“Fury, Hostility and Rage . . . the Way Out”
21 May 2000 Sermon
I appreciate the encouragement many of you gave me regarding the timeliness of last week’s sermon on anger. I’ve decided after prayer to return to the topic with some “how to’s.” What I have to say will emphasize that the Bible is an immensely practical, even meddlesome book. With its help we can do a lot to overcome sin in our lives. If we hear its counsel and apply its commands, we can be set free and the difficult truth is that we often choose not to be free.
Some may object: That’s not fair, I tried for years to overcome this sin and I just can’t master it. Answer: “You may indeed have tried hard, but have you tried in the right way? There may be a deficiency in your knowledge of how to defeat a particular sin, and how to ward off its temptation which renders your efforts ineffectual. The issue may be that applying more grace should supplement your heroic efforts—it’s not that you should do less, but that you should do better. The right tools applied in a skillful manner will accomplish your personal goals of overcoming sin—whatever its name or nature.
The directions I have for you today are useful for many varieties of sin, not just anger. If anger isn’t your besetting sin, takes notes so that you can help someone else, someone who is in captivity to anger and whose joy in life is diminished by anger.
Let’s explore Genesis 4: 1-16. Here we find Cain presented as the first angry man. In many ways it is a pitiful picture. Why? Because Cain’s life is exemplary of the kind of existence a person may expect if he allows himself to be controlled by anger. Cain’s uncontrolled anger led directly to sin—that is what makes his anger sinful. Anger could have positively alerted Cain to a deficiency in himself, to a problem in his attitude towards God, or to inappropriateness of attitude in approaching God in worship. If anger had served any of those other purposes, it would have been helpful and good, not sinful. We need to know that malice is typically latent in anger. Therefore Cain allows the malice latent in sin to grow, motivating him to murder Abel. Abel’s fault was that his sacrifice, his worship pleased God. We do not know exactly what was in Cain’s heart when he went to worship—the bible is mute on this—but we do know that God, who examines the heart, found Cain deficient in that regard. He apparently was not “doing well” (v.7) and that deficiency had to do with sin in his life. God warns all of us when He teaches Cain that sin’s “desire to master” him. The safest surmise is that of all the possible sins, the one nearest to the context is sinful anger.
In other words Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable because he had sinful anger in his heart towards his brother Abel. Cain needs to be reconciled to Abel before attempting to please God with his worship. This interpretation squares with the teachings about anger by our Lord in Matthew 5:21-26 where Jesus commands:
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled
To thy brother and then come and offer thy gift
God wants us to deal with our anger so that we are reconciled before we attempt to offer gifts to God.
The theme of malice latent in anger connects us with sibling rivalry in Genesis 27:1-41 where we read about Esau losing his blessing as the first born to Jacob. Esau had already sold his birthright (Chapter 25) for some bread and a bowl of chili—okay, lentil stew. In verse 41 we read that “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him: and Esau said in his heart, the days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will slay my brother Jacob.” Murderous intentions again have their origin in sinful anger. Yes, there is also jealousy and envy to feed the insolent self-pity of an angry person. Again, Esau’s anger did not quicken him to his own shortcomings, nor did it bring him to repentance for selling his birthright for a meal—his giving into physical appetite like an animal showed him to be spiritually unfit for the family blessing. Sinful anger, a grudge against his brother, came to control his life because he allowed it to do so! The same spiritual sloth that made him indifferent to being the first born kept him from humbly recognizing his mistakes and from repentance. He blamed others for his spiritual poverty and chose anger as his way of life—when in fact it is death leading to a bitter, joyous existence for years.
Lest we be lulled into a false sense of security by the extremity of these two examples (sinful anger leading to either murder, or to murderous intent) let’s move into the New Testament, James 3:1-12. Here uncontrolled anger is expressed through the cursing tongue:
And the tongue is a fire, world of iniquity: so is the tongue among
our members, that it defileth the whole body, and sets the whole course of
one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
When it comes to anger, the tongue is its weapon of choice. Thereby we cut, slice and dice each other up. We incite, provoke, trouble and abuse each other horrifically, using sarcasm, ridicule and mockery. Nothing divides us more commonly than angry words. Then by tale bearing, gossip and slander, even in idle speaking, we spread the destruction further and further like a raging forest fire. An angry tongue consumes trust, good will and relationships, leaving a smoldering wasteland of resentment and mistrust in its wake. Then we act amazed that there is nothing standing and that relationships torched in the process, like new growth in a forest, take an immense amount of time to re-grow.
Objection: Surely, you don’t mean to imply that all anger is sinful. Answer: Of course not, that would be unbiblical. The problem is that we leap to examples of controlled anger all too quickly as if that somehow justifies our sinful anger. But this artful dodge will not work. If we need to talk about our sinful anger, let’s take care that we don’t divert the discussion into another venue—to escape the heat.
Anger can be a holy response to sin. Mark 3:5: [Jesus] looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was completely healed.” Given that we are not Jesus, we need to be extremely careful here about what it is that makes us angry (the cruel exploitation of a crippled man’s condition to put Jesus to the test over healing on the Sabbath?) and what we do with the anger (Jesus proceeds to do good, to heal the man—a constructive solution to a negative situation). Apply this test to your anger: is it motivating me to do good, or to do evil?
Or again, we see the nobility of righteous indignation in Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-17). His righteous indignation addresses both the inside of men’s hearts and the outside of their wicked social, and religious practices:
And they come to Jerusalem and Jesus went into the temple, and began
to cast them out that bought and sold in the temple, and overthrew the tables
of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and would not
suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And He
taught them, saying, “Is it not written My House shall be called of all
nations the house of prayer? But ye have turned it into a den of thieves.”
What Jesus enacts here is righteousness indignation, the kind of indignation we should have over abortion and euthanasia. Lies by those in places of national leadership, persecution of Christians, oppression and injustice throughout the world . . . substantial grounds exist for righteous indignation by God’s people. But where are the people of God? What a pity it is that our energy is squandered on personal insults, in house squabbling and pettiness when the moment demands a courageous standing up and being counted on matters of substance in the public forum. Jesus’ indignation is, obviously, in line with what we know about divine expressions of anger; say, in Romans 1:18-32 where we read:
For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all
unrighteousness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in
unrighteousness; (. v.18) . . . wherefore God gave them up to uncleanness
through the lusts of their own hearts. To dishonor their own bodies between
themselves: (v.24) . . . God gave them over to a reprobate mind to do those
things which are not convenient/fitting (v.28) (and they become) covenant
breakers, devoid of natural affection, implacable and without mercy: (v.31)
In a word, they become angry people. Too many people are full of hatred and besieged by sinful consequences which can only be turned away by heartfelt repentance before God and full acceptance of the truth about God. Paul describes these as the consequences for those who stifle the truth of God available to all. Such consequences are an expression of divine displeasure. Jesus literally drove out of the temple those who had already departed from the presence of God and He restored His House as a house of prayer.
Still on the positive note, anger provides us with a warning sign that we are heading into dangerous territory in any relationship. It warns us that we may be losing our grip on the commandment to love others. It warns us that we are in danger of losing touch with an active sense of the presence of God. It warns us that our self-control may be at risk because of the volatile nature of our angry emotions. And it signals that we are in need right then of exercising thought control. If we take heed to these warnings immediately, we may be able to steer clear of spiritual danger.
So anger is given to us for good to “stir us up to vigorous resistance to all within and without that opposes the glory of God” (R. Baxter). If employed in the right measure and manner it advances the kingdom purposes of God. We have the wisdom of the saints such as the Puritans to help understand anger and how to master it. The Puritans, who have gone on before us, made application of Holy Writ to the human circumstances just as we do. We can learn from studying them. Immoderate anger has always been injurious to humanity. In the Puritan age we would hear this anger described as “rebellion against the government of reason.” They saw immoderate anger as both without and against reasonableness. Accordingly the Puritans taught that all of our passions are to be ruled by reason. The dethroning of reason was described starkly as the “misery of mental illness” and as the “crime of drunkenness.” They described rage as a “short madness, as a drunkenness of passion.”
These concepts are important; they deepen our understanding of the nature and consequences of anger. In our day and age, mental illness is framed primarily as a matter of sickness. Anger is understood as a behavior or perhaps as a matter of affective disorder such as chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. But the therapeutic reach of our understanding is too limited. We need to find ways to step outside our understandings to obtain a fuller, deeper and more accurate view of anger. For example, the therapeutic model doesn’t extend far enough to address what the Puritans saw plainly about anger and reason. We need more than mood altering prescription drugs. And we need more than exhortations, by those who see anger control primarily as a matter of will power, to try harder to control ourselves. We need to put reason back in the driver’s seat!
We need a theological grasp of the matter. In scripture, the Puritans believed that they found a basis for asserting that God governs the rational powers first and that all inferior powers, or passions are to be ruled by sanctified reason. Man is not to see himself, or to deport himself as a mere animal! Only Puritans could get away with writing that truth in this way: “Remember, thou art a man and scorn thyself to be subject to bestial fury.” What an excellent sentiment! Write it down on a file card and post it on the wall of your office. It’s not a scriptural quotation but it surely does express biblical truth! It will probably discomfort somebody into a spiritual conversation. We need to find ways to attack the devastating influence of a culture that devalues humanity so severely as to assert, “We’re only animals after all.” And a culture that is dead to memory has no recollection of who we really are. Remind them by what you say, and do.
There are twelve things we need, then according to Richard Baxter, to affix in our minds regarding inordinate anger:
1. Remember that such anger is contrary to the governance of reason.
2. Remember that God chooses to govern through our rational powers first. Divine governance is the only way in which we overcome sin.
3. Anger is a pain and malady of the mind—why reside there?
4. Such anger is an enemy to the body—inflames the blood and stirs up vulnerability to sickness. It creates bitterness, consumes our strength and causes acute illnesses.
5. Anger renders you unlovely and deforms you physically and spiritually.
6. Anger inclines us to seek another’s harm, puts hurting thoughts in the mind, hurting words in our mouths. It breeds mischief in us.
7. The tendency of anger is towards your brother’s ruin and would result in blood-shed and, if unrepented of damnation. Murder leads to wars, leads to cruelty, and persecutions and oppressions of all kinds.
8. This sin leads to other sins: oaths, curses, rash words leading to slander, railing, reproaches, false accusations and gossip. It has ruined families, cities and states.
9. Anger kindles anger as fire ignites fire. It is the devil’s bellows to kindle men’s corruptions.
10. It unfits you for any holy duty (prayer, meditation, or communion with God) and disqualifies you from worship.
11. It is a great dishonor to the grace of God showing it to be without efficacy. You show yourself to be unruly and unruleable. It drives out patience, fear of God and self-government
12. Inordinate anger is a sin against conscience because we know we will regret it later.
So much for the disease, now let’s turn to the cure, again, according to Baxter. He offers sixteen directives:
1. Our principle cure is the right habituation of the soul to God. That is, choose to live under God’s governing authority with a rich sense of His mercies, healings and assisting grace. Such a heart will be well fortified and preserved.
2. Keep a humble soul because humility, meekness and patience live and die together. To think little of yourself is to think little of all said and done against you—but if you puff yourself up, it is astounding how offended you can be.
3. Guard against a worldly, covetous mindset. Wanting the things of this world too much brings intemperate desires and wants.
4. Stop your passion early on, deal with its first stirrings quickly through both mind and will. Extinguish the spark before it becomes a flame.
5. Take command of your tongue, hand and countenance. You can’t start a fire in a closed container: “Lack of vent stifles a foul passion.” Avoid not only profanity, but also many other words that would be fitter for another occasion. Avoid provocation and walking away from cutting speech—choose rather mild-gentle speech that savors of love. (Proverbs 15:1)
6. Command yourself into silence until reason can be heard. Do not be hasty to say, or to do anything.
7. Choose to relocate physically rather than stay in a place of contention. (Proverbs 14:7)
8. Avoid much talk, disputing, or even business with angry persons. If you want to avoid infection, don’t come in amongst the infected! Bad company corrupts good morals.
9. Choose not to meditate on injuries, or provoking thoughts. Do not bedevil yourself.
10. Fix your mind on the example of Christ Jesus, His meekness and patience. I Peter 2:21, 23.
11. Live consciously as if in God’s presence—because, in fact, you are.
12. Consider well those who are passionately unlovely—are these your models? Choose Christ instead.
13. Confess your anger sin immediately to those around you and thereby shame the sin so as to honor God! Speak in this manner: I find sinful anger being kindled in me, and I begin to forget God’s presence, my duty, and I am tempted to speak provocation to you . . . forgive me, and please pray with me not to do so.” Then watch and pray.
14. Or, if you do slip and actually sin, admit your fault and confess immediately. Ask for forgiveness and warn them not to pursue your folly.
15. Then, go directly to God and ask for pardon and grace against this sin. Sin will not endure, or remain in a spiritual environment. Engage Christ in your cause against it and your soul will grow clam and obedient. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
16. Covenant with some faithful friend that is with you to watch over you and to rebuke your passions as soon as they begin to appear. Promise them to take this rebuke thankfully and in good part lest you discourage them—that is, perform the promise of repentance.
Then, Pastor Baxter writes these searching words: “Either you are so far weary of your sin and willing to be rid of it, as to be willing to do what you can to be rid of it, or you are not: if you are, you can do this much if you please: if you are not, pretend not to repent, and to be willing to be delivered from your sin upon any lawful terms, when it is not so.” I like his plain speaking.
The good news is that we do not need to remain in bondage to anger, or to any sin. What we need is a weariness of that sin and a firm desire to be free of it. There is much we can do that we do not do because we choose not to. So, we may conclude that part of the resilience of sin in our lives is attributable to our heart condition. We are neither broken by our sin, nor humble enough to seek reformation of our lives.
So today we have covered the sin of inordinate anger. We examined the case with Cain whose story could be phrased “The Biography of an Angry Man.” Secondly, we visited the anger-poisoned relationship of Esau and Jacob wherein the close relationship of anger and murder was again revealed to us. However, because the extremity of these two cases might lead some to coddle their anger as not rising to that standard, we looked at the tongue sins promoted by anger.
Having begun with the negative case, we then moved on to an exposition of the positive uses of godly anger. We learned that we should be angry over sin and wickedness but that, like Jesus, we should aim to bring good out of our confrontation with evil. The issue is holiness inside and outside, complete purity and truth. Only where these virtues prevail is justice sustainable and peace possible. We can participate in righteousness indignation alongside God—partner with Him in dealing with the ravages of sin on His creatures. We learn that anger serves a cautionary purpose; it warns us that we might be in danger of losing our love for others, or casting away a precious contact with God’s holy presence. Anger warns us that we may be about to lose our self-control, or our thought control. This is disastrous because God expects us to rule our lives with reason—it is to the glory of God that we demonstrate the dominion of sweet reason over our emotions, over our relationships.
We reviewed through the mind of Richard Baxter twelve aspects of inordinate anger—the characteristics of this soul disease. Then we move on to the cure. In quaint language we are presented with sixteen directives—sixteen steps to escape the grip of fury, hostility and rage. These steps not only render us obedient, they make us peaceable; both safer and easier to be around. As Christians we need to be constantly repenting and reforming ourselves—that is our work. If we do it well, our God is truly glorified. Let’s be about our work!