I’ve not thought of anger as being a significant problem in my life. I’ve known angry people—I’ve even lived with them—but I wouldn’t classify myself as an angry man. This is partly because anger hasn’t manifested itself in my life the same way I’ve seen it in others: loud and fierce shouting, kicking in locked doors, the silent treatment for weeks on end, and public shaming and ridicule. To my knowledge, I’ve not perpetrated any of these acts.
But I was shown my anger in a recurring dream, a nightmare involving a person from my past who significantly impacted my life in a negative way. In my dreams, I shouted at him at the top of my lungs. I said all the harsh words I wish I could have said years ago. In one dream, I even punched him in the face.
This is my anger: deep feelings buried well inside of me—feelings no one would know by looking at me—feelings I didn’t even know I had. As I became aware of them, my initial response was justification: I thought, “It’s right to feel this way after all I’ve been through.” But after reading Jesus’ words and thinking deeply on the topic of anger, I’ve come to question my judgement.
You see, the most profound lesson I’ve learned in preparing to talk about the topic of anger is this: anger is a measure of our morality. In their recent book, The Heart of Anger, Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley put it this way: “[I]f a being is to be moral, he must show anger at wrongdoing. Anger at evil is the necessary corollary of love for good.”1 So if you or I wish to be moral, anger will take an important place in our lives. Are we angry at the right things, and do we deal with anger appropriately when we’re off the mark? Anger is the measure of our morality.
Nevertheless, as profound as this lesson has been, it hasn’t been the most searching part of my study. That has been the wake-up call that Jesus’ teaching brought to my life. In this article, I’ll share some of that teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, which undoubtedly will challenge even the most placid of us.
Anger as the offended
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clarifies that in no way does he come to abolish the law (Matt 5:17-20). Instead, he comes to fulfil it. To demonstrate how he considers the law, Jesus presents six examples of how the righteousness required for his kingdom supersedes that of the scribes and Pharisees. I’m not sure why Jesus decides to start with anger, but I could take a guess: I suspect it’s because most of us aren’t murderers, nor would we admit to thinking murderous thoughts, genuinely wishing someone dead. But this felt distance from the issue is what makes this topic so startling to us: Jesus shows us just how near murder is:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; 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.” (Matt 5:21-26)
My understanding of Jesus’ mission, in speaking about the Law, is to show us how he leads us into a life even more righteous than external adherence to the Mosaic law. Essentially, the Lord transforms us: his Spirit writes the law upon our hearts. Therefore, kingdom righteousness is more excellent as it is not merely superficial; it deals from the heart.
Jesus’ teaching startles us because he associates an unimaginable deed with a common disposition. Reading this part of Scripture, we may think, “Murder? Not me. Anger? Um … Oh, you mean using those words? Oh, you mean treating people that way? Yes. Those words. Yes. That way.” It’s the times we’ve lashed out because we haven’t gotten what we wanted. It’s the insult we say to our colleague because they’ve frustrated our plans. It’s the names we’ve shouted in the car at the person we’re impatient with. For these things, Jesus warns us, there could be hell to pay: our anger will be “liable to judgement” and to “the hell of fire” (Matt 5:22).
We quickly look for an escape clause: “But surely not all anger is bad!” we protest. This is true: some anger is good and appropriate. But I fear we often look for justification for our actions, rather than accepting the necessary check to our hearts. Anger is good when it’s concerned with the things of God—when we are frustrated about the things God cares about and when our anger is driven by something beyond ourselves. For example, it is right to be angry at an adult who abuses children. This is an injustice, where violence is being done to the vulnerable. But too often, our anger has ourselves as our reference point: it is a reaction to what we feel has been attacked—our rights, our plans, our preferences and our priorities. When I feel offended, I get angry. For example, I might get angry because my family now needs me to run an important extra errand when I had planned to play golf. This anger is far from righteous.
Anger as the offender
Interestingly, Jesus covers anger from two sides: in his original warning, he tells us not to act in anger, especially in our words. But in the two following scenarios, he cautions us as the ones who offend others. In being both the offended and the offender, we are meant to see anger as a soul-threatening problem.
As offenders, Jesus challenges us about our anger in these two scenarios. Firstly, he points out that our anger affects our worship of God: if we’ve caused a fellow believer to be angry, it isn’t a matter of indifference; reconciliation with them is so important, it should take precedence even during religious practice:
“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.” (Matt 5:23-24)
This is not to say that worship of God is unimportant; instead, it stresses how vital reconciliation with our brothers and sisters is to our worship. The Apostle John tells us,
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21)
The point Jesus stresses—and the point that John picks up later—is that we can’t rightly worship God while we have strife with one another in the church. Anger must be settled.
Secondly, Jesus calls on us to pursue urgent reconciliation. In a court trial, if reconciliation doesn’t happen before the trial begins, the result is often imprisonment:
“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.” (Matt 5:25-26)
However, this call to reconciliation can seem difficult for us. What does it mean and how does it take place? The steps of how we should proceed are not spelled out for us, but I suspect the principle Jesus taught leads us to understand what to do. Let me explain.
We are unrighteous in our anger when it issues from personal protections. We may be angry because of hurts or fears, because of a loss of control, or because of not getting what we wanted. But in all these things, the point of our anger is about avenging ourselves and settling a personal score. In short, we are the focus.
In contrast, in the kingdom, citizenship requires the loss of our lives. It requires a laying down of our rights. This is not because we don’t care about life, but because we have hope beyond this life. So rather than demanding immediate justice, we wait for ultimate justice. Rather than seeking personal benefit, as if this life were all we had, we give up anything and everything in expectation of the life to come.
So as kingdom citizens in gospel faith, we forgive as we’ve been forgiven. When we’ve offended another, we claim responsibility. We don’t need to fight to be right or to protect our reputation. Instead, we can admit faults and failures, demonstrate repentance, and seek renewed relationships from a place of security in Christ.
Without the gospel, we fight for things we feel we need from a place of deep insecurity and fear. But in Christ, we’ve received God’s perfect love, which casts out fear and enables us to get rid of our anger.
Our anger and what to do with it
I’ve realised that anger lurks inside of me and is easily justified by me in my self-righteousness. But this exposes my immorality. All anger isn’t bad, but anger for the wrong reason is. My anger has arisen from a personal vantage point, rather than a theological one: I’ve been more concerned about the offences against me than the sins against God. Anger is a measure of our morality: if I were genuinely moral, my anger would be appropriately directed towards the wrongs done to God. If I were genuinely moral, I would repent of the anger caused by my feelings of personal offence and entitlement. Furthermore, in repentance, I would pursue reconciliation.
As I think about the dream that exposed my concealed anger, I realise I must deal with anger as a disciple of Christ. How does the gospel impact these feelings? If or when you face anger as I do, you can begin by asking yourself if your anger is over the offence to God or over your own frustrations. If it is over the things of God, your anger may be justified. This may lead you to a particular course of action, seeking some form of justice for the vulnerable or discipline for the offender. But there may not be a suitable course of action now. You may need to wait for the final judgement. In your waiting and in your anger, take heart that the Lord himself will bring justice and will right every wrong.
But if you happen to find that your anger is really about you, then repent. Turn from your anger and ask the Lord to change your heart by giving you a concern for kingdom things and the peace that comes from knowing Christ. Recognise that your repentance and your pursuit of reconciliation is deeply important to your spiritual well-being. It is urgent work.
Anger is the measure of our morality. Are you being genuinely moral?
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley, The Heart of Anger: How the Bible Transforms Anger in Our Understanding and Experience (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 97.