminary class taught by Dr. Howard Hendricks was a treasure trove of one-liners. If you are around another disciple of the Prof, you can start one of these cherished cherries and they will finish it for you. Not only were they memorable, but also biblical and powerful. He told a story about a friend of his who was complaining about preachers and their tendency to try to amaze the congregation with their Greek proficiency and exegetical mastery. He told Dr. Hendricks, “You preachers are long on exhortation; short on explanation.” We tell people what they are supposed to do, but we often fail to tell them how to do it!
There are a lot of things that are much easier to preach than they are to live – especially evident when the topic is anger. In my previous two posts on anger (here and here), I have dealt defined anger and dealt with its dangers. I remain convinced, as I argued in those two posts, that unresolved anger, accompanied by bitterness of spirit and grudges against others, is among the most damaging issues in the lives of Christians today. God’s Word makes it clear that we cannot love God and hate our brothers, but many of us want to pretend we are the exception to the rule. We are not. If we do not forgive, we cannot experience the cleaning power of Christ nor the spiritual intimacy with him we were redeemed to enjoy. At the end of the first post, I copied several passages that make this point repeatedly and unequivocally. There is a link between your experience of God’s grace and whether you extend that grace to those who have sinned against you.
A word of explanation may be in order here. When I speak of the “experience” of grace, I am not talking about our relationship with Christ – that depends on the saving work done on the Cross and is not dependent on the quality of our works. But James directed believers to “draw near to God” and promised that he would draw near to them. There is an experiential element here. I may be saved by God’s grace, but I must walk in obedience to Christ as Lord to experience all the wonders and the blessing of God’s nearness in my life. I realize that concept makes some uncomfortable, but it is, I am convinced, a biblical concept. We are recipients of God’s blessings by grace, but in our experience the wonder of those blessings is a product of obedience and submission.
And anger, above anything else, hinders us from experiencing all the blessings of God’s grace on a daily basis. It creates a bitter spirit, a sense of distance from God, it quenches the Spirit and prevents us from experiencing all that God has for us.
It is easy to establish in God’s Word that anger is a growth-killing, soul-chilling sin, with devastating effects on our Christian lives. But when it comes to applying that principle practically, it is harder to do! It is difficult when I get insulting emails, when someone writes something hurtful about me (which is by definition wrong, right?) or when someone otherwise hurts and disappoints me, to apply these teachings. When I am injured, insulted, or aggravated, my flesh wells up and the desire to strike back is overwhelming. I haven’t’ been in a physical fight since I was in high school (that was with my brother – now a pastor in Georgia – and he deserved it). My weapon of choice is usually my words. In fact, about 95% of the revenge we Christians take is verbal. We tend to couch it as righteous anger and outrage against sin. Sometimes we pretend we are sharing a prayer request. But all too often our words are vengeful; designed to hurt back the one who hurt us.
Anger, as I have established in the first two posts, is a decision to react vengefully when provoked. We all experience that emotion of anger when hurt. It is natural, unavoidable and I do not believe it is inherently sinful. Perhaps it is part of our fallen condition, but when we are injured, the natural emotion is anger. But the question that matters is how are we going to respond to what we feel? Do we respond by striking back – in words or deeds? Or are going to respond in God’s grace?
What I will do in this post is to make some suggestions about the “how-to” of anger. This is an important issue, as the plethora of warnings about forgiveness, about loving our enemies, about returning good for evil, tell us. In my experience, it is nearly a universal struggle among believers. So, how can sinners living in a sinful world, a world full of hurt and pain, learn to handle their angry emotions in a Christ-honoring, gospel-advancing, soul-building way?
What are you supposed to do when anger wells up inside of you and you feel like you are going to explode? How does forgiveness work?
The Wisdom of the World
The wisdom of this world is as simple as it is destructive. Vent! Let your anger flow, don’t hold it in. Somehow, that is supposed to diffuse the emotion inside of you and clear the air. But the Bible makes no bones about it. Venting your anger is destructive. It tends to lead to more anger, to a bitter, angry spirit, and it creates brokenness and hurt in those to whom you vent.
Proverbs 29:11 is definitive here. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” Wisdom, in Proverbs, is choosing that which leads to God’s blessing, to positive consequences. Folly is choosing that which brings negative consequences or destruction. Venting anger is the act of a fool, because of the negative consequences it brings. Like a tornado, the one who vents leaves a swath of destruction behind him. The fool “gets it off his chest” without regard to the consequences. The wise man holds in his anger quietly and deals with it in a different direction. The New Testament’s version of Proverbs also makes this point. James 1:20 says, “Man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” It may make me feel better to lash out at someone who hurt me. It may satisfy my flesh to write a post eviscerating the one who spoke ill of me, but it is not a godly act. My choice to respond to hurt with angry words or actions will never accomplish anything godly or righteous. It will only destroy.
Again, we are not talking about emotional anger here, but the decision to strike back, to seek vengeance, to balance the books and repay the injury I have received. I may not be able to control my emotions, but I can choose a more godly response, one that does not destroy, but instead glorifies God and builds others up. This we must do if we wish to honor God. And the worldly wisdom of venting anger simply does not work. It does not solve the problem, it only makes it worse.
But the Word of God does have solutions. No, there is no simple and easy formula for dealing with anger – would that any problem with sin was that easy. But there are biblical means, strategies for dealing with this very serious issue. Some are theological in nature, others more practical. I would like to mention a few of these. The list is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive.
Strategy 1: Redirect your anger upward.
Job was angry – at his friends, at the world, and even at God. Many have only read the first two chapters of Job, and perhaps the last two or three chapters. But in between the tragic beginning and the victorious ending of the book is a conversation in which Job vents his anger. At first he vents at the others and receives no help. But then vents to God and the healing comes. Jeremiah vented his anger to God. Ezekiel did the same. Habakkuk let his emotions spill over to heaven. Every one of them vented their anger to God and received grace, hope and healing in return.
We ought never to be disrespectful to God, to demean him or his character in any way. But God has big shoulders. In his sovereignty, he allows hurt and pain to fall on his children, for the purposes of his glory. But he allows those suffering children to vent their hurt and anger toward him. Lord, why did you let this happen to me. Lord, I feel hurt and angry. Lord, I am broken. It is okay, child of God. Tell God how you feel!
It will not surprise God. He already knows how you feel, and he cares. Why pretend? Why vent your anger on those who cannot help or heal? Why not carry your anger to God? He can give you wisdom, strength, healing and hope in the darkest of times. When you are angry at another person, don’t drop the bomb of your fury on them, or on others about them. Tell the One who cares and can help you in your time of darkness.
The first step in dealing in a godly way with anger is to take it to God, not dump it on others.
Strategy 2: Remember who you are.
A very wise man said that the key to life is to learn two important truths. First, there is a God. Second, I am not him! The Bible teaches us about a sovereign God of righteousness, who is perfectly just in his judgments. And that God asserts beyond any doubt that establishing righteousness and doling out vengeance is his prerogative and no one else’s. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”
The right to avenge sin is God’s and his alone. When I am angry, I must remember that I am not God and have not been appointed as God’s agent of retribution against a sinful world. I am not God and I have no right to seek vengeance against those who have hurt me. That right belongs to the one who made us and rules this world in perfect righteousness.
There are two reasons why only God should seek vengeance. First of all, he is very good at it. Because he is perfectly holy and just, he brings perfect justice on this world. Oh, sometimes he delays justice for a time and it seems as if the sinner is winning. Sometimes, justice does not even come in this world, but is dispensed in eternity. This world we live in can seem brutally unfair at times, as God delays his justice in the demonstration of his mercy. But make no mistake, God’s justice is perfect. Every sin that has ever been committed will be rightfully avenged.
It is a marker of human arrogance that this makes us gloat. We have a natural tendency to focus on the sins that have been committed against us and give ourselves a pass for our own offenses. But each of us is guilty of sin before God and against humanity. Each of us stands guilty before God and faces his righteous judgment. We are blessed that Jesus paid the price for our sins, atoned for our guilt before God. Jesus was the means by which God both demonstrated his justice by pouring out his wrath against sin and his mercy by pouring out his love on those who believe.
The point is that there is justice in this world, administered by God. We may not always see it and often we do not appreciate God’s timing, but he is always just and we can trust him to be avenge sin perfectly. In his time he will accomplish perfect justice on this earth, balancing the scales precisely in a way that only God can do. Vengeance belongs to God because he alone can accomplish it completely and perfectly.
And that is the second reason that vengeance belongs to the Lord. God is righteous; you and I most definitely are not. Not even close. We tend to view the sins of others through prosecutorial eyes while defending, justifying and downplaying our own faults. We see the world through the tinted lens of our own selfishness and that colors our view of the world in such a way as to make it impossible for us to be just in seeking vengeance.
If you read back to the first post in this series, I started by telling how some friends of mine had hurt me and made me very angry. But let me ask you this. Do you suppose that if I were more specific and mentioned with whom I was upset and what I was upset about, that perhaps those people might have a different view of the situation than I do? Do you think they might have a different take that does not paint them in such a bad light?
The simple fact is that we tend to see the world through selfish eyes. For every one of our stories there is someone else who has a different perspective on that same story. I don’t have all the facts and I don’t understand all perspectives and neither do you. My knowledge is limited and so is yours. So, when we take upon ourselves the divine right of administering justice, our vengeance will not be righteous. It will be selfish, imperfect, skewed and incomplete. In fact, when human beings try to seek vengeance on their own, they often create an injustice worse than they are trying to correct.
Please understand, we are talking about personal offense here. God has granted to human governments the right to dispense justice. He has granted to churches the right to apply discipline. Governments ought to administer justice and churches ought to discipline those who sin. I am not advocating against either. But I am saying that when I try to get back at those who hurt me on a personal level, or when I use either government or the church (or a blog for that matter) to settle issues of personal anger, I sin against God and I offend him.
I do not see into hearts. God does, so justice belongs to him. The deepest motives of the human soul are known to God alone, so only he should identify them and reveal them. It is far too common for us to think we know everything and believe we understand another’s motives, but our limited knowledge makes us poor arbiters of justice.
Better to leave it in the hands of the God who promises to repay every evil with perfect justice, in his time.
A couple of weeks ago, Michigan played Ohio State in what could appropriately be called an annual grudge match. During the game, there was a huge fight. Flags flew everywhere. One penalty went against an OSU player who was tossed from the game. He went ballistic at the unfairness of it all. He was shown on the sidelines ranting and raving as if he were an innocent man unjustly accused. He left the stadium giving the Michigan crowd a rather common but crass hand gesture to vent his anger. But when they showed the replays, it was clear that he had taken a swing at one of the Michigan players. That’s the rule, folks. To take a swing, you leave the game. This player was both clearly guilty and absolutely convinced of his own innocence. He wanted the other players punished for their misdeeds, but wanted justification for his own sins. Isn’t that how we all act at times? We magnify and prosecute the sins of the other, but we justify, rationalize and demand grace for our own.
That is not unusual, but it makes us deficient administrators of true justice. It is best to leave that in the hands of the one who can do it so well.
When you are angry, stop and think about this. The right of vengeance, of bringing justice, belongs to God. As right as you think you are, as justified as you believe your anger is, you need to realize that your perspective is flawed by your own sin. God is the only one who really has the right to balance the books and is the only one who will do it with perfect justice.
In part four of this series, I will share more biblical strategies for dealing with anger in a godly way.
Anger: A Growth-Killing, Soul-Chilling Sin
1) The first post, “Anger: A Growth Kill, Soul-Chilling Sin“, introduces the topic, defines anger and demonstrates that this is a major spiritual issue in the lives of believers.
2) The second post, “Anger’s Deadly Effects,” examines Matthew 5:21-26 and identifies four devastating and deadly effects of anger on those who choose to respond vengefully to those who hurt them.