Novelist Fredrick Buechner wrote, "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 confrontation to come—to savor the last toothsome morsel of both pain you are giving and the pain you are getting back, in many ways it is a feast for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton of the feast is you."
The Pasadena Star News carried the story of a missionary and his wife in Chicago who were arguing over which of them had saved the most souls. To prove his point he beat her up. Then she shot him dead and (are you surprised?) was found innocent of murder.
Someone asked a Texan why in the early days horse thieves were hung and murderers were paroled. He said in Texas there were some people who needed to be dead, but no horses that needed to be stolen.
The Old Testament restricted the end of violence: "Thou shalt not kill." The New Testament restricts the beginning of violence: "Thou shalt not get angry." Jesus said, "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:21-22).
Anger is the sixth of seven deadly sins. It is a sin that surely all of us have committed and some of us still commit with great regularity. Jesus considers it an alternate form of murder. As Mark Twain said, "I never killed anyone, but I sometimes read the obituaries with great pleasure."
Some Christians can be as mad as a pit bull chewing bumblebees and still excuse their temper by saying that it is just the way they are. They take a perverse pride in being outspoken and honest. One man told his pastor, "I know I have a bad temper. I suppose that is my cross." His pastor said (lovingly, I hope), "That is not your cross. It is your wife's cross. And it is your sin!"
That is not to say all anger is sin. Paul wrote, "Be angry, and sin not" (Ephesians 4:26). That's easy enough to say, but how can we do it? How can we be "good and mad?" Jesus shows us how. Unlike most of us, he was never angry at wrong done to himself. Even while he was hanging on the cross he said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."
Although Jesus could be gracious and forgiving to wrong done to himself he had no words of charity for wrong done to others, especially the poor and hurting people. When religious authorities criticized him for healing a crippled man on the Sabbath, he "looked around on them with anger" (Mark 3:5). When money changers in the temple took advantage of poor foreigners, he took whips and drove them out saying, "My Father's house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves" (John 2:13-17). He blasted the Scribes and Pharisees not for the terrible things they did to him but for the way they treated the weak and helpless (Matthew 23).
When the weak suffer at the hands of the strong, when the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, we may have to answer for the sin of not getting angry. Without anger the money changers would still be in the temple, blacks would still be in the back of the bus, and women would still be barefoot and pregnant.
Not all anger is sin, but some is. Just as lust is often confused with love, so the two sides of anger are misunderstood. Lust and love are powerful emotions of attraction: one to get something, the other to give something. Anger is a powerful emotion of resistance which also has two sides: selfish and selfless. Both sides, however, are expressed by the same word.
THE PRINCIPLE: Anger is the root of murder
Jesus identifies three degrees of hostility. First, there is the emotion itself: anger. "Whoever is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court." The true test of Christian charity is not whether we can get along with atheists or Islamic Fundamentalists but can we get along with the people in our own household. Some Christians are gentle and respectful to neighbors and friends, but mean-spirited to their own family members. The Bible says we must love our brothers and also love our enemies. Sometimes they are the same people.
The footnote in the New American Standard Bible says some manuscripts insert the words, "without cause." That was not what Jesus said or Matthew wrote. Those words were added by a scribe to take the sting out of the severity of Jesus' teaching. All angry people are positive their anger is with just cause. Just ask them, and they'll tell you all about it. That's not the issue. It is the mean spirit within, regardless of who or what caused it.
The second level of hostility is personal contempt. Jesus said, "Whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court." That's a relief! Personally, I haven't said "Raca" to anyone recently, have you? Ah, but before we skip it and go on to the next level, perhaps we should consider what it means. "Raca" is the sound people make when they get ready to spit. It was originally spelled hraka. It is an ugly word. Jesus is talking about the sin of treating someone with non-verbal contempt. There is no defense against that. The angry person hasn't said anything, but is ready to spit in someone's face. Such contempt is condemned by the supreme court of heaven.
The third level of hostility is verbal insult. Jesus said, "Whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the hell of fire." Now we are talking heavy artillery, real verbal violence. There is a common notion that words don't hurt. We say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But they do. Especially do they hurt when they come from the mouths of brothers, sisters, parents and children. Some children need to be spanked, but no child needs to be insulted. The most damaging thing a parent can say to a child is, "You're stupid!" Children grow up in homes where they are made to feel dumb. No wonder they lash out in anger themselves. They soon learn to say abusive things to their brothers, sisters, friends and parents. Child abuse is not just physical. Verbal abuse is the most common form.
Husbands and wives, be careful how you speak to each other. If you try to make your spouse feel foolish, you will answer not only to him or her, you will answer to God. "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1). If you speak in anger, you will probably make the best speech you will ever regret.
Sometimes the brother or sister to whom we speak angry words is within the church, the family of faith. Angry Christians sometimes say mean and spiteful things to each other. All such anger is sin. Watch your words. "Speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). If you can't say it in love, you had better hold your peace. "Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires" (James 1:19 NIV).
Just as there are three levels of hostility, so there are three levels of punishment: the court, the supreme court and hell fire. Most people think hell is only for monstrously evil people (Attila Hun, Adolph Hitler and the Hillside strangler). But Jesus says its fires torment respectable people who engage in verbal violence. Some are already suffering a kind of hell on earth. They are imprisoned in a vicious cycle of grievance, insult and anger… grievance, insult and anger… ad infinitum.
Jesus did not address these words to pagan sinners, but to self-righteous fanatics who were proud they hadn't murdered anyone, but who cut others down with their tongues instead of their swords. Jesus said such behavior is sin.
Anger is just one letter short of danger. The danger is not what we do to those who anger us, but what they make us do to ourselves. Hate hurts the hater more than the hated. Forgiveness is a favor we do ourselves. In rejecting our brother in Christ we lose more than our brother. We lose our Heavenly Father (1 John 4:20-21). We lose our Christian fellowship. We excommunicate ourselves from all we claim to love.
Still there are many who try to justify their anger as "righteous indignation." On closer inspection, however, such righteousness indignation turns out to be only hate with a halo. They hide malice under a zeal for orthodoxy or lofty resolution to expose scandal. Their intention is not to correct an offense, but to punish an offender. They would rather the offense were not ended than that it be ended quietly without violence. Loosing their temper is like leaping into a Ferrari, gunning the motor, taking off at high speed and then discovering the brakes are out of order.
THE PRACTICE: Two illustrations
Jesus gave us two examples. First, "If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). If that were practiced literally, it would bring some churches either to harmony or bankruptcy. Jesus said we should put first things first. Our worship is meaningless as long as there is a broken human relationship in our hearts.
Second, "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent" (Matthew 5:25-26). There are two interpretations of this statement. Some think Jesus is giving us practical advice: when interpersonal relations are torn, immediate action will mend them. Delay will cost you dearly. Others think Jesus is giving us theological advice: put things right between ourselves while life lasts, before we stand at the judgment bar of God. Both interpretations may be right. If we want happiness now and forever, in time and eternity, we must never leave an unreconciled quarrel or an unhealed relationship. It is far better to forgive and forget than to hate and remember. The one who angers you controls you.
sat down at a picnic and suddenly cried out with pain. "What's the
matter?" his mother asked.
That might be true in the case of the bee, but it is rarely, if ever, true in the case of those who hurt you or anger you. Get up and make your peace. The relief you bring will be your own.