Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dealing with Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:21–26, ESV) 

Anger is a powerful and destructive emotion when it works its way from our hearts into harsh or critical action. In the majority of circumstances most would argue that getting so angry that you lash out and murder someone is worthy of judgment. Sure, there may be times when it is argued that this angry response was justifiable in some legal way due to extenuating circumstances, but when anger moves someone to take someone else’s life it is at the least worthy of being taken before the courts for some form of judgment to be weighed.

Jesus takes the action of murder and ties it to the motives of our hearts. He said that even this anger is liable or answerable for judgment. And whether this anger works its way out in physical action or verbal attacks it is putting ourselves in the position of judge and jury and making ourselves out as the one who determines the worthiness and the fate of others. But this is not our role. In Romans 14 Paul walks us through an extended discussion of where judgment really belongs, and that is with God alone. In verse 10 Paul poses the question, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” To this he adds, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;” (Romans 14:10, ESV) 

Jesus takes our angry responses to the level that we are worthy of the judgment which we pass on others. And this is absolutely true, for there are none of us who are worthy of God’s love and forgiveness of any of our debts. The Bible tells us that “...God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8–10, ESV)

Recognizing that we have been forgiven much, we are instructed here by Jesus that if we go before our God who has forgiven us and we realize (likely even due to conviction by God’s Holy Spirit) that we have acted against another that we are then to get up and deal with it with our brother. We are not to procrastinate or ignore the prompting of God’s Spirit, but to deal rightly and right away with others as God has dealt with us. And if we owe this person something because of what we have done then we are to make every effort to settle that account before it is handed over for others to judge. 

Jesus was speaking to a culture which had not only religious laws, but also Roman civil laws, and the people were expected to deal with things in house before taking them to the out of house. While we may not have debtor prisons in our country today, we do have a system of courts that decide liability and pronounce judgment. This is clearly not where we are to deal with each other. In verses 6-8 of 1 Corinthians chapter 6 the apostle Paul said of these believers and their immaturity at that time: “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (1 Corinthians 6:7–8, ESV)

Clearly anger can be seen as a downward spiral if nursed. James tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:13–15, ESV)

We all have angry thoughts, but the question is, “What are we going to do with those thoughts?” James says that when we play with these thoughts as we nurse our hurts we then move from having that thought to judging the offender and then even taking action. Jesus deals with this progression which starts with our thoughts that are worthy of being weighed and then leading to our actions which progressively increase and even leads to the very verdict from which the blood of Christ has saved us.

But notice in this downward spiral that there is a place where things change, and that is when anger serves as a lure to consider further action. So far we have only dealt with anger as sin and looked at negative actions which result. But we do have passages in the Bible which seem to acknowledge a difference between anger and sin. In Psalm 4:4 we read, “Be angry, and do not sin….” This is also quoted in Ephesians 4:26, but before going there, let’s look at the rest of Psalm 4:4 and 5 which reads, “ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” (Psalm 4:4–5, ESV) Notice what is done here with one's anger. It is kept under control and taken before God, even offering to Him right-hearted sacrifices as we place our trust in Him. Remember, He is the righteous judge and He will give us strength and wisdom to deal with whatever situation brought about the anger.

In Ephesians 4:26-27 we read, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26–27, ESV) In Psalm 4 we are told to take this anger to our bed and lay it before God who is the righteous Judge who will quiet our hearts. In doing this we are refusing to allow the anger to fester and refusing to allow it to work its way out in a destructive manner before others. In doing this we are closing the door for the devil to have a hay day with our relationships through which we are driven apart from one another.

“for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20, ESV) 

God knows our every thought. He knows the motives of our hearts. He tells us that our first priority is to love Him, but that we also have a similar second priority (commandment) and that is to love one another. Anger puts up walls, and for that reason we need to be committed to bringing down those walls as we walk right before God and with each other. Just as when we sin before God we confess it to Him and turn from that sin, thanking Him for His forgiveness so that we might continue to walk in intimate fellowship with Him, we are also to treat others the same. If we lash out and hurt them, go to them and admit our transgression, commit to walking with them differently, offer to restore what might be necessary (if possible), and ask their forgiveness. In this there might be some with whom restoration might not happen and forgiveness might not be granted. But even in this we can return to God whose forgiveness is unconditionally settled in the blood of Jesus and pray to our God that their hearts might be softened as we commit to walk rightly before them.

There is so much more that can be said on this topic. It is a huge one in Scripture. Jesus tells us that the anger of our hearts is a big deal and we need to be serious about how we handle it. 

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31–32, ESV)

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