Until then, I would not have considered myself an angry person. But in that moment, hearing my college roommate say in no uncertain terms; “You’ve got some deep anger in there,” it was almost undeniable. It made me stop to consider the source, the whole anatomy of anger that lies dormant, smoldering, and festering for the moment when it all rises to the surface. I didn’t feel like I was carrying anger around, but somewhere inside, there was a root of rage that periodically boiled over.
Maybe, the mistake I’d made in my own self-assessment was that anger always had a root in an event. Someone wronged you. Something didn’t go your way. You were betrayed, violated, shamed. From then on, anger stemmed from that event and others like it. While this is certainly the case, it wasn’t what I was experiencing. This was more like a giant tidal reservoir, moving in and out unconnected to specific events, or a powder keg sparked by a tiny stray ember.
I bought Ed Welch’s book A Small Book About a Big Problem and started reading it every morning as I made coffee. What I started to realize is that anger often – not always – comes from the wrong disposition toward ourselves and God. We often get angry when we feel like we don’t get our due, experience disrespect from others, or refer the pain of sorrow or disappointment into a more convenient and socially acceptable channel. Sometimes, like so many things in life, our anger comes down to an underestimation of God and an overestimation of ourselves.
The Sermon on the Mount
For the last three months, I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Matthew. When I arrived at the Sermon on the Mount, particularly 5:21-26 on anger, the lessons of a decade ago came rushing back in Jesus’s surprising teaching on what to do with our anger.
The Sermon on the Mount starts with Beatitudes, counterintuitive descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven and the people who live there. While in the world it is not blessed to mourn, in the Kingdom it is blessed because those who mourn will receive comfort. Meekness is not one of the qualities exalted in our world, but God has designed the Kingdom such that the meek will rule over all. So the list goes. The upside-down Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into the Kingdom of Earth, led by the King of kings and his disciples.
Following this section, Jesus outlines the relationship between the Kingdom and the past, particularly the Law. “You’ve heard it said,” he begins, “but I say to you,” he ends. The audacity in these statements is eye-catching. It’s no wonder the people were astonished at his authority when he finished speaking (7:28-29). Not only was Jesus interpreting the Law on his own terms, returning to the heart of the law, he was teaching authoritatively on how to live in the world now.
Sometimes the Sermon on the Mount has been taught as if the prevailing takeaway should be how often we fall short of Jesus’s impossibly high standards. In this case, the only real application point is to admit our inability to keep God’s righteous standard and give our lives to Christ. Of course, this is a helpful application, but it short-circuits what Jesus is actually doing in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, and elsewhere, Jesus seems to speak as if he wants his listeners to do what he is saying! The sermon is meant to be put into practice. Now, anyone who’s tried this realizes it is impossible to perfectly live up to Jesus’ teaching, but do not let the good become the enemy of great. If you have trusted in Christ and you are walking by the Spirit, you should be trying to live according to Jesus’ teaching. The Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s own wisdom for how his followers should be and behave in the world.
This comes as something of a relief for anyone who struggles with anger, lust, anxiety, or any of the other topics Jesus covers. You can actually be free of these things. Maybe not perfectly until we are perfectly sanctified in glory, but when Jesus says the wise person hears his words and does them, he’s not just speaking hypothetically.
Jesus and Anger
Read through the six examples Jesus gives in Matthew 5:17-48 and you’ll notice a pattern. In each section, Jesus states the law (or the prevailing interpretation of the law), his interpretation of the law, and then gives practical guides for obeying the heart of the law – yet another clue that Jesus expects us to put his teaching into practice.
In the section on anger, Jesus begins, “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment’” (5:21). This is the sixth commandment, and not one of the more difficult ones at that. The rarity of violating this commandment has even come down to us in the cliché, “It’s not like I killed someone.” But Jesus isn’t merely interested in the static act of murder; he continues, “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” (5:22). Now things have gotten serious. Jesus brings anger into the murder category, not saying that anger and murder are the same in their effects, but that they are the same in their source.”
Don’t mistake Jesus’s teaching as moving from one act to another. He’s not pointing out that in addition to being careful not to murder someone, now you must watch out for other visible outbursts. He’s actually changing the category altogether. The prohibition against murder is not as simple as saying, if nobody dies, there’s no wrong. After all, it wouldn’t be that much harder to simply add on these other commands and make sure you never lash out with an insult or a curse. Instead, Jesus has reframed our way of evaluating righteousness as it applies to anger. The heart is what matters.
Just because the anger in our hearts doesn’t overflow into murder, insults, or cursing doesn’t mean there’s not a problem. An angry heart is unhealthy, whether you can see it or not. The answer is not simply behavior modification but the renewal of the heart that cuts off anger at the source.
What to Do with Your Anger?
In verses 23-26, Jesus makes a surprising recommendation. We might expect him to say, “So, don’t be angry with other people” or even, “When you are wronged, do not let anger get a foothold in your heart.” Instead, he says, “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” (5:23-24).
As you’re tracking with the analogy, notice the situation is flipped from what we might expect. He doesn’t say, “so, when someone has wronged you,” even though this is when we’re most likely to be angry, he says, “so, when you have wronged someone else.” This is backward!
It is counterintuitive, but Jesus is teaching us that working on our anger actually starts in the situations in which we’ve wronged someone else. Diffusing anger starts by learning to be forgiven, not just in learning how to forgive. When we know what it feels like to be forgiven, we start to siphon off that reservoir of anger we have inside.
Lest we think this is a quirky one-off example. The concept of being forgiven translating into forgiving others (the antithesis of anger in the Gospels) appears all over Jesus’s teaching. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus finishes the Lord’s prayer by saying, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15). In the most comprehensive passage on this topic, Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving servant, who, after receiving forgiveness for a gargantuan debt from his master, goes and shakes down somebody who owes him a tiny sum of money. When his master heard what he had done, he throws him into jail until he paid his debt (18:21-35). The lesson Jesus draws from this parable in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness runs along very similar lines; “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (18:35).
If we want to be free of anger, we must learn a similar lesson: don’t underestimate God and don’t overestimate yourself. Kingdom life is about learning to live in the right relationship with God. Though we have racked up an insurmountable debt of sin, God paid it on our behalf through the death of his Son. Now we spend our lives coming to grips with the great holiness of God, the depth of our sin, and the cost of our forgiveness. The deeper we internalize the grace of God, the more we will give grace and forgiveness to others. Who are we to hold grudges? Who are we to haggle over the tiny sums owed to us? Understanding forgiveness correctly (for a summary of biblical forgiveness, see Sam Hitchcock’s review of Tim Keller’s new book Forgive) leads to extending forgiveness to others. Learning to be forgiven leads to letting go of our anger.
There are many excellent techniques for dealing with symptoms of anger. Through counseling, support, and accountability, we can stay our anger in the short-run, but there is only one way to begin emptying ourselves of the toxic tides of anger. We must come to grips with being forgiven by God and others. We must see our own sin accurately. We must first take the log out of our own eye, and then we will be able to see and understand how to treat others (7:4-5).
When we stop underestimating God’s holiness, overestimating our own righteousness, and fix our eyes on the Savior who secured our forgiveness, then we can begin to be free from anger in our everyday lives.
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.