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You have heard that our ancestors were told, "You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment." But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. - Matthew 5:21-22 (NLT)
I don’t think of myself as an angry person. Often what I perceive to be anger actually turns out to be a realization of hurt. More often, I get frustrated and I get annoyed, but it takes a lot to get me truly angry. So what about my traffic rage or eye rolls or under-my-breath comments? Jesus, in His words and in His example, would say that it matters, and it matters deeply.
As He does, Jesus flips the usual script. The main passage we’re looking at this week comes amidst a series of teachings from Jesus, following the passage called the Beatitudes that truly reverses what we think we know to be true. Here, He continues to do the same, saying that the anger we keep to ourselves is just as dangerous as acting on it.
Perhaps our reaction, then, is to try to squash those emotions as much as possible. Put them away in a box. Bottle them. Stuff them down. Jesus said anger was bad… right?
But He didn’t. He uses a strong metaphor to make a point, but the core of what He’s saying is this: Jesus is most concerned with the condition of our hearts. And you know what’s really terrible for the condition of our hearts? Unacknowledged, unresolved anger.
Jesus doesn’t want to eliminate anger. He wants to teach us what it means, what to do with it, and give us tools to respond well. My anger in the form of road rage probably reveals a hurried spirit; or in the form of annoyances, probably reveals pride; or directed toward someone, probably reveals bitterness.
This is the invitation of Jesus we’ll explore this week: to do the heart-work of releasing what is destructive in order to receive what is healthy and holy.
When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them. They told him, “Lord, come and see.” Then Jesus wept. - John 11:32-35 (NLT)
Have you ever thought about Jesus like He’s a Jedi in Star Wars? Super wise, extremely chill, and undisturbed by anything—a complete master of His emotions. Furthermore, if you think of Jesus that way, have you also made that the goal of your faith, to become a Christian version of Yoda?
Maybe that’s just my experience. But one of my biggest faith breakthroughs to date was realizing that, like every human in the Bible and every human since, Jesus had emotions. So we are missing part of His character if we think Jesus is trying to teach us how to effectively eliminate our emotions. No, Jesus taught us the perfect way to be human. And for Him, that included emotions.
Before we dig more into Jesus’ teaching on anger, I think it’s important to see how He lived those things out. There are a handful of examples we could choose from, but this one is a favorite of mine because I think it shows a spectrum of His humanity. He demonstrates deep empathy, anger, frustration, and grief, all largely tied to His close relationships with Mary and her brother Lazarus.
If Jesus is our ultimate guidebook, it’s clear He hasn’t asked us to live a life absent of anger or other emotions, or a faith that operates in spite of them. Just as He was the perfect example in every other imaginable way, He was also perfect in His emotional health, and if we want to grow more into His image, we inevitably have to value that, too.
So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. - Matthew 5:23-24 (NLT)
Social media might be the most concentrated collection of anger. As moral, spiritual issues have evolved into political issues, and politics have evolved into tribalism, the distant confrontation of Facebook becomes our prime opportunity to point fingers and reinforce or defend opinions. Admittedly, it’s pretty maddening.
One of the reasons Jesus warns against anger in this teaching is that it makes us very susceptible to other sin. Emotions are terrible dictators, but they are really incredible indicators. So if we’re using our social media example, your (and my!) anger at someone’s differing opinion could be an indicator of pride or shame or hurt.
The example Jesus gives here demonstrates that we cannot isolate our life alongside Him and in service to Him, from the rest of our actions and relationships. If what we learn and pray on Sunday doesn’t affect every other area of our lives, we are missing it. And anger, along with the sinful grips it imposes on us, can be one of the most destructive ways we suffer this disconnect.
Something I love about the Millennial generation (yes, I’m one of them) is our insistence on seeing faith holistically. That means if we say we follow Jesus, we want that to carry to every aspect of our lives. There is no “spiritual life”––all of life is spiritual as we walk through each day with Jesus and live by His Spirit.
Rest assured, that tight knot in your gut that’s endlessly frustrated with a family member, or bitter at a coworker, or even holding a grudge against God Himself (you aren’t alone!) is precisely what Jesus died to bring healing and wholeness to. When we allow His impact on those hidden areas of our life, we come before Him in reconciliation and righteousness.
Arise, O Lord, in anger! Stand up against the fury of my enemies! Wake up, my God, and bring justice! Gather the nations before you. Rule over them from on high. The Lord judges the nations. Declare me righteous, O Lord, for I am innocent, O Most High! End the evil of those who are wicked, and defend the righteous. For you look deep within the mind and heart, O righteous God. - Psalms 7:6-9 (NLT)
So where does anger find its proper place? Scripture is filled with plenty of examples of very human anger, though not all are examples to follow. I find a strange comfort in the brutal honesty of the Psalms, in the humanity of pleas for help or desperate cries for justice. It serves as a consistent reminder of how to cry out, to lament the anger-inducing things in our world, and to rest assured that God is never afraid of these things. In fact, our anger finds its proper place when we align our hearts with the heart of the Father—a Father who, in His love, perfectly represents righteous anger.
Righteous anger is not simply anger that we feel is justified––petty traffic qualms aside, I’m sure a lot of it is. Righteous anger is when we fully understand the heart of God but also the justice of God, and we can partner in it without carrying out our too-small, perhaps too-selfish version of getting even. We cry out with God’s heart for justice while also trusting Him to enact it.
Particularly in our cultural moment as we witness an outcry arising from years of systemic racial injustice, what we witness is compounded, righteous anger. As Christians, our role is absolutely to pursue empathy in reconciliation by every holy means within our grasp. But our role is also to recognize that our Father is the ultimate reconciler and knows a justice beyond our imagination.
So as we channel our anger into action and education and listening, we also echo this Psalm’s plea, along with many other pleas before and since that cry-out, for the justice and righteousness that only a perfectly loving God can bring. As easy at it is to talk about how loving God is, we cheapen what it means for Him to embody love when we overlook His heart for justice.
When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny. - Matthew 5:25-26 (NLT)
Perhaps one of the great hesitancies in addressing anger well is the reality that resolution often involves some tension or conflict with another person. Uncomfortable, right?
It’s that fear or discomfort that instead convinces us to “keep the peace”—a.k.a. ignore it, get over it, pretend it isn’t happening or isn’t affecting you. While in some scenarios the wisest thing may be to walk away or create a boundary (I’ll leave the specifics to your counselor), often our definition of “peace” is really just the absence of conflict. Yet conflict avoidance is a cheap imitation for peace, and it doesn’t bring much soul-rest. Meanwhile, a greater peace is being offered—one that brings emotional, relational, and spiritual freedom.
This is why this passage ends with Jesus giving counsel on how to address anger toward another person. He assumes this will be a reality for us at some point and gives us a guidebook not for complacency, but for freedom. The way of Jesus doesn’t provide the scapegoats of “get over it” or “don’t worry about it” that we may opt for. Instead, He encourages us to settle our emotional debts so that we can come before His throne honestly and unburdened, so that we can live within the kindness and love He has called us to, with hearts unhindered by an anger we weren’t meant to carry.
So don’t misunderstand this passage––it isn’t conflict that keeps us in bondage, nor is it pure conflict that resolves our anger. Instead, it is a heart surrendered and postured in the grace and forgiveness of a just and loving God that leads us to true reconciliation and true healing. Not escaping our emotions, but rather responding to what they are telling us, and walking through them honestly with the loving and understanding advocate we have in Jesus.