We live in an angry world. Many within and outside the church are angry. If we were to ask them why they could often offer reasonable answers. Much that is should never be; and much that ought to be never is. Both are angering. But to live in anger, to embrace our anger, to become angry persons can never be an option for followers of Jesus. If for no other reason because Jesus was not an angry person. His way is not the way of anger.
Instead, Jesus teaches them and us another way to respond to the people and the circumstances that can make them/us angry people. Consider the clear teaching that Jesus gave throughout his ministry. Clearly and without compromise these teachings reflect an anger-free life. Take the “Sermon on the Mount,” (Matt. 5-7). Space permits only a quick sampling, but sufficient to make the point. The sermon begins with a series of “blessings,” which identify persons Jesus calls blessed for reasons he then cites (5:3-12). All the reasons have to do with participation in the already present but also coming Kingdom of God. Either they belong to the Kingdom (vv. 3, 10) or will benefit fully or finally from belonging (vv. 3-9). In one blessing Jesus asserts that “peace-makers” will be called children of God (v. 9)—which sounds a lot like “final salvation language.” In another, Jesus insists that persecution for Jesus’ name is reason for gladness and joy (v. 12). Angry people are not likely to make peace, nor are they capable of joyful responses when provoked by aggression from others. I conclude: The blessings of the Kingdom do not come to people who are angry.
Jesus declares that the blessed, in these ways, are the salt and light of the world and then commands: Let your light shine so others will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (5:13-16). This is not possible if would-be light-bearers are angry people.
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, you shall not murder (5:21), but I say … harboring anger in your heart” is lethal, to soul, to relationships, and to any serious claim to be disciples.
(Why do we move so easily over anger, and camp so persistently on sexual lust?)
Jesus said, “You have heard … eye for eye and tooth for tooth … but I say when slapped on the right cheek, when sued for the shirt off your back, when your day is hijacked by occupation forces demanding you carry their gear … “ (5:38 ff.)—these are all entirely, understandably enraging impositions that no one should have to put up with, but which were common in the day. In every case, what Jesus calls to be normative responses preclude anger.
Jesus said: “You have heard it said, love your neighbor but hate your enemy, but I say … love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.” He calls his followers to be better than pagans whose angry rants and rampages are legendary. In fact, be wholly given to love (5:43-48).
I know there are interpretive issues here by the bucket full, but it’s not necessary to deal with them unless you believe that as followers of Jesus we may totally disregard what Jesus clearly and consistently says about anger and angry responses! The point I am making is: the grace of Jesus that brings God’s Kingdom our way, and equips us as citizens, is not compatible with an embrace of anger and rage.
Now, nobody questions that Jesus practiced what he preached. For only one example: He rebuked the anger of retaliation erupting from James and John (“the sons of thunder”) over a Samaritan village that refused to welcome them (Luke 9:51-56). (Then, of course, there was his patient endurance of his final week.) And nobody should question whether his followers got the message. They did. Whether Peter (1 Pet. 2:21-25; 3:8-9, 11; 2 Pet. 1:5-7), John (John 13-17; 1 John 3-4), Paul (Rom. 12:1-21; 1 Cor. 13), or James (James 1:20), we have clear, consistent calls to love, not to respond in kind, or return evil for evil, but to respond with blessing and good.
This is what Jesus taught and did. This is how his first followers understood and committed to live. It is what he calls us to. It is what a people who would be holy and who would love God and others do. Disciples and disciple-makers cannot be angry people.
All of this doesn’t mean being wishy washy. You can refuse to drink poison and prevent others from doing so, without ranting and railing against the nature of poison, the foolishness of those who take it, how bad it will make you feel before it then kills you, and what ugly containers the poison comes in.
Instead, you can refuse to drink poison, and you can tell why you are refusing. It is not because you are angry, but because you love God and others, you want as many as possible to have the life God intends for them and thus want others to avoid ruin.
Refusing to be angry people doesn’t make us “soft on sin.” Or indulgent. People of faith often worry about being “soft on sin” and thereby offending God. Yet, God never called his people to be “hard” on sin. He calls his people to forsake sin, to have nothing to do with it. No amount of denunciation of sin can substitute for our actual forsaking of sin that otherwise captivates us.
Usually the people who worry about being “soft on sin” seldom worry about being hard on sinners and thereby pushing them deeper into their sin away from God. Yet, God doesn’t call us to be “hard” on sinners but to love them.
Refusing to be angry doesn’t make you compromise righteous standards. You can recognize right from wrong, and good from evil without having a fit or flying into a rage. You can appreciate good happening without having to fume over the evil still “out there.”
In fact, being free from anger honors God, reflects Jesus, and syncs up with love’s ongoing pursuit of people who need what only Jesus offers. In fact, our anger mostly distracts us or sidetracks us, or sabotages us, from what God calls us to be and do. No wonder James declares: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness of God,” (Ja. 1:20).
But didn’t Jesus become angry? To be sure. He was human and so there was anger. But anger did not manifest and drive Jesus the way it commonly does most of us. Jesus’ anger did not express selfish insistence on having his own way; nor frustration when things didn’t go his way; nor a reflex reaction when offended or rejected; nor retaliation against his offenders. Jesus harbored no grievance or brokenness that seethed beneath the surface until it erupted. Anger works in all these ways for many people. But not for Jesus. Note major examples of Jesus’ anger.
- Jesus was angry when his disciples sent parents away who were bringing their children to him (Mark 3:13-16).
- Jesus was angry at the grave of his friend Lazarus when he saw the devastation and painful separation brought by death (John 11:1-44, especially v. 33 and 38).
- Jesus was angry when the women bent-over for 18 years, was less important than the leader’s oxen and donkeys. The animals could be led to water without breaking Sabbath, but a daughter of Abraham could not be led to wellness (Luke 13:10-17).
- Jesus was angry when certain hard hearted Pharisees could not see the good in healing the man with a withered hand and worse, judged the act of healing as a breach of Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).
- Jesus was angry when some sinners shamed other sinners as though God the Father does not see them all, and as though the privileged position of some gives them a pass that others do not have (Matthew 23, for example).
- Jesus was angry when even his own disciples didn’t get it and unintentionally took the side of the Satan against the self-sacrificing, loving way Jesus came to walk (Mark 8:31-33).
- Jesus was angry, yes, when those charged with building a house of prayer for the nations had built a very different kind of house (Matthew 21:12-17).
Jesus experienced anger, but was its Master, never its slave. Indeed, Jesus was its Master in the same way he was the Master of all. He was willing to stoop so low as to catch the brunt of the anger, all of it, absorb it, defang it, and recycle its energy toward redemptive ends.
Again, Jesus not only describes life as free from being angry, he lived such a life and died for it. He dies for it to end it. He took the anger with him to the grave, and then left it there when he rose up to re-create the world, and human being and community in the world, in a way that renders those angers unnecessary.
Therefore, in this anger-filled world of ours, with so much that can just make us mad, and often does, here is the appeal of our Lord:
- Lay your angers down along with the grip anger has on you, however it grips you—lay it down, nail it down, and let it die.
- Receive the powers of the resurrection and new creation by the Spirit of God.
- Yes, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus filled with love.
- Let communities of fellow followers of Jesus encourage and support us all in cultivating the presence and practice of love in our hearts and then in discerning how to act and walk in love, in relation to one another and then in relation to the others who are around us.
- Just as Jesus did.
This appeal is not to say that any of this is easy. But it is to say that all of it flows out of an earnest following after Jesus—the Jesus who called us to deny the self-life, take up “the cross,” and to follow him. When he issued that call it was not clear all that it would mean. But over time, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection and with the gift of the Spirit, it became clearer. All the apostolic writers have ways of expressing it, but none so vividly and powerfully as the Apostle Paul.
Again and again, he urges both the possibility and the necessity of so identifying with Jesus that we enter into his death, the death of our former lives dominated by selfish self-orientation, in order to enter into his life as the Risen Lord of all—empowering us to walk in newness of life. This newness of life is to live with the-God-who-is-love at the center of our lives, to live in a way dominated and decisively shaped by the love Jesus showed in his ministry and above all in his cross. In fact, the gift of the Spirit and the Spirit’s fullness breathes such a life into us, and empowers us to walk in the Spirit, to keep in step with the Spirit, and to bear the fruit of the Spirit (see Romans 6:1-11; 12:1-2, 3-21; Gal. 2:20; 5:16-25; Eph. 4:17-5:2; Col. 3:1-17; more generally, 1 Cor. 13; 2 Cor. 5:14-21).
Followers of Jesus who live in an angry and angering world are the very people equipped to show Jesus’ alternate way—the way, the truth, and the life. They are the ones who take the angering circumstances and conditions of our world, the injustices and iniquities, and submit them to the Lord of all who can cleanse the selfishness and sinfulness of our natural responses and recycle the energy into redemptive strategy, action and response.