05.15.10 The Deadly Sin of Anger, Psalm 58, Matt 5.21-26 Sermon Summary
- Reasons, good and bad, we avoid anger
- Three levels of anger, how they become deadly, and what we can do about it
- What’s at stake if we don’t deal with our anger
- Application steps
Most of us do everything we can to avoid becoming angry. One reason is because we so often regret our actions and words when we are angry. We refer to getting angry as “losing it”: we lose control, sometimes becoming like animals, and thus lose something of our humanity.
Another reason we avoid anger is because we think it’s “unchristian.” James 1:19-20 says, “Let everyone be slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” And in today’s passage, Jesus says our anger justifies our coming under judgment. So now we feel guilty for feeling angry.
But anger has a place in the Christian life. God expresses anger in Psalm 95:11, quoted in chapters 3-4 of the Newer Testament book of Hebrews. In Romans, Paul says those who are “self-seeking, reject the truth, and follow evil” are subject to God’s anger. Jesus became angry, most famously at the beginning of Holy Week in the Temple. And the Bible assumes we will experience anger in Psalm 4:4, quoted in Ephesians 4:26.
It might be helpful to identify (1) three levels of anger, (2) how they become deadly, and (3) what we can do to keep anger from becoming a deadly sin.
1. In its simplest form, anger results from a frustrated desire. I’m referring to our quotidian experiences of anger when someone cuts us off in traffic, we forget our wallet, or our partner makes a mistake and we lose a game. Such events are trivial and passing—they don’t amount to much or last too long. But this kind of anger becomes a deadly sin when we allow it cultivate in us an egoism that refuses to recognize the desires of others. When all that matters to us is our desires and our achievement of them, anger becomes deadly. If lust reduces people to objects, anger reduces them to obstacles.
One way we can keep this from happening is to adopt the mantra of John the Baptist. A charismatic preacher in his own right, and with his own large following, he eventually yielded to Jesus’ ministry. His attitude is summarized in John 3:30, “Jesus must increase; I must decrease.” If we will meditate and embrace this perspective, our egos will shrink to an appropriate size, we will be able to allow for differences with others, and we will be less angry people.
2. A more particular form of anger results when we have been victimized in some way. When proportionate to the crime, victims’ anger is far from sinful; it’s reasonable and justified. It’s also biblical. The “angry psalms” testify to the heartfelt anger of the victim. Today’s passage is an example, especially verses 6-8 and 10. But this kind of anger becomes deadly when we re-victimize ourselves perpetually. When we mistakenly conclude that the whole world is against us, that all our disappointments in life are caused by someone else, victim anger becomes deadly.
Evagrius, who laid the foundation for the Seven Deadly Sins, observed that the monks under his care would be attacked by anger especially during prayer if they were preoccupied with their offenders. Aside from hindering our ability to pray, this obsession with how others have hurt us leads to rancor, sleeplessness, and even bodily ailments.
I recently heard of a woman who refused to show compassion for the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan because, “They’re getting what they deserve after what they did to us at Pearl Harbor.” Clearly our anger over being bombed is justified, but allowing that anger to fester for 70 years and block compassion is deadly sin.
The only effective way to immunize ourselves against this deadly sin is through forgiveness. The deeper the wound, the harder forgiving is, the longer it will take, and the more often we’ll have to do it. This is why we can’t do it alone. Forgiveness requires grace, something only God can give. So we have to pray for the desire and power to forgive.
We are able to forgive, because God has taken the responsibility for judgment and vengeance upon himself. Perhaps the best passage of scripture dealing with this form of the deadly sin of Anger is Romans 12:19-20. There Paul calls us to the ideal exemplified by Christ, on the foundation that we can trust God to be just. It was so important to Jesus that we be free from this deadly form of anger that he made reconciliation with others more important than reconciliation with God.
3. A final form of anger results over the transgression of God’s social righteousness. This anger is expressed in the conclusion to Psalm 58. This is the anger Jesus expressed at the Temple. This is why Jesus got angry when people challenged his authority, willingness, or ability to heal others (see variant readings of Mark 1:41). Like victims’ anger, this anger is reasonable, justified, righteous, and biblical. But it can become deadly if we lose sight of God’s triumph over evil. If we concentrate only on the injustices if the world, resign ourselves in despair, and do nothing to try to overcome them, then our anger has become a deadly sin.
The way to combat this deadly evolution of anger is to continually offer ourselves and our world into God’s care. Returning to Psalm 4:4-5, the “right sacrifices” we offer to God is to trust him. Making a habit, in prayer, in our anger over injustice, of trusting God will lead to what the Greeks called Apatheia, what the Hebrews called Shalom, what the Buddhists call equanimity, what Jesus promised as peace.
God desires that we grow as his children, even as Jesus demonstrated for us. We are to increase in our humanity, not “lose it” in anger. True humanity was definitively revealed in Jesus, who at the beginning of Holy Week was angry, but at the end of it was able to pray for forgiveness for those who were perpetrating the injustice of his crucifixion. We must overcome the Deadly Sin of Anger if we are to following Christ and become the children of God.
- If you are someone who “never gets angry,” reflect on the “reasonable, justified, righteous, and biblical” forms of anger above. What are the things you should be angry about?
- If your anger is out of control, try to determine the underlying sources of your anger. This may require a conversation with a friend or colleague or family member—someone who’s seen you angry. If you are open to hearing what they have to say without reacting with anger, you’re likely to discover areas where you need to experience God’s gracious healing.
- If you experience Anger, try meditating on John 3:30, Romans 12:19-20, or Psalm 4:4-5.