What is it that makes you angry? At a trivial level, I get angry when I see someone drop litter or see a dog owner allow their pet to soil the path. More seriously I get angry when I see graffiti sprayed on a wall, or a tree sapling vandalised. I get angry when I hear climate change deniers, or when companies discharge waste into rivers. I get more angry when I see someone being bullied or harassed, especially if it’s a child, a woman, someone with a disability or person of colour. I get even more angry still over child abuse, sexual harassment or physical violence. I feel very angry with holocaust denial, Antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of racism. Above that, those who justify apartheid, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide. That’s me. What about you? What about Jesus? What did Jesus get angry with in the gospels? Surprisingly it was none of the above. What was it? Religious hypocrisy. Worth reflecting on that isn’t it?
In our gospel reading today Jesus’ instructs us on dealing with anger and with conflict resolution. Here are three headings:
Unjustified anger is always destructive (Matthew 5:21-22)
Unsettled disputes are invariably costly (Matthew 5:25-26)
Pursue reconciliation to resolve conflict (Matthew 5:23-24)
Unjustified Anger is Always Destructive
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
Lets begin by noting what Jesus is not saying. Jesus is not saying that anger is the same as murder, or as bad as murder.
Why the association then? What is the difference between manslaughter and murder? The difference is that murder is the taking of a life with malice. It is premeditated. That should give us the clue as to why Jesus draws the comparison. Anger is a natural, instinctive adaptive response to threats. It inspires powerful, aggressive feelings and behaviour. Anger allows us to defend ourselves or those we love when attacked. Anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival but criminal law, social norms, and common-sense limit or determine when anger is, or is not, justified. For example, anger that is directed against cruelty, abuse or injustice, when channeled constructively, is not sinful. But unresolved anger is. Prolonged anger is. Premeditated anger is.
Clarence Darrow, a criminal lawyer once said, “Everyone is a potential murderer. I have not killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction from obituary notices.”
So, am I really going to go to Hell for calling someone a nerd? No. Jesus isn’t saying that either. He’s simply saying that he expects a different attitude from his followers. Reading between the lines we can hear Jesus say, “When you belittle or denigrate people with your words, remember I came to die for them as well as you. That guy you just called an idiot? I love him. He’s so valuable to me that even if he was the only person in the world, I’d still give my life for him. But you’re making him sound worthless and insignificant? What does that say about your attitude to me? That’s not the kind of behaviour I expect of my family.” The Apostle John put it like this,
“Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15).
Unsettled Disputes are Invariably Costly
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)
In these verses Jesus gives us a mini-parable to teach us why unresolved disputes are invariably costly. If you continue to hold anger in your heart, or refuse to be reconciled with someone you have hurt, you are asking for it. Anger that remains unresolved, turns to malice. It burns us up and clouds our judgement. It can also easily land you in court and lead you to jail. In a debtor’s prison, someone else has to pay your debt for you to be released. As you won’t be making money in prison, without help your stay there could be for life. So Jesus says, settle matters outside of court. It’s always cheaper. Don’t let malice blind you.
When Steve Tran of Westminster, California, closed the door after activating twenty-five bug bombs, he thought he had seen the last of the cockroaches that had invaded his apartment. But when the spray reached the pilot light of his gas oven, it ignited, blasting his screen door across the street, breaking all his windows, and setting his furniture ablaze. “I really wanted to kill them all,” he said afterwards. “I thought if I used a whole lot more, it would last longer.” According to the label, just two canisters of the fumigant would have solved his cockroach problem. The blast caused over $10,000 damage to his apartment. And the cockroaches? “By Sunday, I saw them walking around again.” Remember anger is just one letter short of danger.
Resolve Conflict by Pursuing Reconciliation
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Jesus explains what we should do about anger or disputes. He focuses on those we have hurt. And if you are thinking “am I really responsible for someone else’s grudge against me?” the answer is probably “yes – assume so – go and find out”.
If you are feeling guilty, can’t sleep, or get them out of your mind, take the initiative. Get in touch. Apologize. Ask for their forgiveness. Seek reconciliation. Because worship is a sham if we know we have hurt someone and do nothing about it. And if they refuse, then at least we have tried. We can’t force people to reconcile. But we can be at peace with God. Remember: Unjustified anger is always destructive. Unsettled disputes are invariably costly. Instead, resolve conflict by pursuing reconciliation.
Let me conclude with five simple biblical principles of anger management. Five ‘P’s to overcoming conflict or anger.
Be Patient: Be slow to act when anger is aroused
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
When you begin to feel your stress level rising, take some deep breaths. Breathe slowly and deeply. Angry people tend to jump to wrong conclusions. If you’re in a heated discussion slow down. Don’t interrupt or say the first thing that comes to mind. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering. Be patient.
Be Pure: Deal with the root causes of anger
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:31).
When you begin to feel angry, don’t embrace it. Don’t nurse it. Don’t befriend it. Don’t play with it in your mind. Crush it while you still can. Take responsibility for your emotions. And where appropriate confess to God your sin. Be patient. Be pure.
Be Peaceful: Forgive when people treat you badly
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil… If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
Act in the opposite way to how you have been treated. If a person insults you, bless them. No matter how they treat you, seek their welfare, seek their best interests. Return love for hate and prayers for persecution. That is how Jesus has treated us.
Be patient, be pure, be peaceful.
Be Proactive: Resolve conflict quickly
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
Deal with the cause straight away. Take the initiative to resolve whatever it is that causes anger or conflict. Be careful of words like “never” or “always” – like “you’re always forgetting things”. If someone or something is upsetting you:
- Address the problem (not person) in one sentence.
- State how the problem (not the person) makes you feel, using a specific emotion. Not – “you make me angry” but “I am angry because…”
- State how you would like the problem resolved.
Be Prayerful: Ask God to help you
“I want people everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” (1 Timothy 2:8)
Ask him to help you act like Jesus. Hate the sin but love the sinner. Five P’s to dealing with anger. Be patient. Be pure. Be peaceful. Be proactive. Be prayerful.
Let me close by sharing something that happened this week and how God is helping me deal with anger…
Ten Principles of Conduct for Resolving Conflict
- If you have a problem with me, come to me (privately).
- If I have a problem with you, I’ll come to you (privately).
- If someone has a problem with me and comes to you, send them to me. (I’ll do the same for you.)
- If someone consistently will not come to me, say, “Let’s go see him together. I am sure he will see us about this.” (I’ll do the same for you.)
- Be careful how you interpret me – I would rather do that myself. On matters that are unclear, do not feel pressured to interpret my feelings or thoughts. It is easy to misrepresent intentions.
- I will be careful how I interpret you.
- If it’s confidential, don’t tell. If you or anyone else comes to me in confidence, I won’t tell, unless
(a) the person is going to harm themselves,
(b) the person is going to harm someone else,
(c) it involves a child who has been physically or sexually abused. I expect the same from you.
- I do not read unsigned letters or notes.
- I do not manipulate; I will not be manipulated; do not let others manipulate you. Do not let others try and manipulate me through you.
- When in doubt, just say it. If I can answer it without misrepresenting something or breaking a confidence, I will.
Taken from John Maxwell, There’s no such thing as Business Ethics (Warner, 2003) pp.44-45.
Matthew 5:21-26: Bible study questions for personal reflection or group discussion
How are murder and unrighteous anger related?
Jesus warns against calling someone stupid or a fool. Why do you think insults such as these constitute murder in God’s sight?
What causes you to lose your temper with people?
What do these verses teach us about broken relationships?
Why is Jesus concerned that apologies and reconciliation be made quickly?
When have you initiated forgiveness or had someone initiate it with you?
What was the outcome?
In what ways has your thought life pleased or disappointed God this week?
Recommended Commentaries and Study Resources:
John Stott’s The Sermon on the Mount (IVP).
Helmut Thielicke’s Life Can Begin Again (James Clarke).
John Stott, The Beatitudes: Developing Spiritual Character (IVP)
Additional Resources on Anger Management
Christopher A. Hall, The Gift of Anger The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling
The American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/topics/controlanger.html
The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III (NavPress)
The Anger Workbook by Les Carter and Frank Minirth (Thomas Nelson)
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“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)