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The sin of anger

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Billy Martin, former manager of the Texas Rangers among other teams, told in his autobiography of going hunting in Texas with Mickey Mantle. They went to a ranch owned by one of Mantle’s friends. Mantle told Billy to wait in the car while he checked in. The friend asked Mantle to do him a favor. He had a pet mule in the barn who was going blind, and he didn’t have the heart to put him out of his misery. He asked Mantle to shoot the mule for him.

Mantle decided to play a prank. He returned to the car, pretending to be furious. He told Martin that his friend wouldn’t let them hunt on his ranch. “I’m so mad at that guy, I’m going out to his barn and shoot one of his mules!”

He drove like a maniac to the barn. Martin protested, “We can’t do that!” But Mickey was adamant: “Just watch me!” he shouted. When they got to the barn, Mantle jumped out of the truck, ran inside, and shot the mule. As he was returning, he heard two shots. He saw that Martin had taken out his rifle, too.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. Martin yelled back, face flushed with anger, “We’ll show that guy! I just killed two of his cows!”

Anger is a problem in our culture today. Eighty one percent of students said they had bullied classmates during the last month, according to a recent survey done in an Indianapolis middle school. Seventy five percent of the bullies said they’d been taunted themselves. More than 80 percent of computer network managers report that users have become abusive–smashing monitors, breaking keyboards, or kicking hard drives. Women are far more likely to suppress, repress and deny anger, leading to higher rates of depression.

Frederick Buechner’s description of “anger” is my favorite single theological definition: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 2).

In this section we’ll study the most fun, and perhaps the most dangerous, of the Seven Deadly Sins. The recently deceased pastor and Bible student Charles Thrasher’s radio talk on our subject was titled correctly: “One letter from ‘danger.'”

Defining “anger” biblically

All proper treatment begins with the proper diagnosis. Webster defines “anger” as “A feeling of displeasure resulting from injury, mistreatment, opposition, etc., and usually showing itself in a desire to fight back at the supposed cause of this feeling.”

Six biblical words are translated by the single English word “anger.” Ap in Hebrew denotes either divine or human anger; the term means “nostril,” which was considered the locale of anger. We get a picture of someone who is “fuming.” The Hebrew verb hara means “burn,” as when Balaam “was angry and beat [his donkey] with his staff” (Numbers 22:27). The Hebrew word za’am means “indignation” or “enraged”; ebra means “boiling rage” (used of Haman vs. Mordecai, Esther 1:12).

Thymos in the Greek is associated with the word for “burning” and describes a passionate longing to injure. And orge is the human emotion caused by jealousy or other harm.

“Anger” is the emotion of being displeased or upset with something done to us. This by itself is normal and human; as we will see, God feels “anger” against sinful actions. “Anger” becomes sinful when it leads to sinful actions, when it causes us to hurt those who hurt us, leading us to wrath, vengeance and revenge. It is thus a “deadly” sin because it leads to murder, injury, and vengeance.

And it is a revelatory moment. Anger is a mirror, showing us what is inside. When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, you find out its content. And you can never put them back. You cannot unring a bell.

Know when anger is leading to sin

God is often “angry” in the Bible, yet he cannot sin (James 1:13): “Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13); “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).

Other examples: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36); “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18); “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:8); “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6); “They always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:16).

These instances show that “anger,” the feeling of displeasure at the actions of another, cannot in itself be sinful.

Anger is sinful when it leads us to sin. Not the emotion, but our response, is the issue. When is anger leading to sin?

First, when it tempts us to hurt someone: “On Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5). Second, when it leads to jealousy: “Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. . . . And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David” (1 Samuel 18:8-9).

Third, when anger leads to spiritual transference. Asa had been a good king in Judah, until he relied on a treaty with Aram more than on God. Hanani the prophet said to him, “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war” (2 Chronicles 16:9).

With this response: “Asa was angry with the seer because of this; he was so enraged that he put him in prison” (v. 10a). And things only got worse: “At the same time Asa brutally oppressed some of the people” (v. 10b). Finally he died tragically from a disease of the feet; “even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord” (v. 12). Asa refused to take responsibility for his own sin, and instead became angry at the one who exposed it. He “shot the messenger.”

Fourth, anger leads to sin when it is motivated by pride: “When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged” (Esther 3:5). And we know what happened to him.

Fifth, anger leads to sin when it causes us to reject Jesus: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard [Jesus]. They got up, drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30); after Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, “they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Anger is sin when it causes us to reject the gospel: “When they heard [the Ephesian silversmith] they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!'” (Acts 19:28).

Anger is not a sin, but it can lead to all kinds of spiritual disease and defeats.

Deal constructively with anger

Where are you dealing with anger in your life? With whom are you at odds today? What situation or person has frustrated you to the point of anger and even sin? Counselors recommend seven steps to take when anger attacks.

First, expect to feel angry when you are treated unfairly. Martin Luther was right: you cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair. The feeling of anger is not the problem, but what we do with it. Nuclear power can light a city or destroy it. Scripture teaches, In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

Second own your anger. Admit it. State it specifically. See if there is a pattern in your family history of hurtful anger. Don’t ignore your anger. The Buddhists have a saying: “The body weeps the tears the eyes refuse to shed.”

Third, determine the source of your anger. Be specific and honest. If there are patterns, identify them. Fourth, choose not to respond in kind. Scripture is clear: “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:8); “A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated” (Proverbs 14:17); “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11);

“Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9); “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:19-21). Consider the Jewish proverb: “Never argue with a fool in public–passersby may not know who’s who.”

Fifth, be proactive, quickly: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:22, 23-24); “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger is never to outlast the day. Otherwise, it gives the devil a foothold in our souls and relationships.

Sixth, pray for the person who angered you: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20, quoting Proverbs 25:21, 22). In this image, a woman has come to the village fire to bring coals back to her house. She carries them in a basket on her head. To “heap burning coals on his head” is to be helpful, not revengeful.

Seventh, choose to pardon. This is to forgive by refusing to punish. Let the sin go; set the sinner free; trust justice to God. Do it now. Deal with your anger before it grows.

A small boy had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he had to hammer a nail in the backyard fence. The first day the boy drove 37 nails into the fence. The number gradually dwindled down, as he discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all.

He told his father, who suggested that he now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. Finally the day came when the boy could tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar, just like the nails did to the fence. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ the wound is still there. A verbal wound is just as bad as a physical one.” So it is with the anger