Last week we began this series on The Good Life looking at the start of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, or blessings of Jesus. We considered that Jesus started the sermon with the blessing, or benediction, so that we understand that his teachings are not a test we have to pass to receive God’s blessing. We begin with the blessing. It raises a good thought on the difference from living from a feeling of being blessed versus having to earn our blessing? Is life not fraught with a lot more tension and anxiety when we have to earn our blessing? And how does that affect the way we treat others? Do others deserve the blessings they have? Are they working as hard as we are? Such a disposition can make us resentful and critical. No wonder one of the first matters Jesus addresses in the sermon is anger.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” This begins a section of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Antitheses. Jesus quotes a part of the Torah and then reinterprets it. Now understand, Jesus has clearly said he did not come to abolish the law. He isn’t changing it. He’s radicalizing it.
The word radical comes from the Latin word radix meaning root. Jesus wants to get at the root of the problem. He’s not interested in what’s known as casuistry. That means solving a moral problem with a law. There’s too much violence and killing so make a law that says “thou shall not kill.” That will take care of the problem right? Consider that Indianapolis just had our highest number of homicides last year. Was that because we don’t have enough laws?
No, Jesus understands many of the problems in our world are not solved by more rules. We must get to the root of our problems. We must get to the heart. And a significant problem in our world is anger.
The Washington Post recently said we are living in an anger incubator right now. People are dealing with anger provoked by the coronavirus. They are angry at officials for shutdowns. Angry that more was not done to curb the spread. Angry about vaccine distributions. Angry about wearing masks. Angry at those who don’t wear them. In 2020 there were 108 incidences of rage on airplanes and 900 banned from flights because they wouldn’t wear a mask.
There’s been anger toward Asian Americans related to the emphasis of China being the source of the coronavirus. New York City police reported in 2020 a 1900% increase in hate crimes toward Asian Americans. There have been a number of deaths resulting from attacks.
On the highways what would you say is the leading cause of accidents? It’s road rage. And by the way who is more prone to road rage, men or women? I’m not even going to answer. Polls show a sharp rise this year in Americans who say they have felt anger on a daily basis.
You have to admit, it’s hard for life to be good when we live with this much anger. Even if you are not prone to anger yourself, we all have to be so sensitive to the ways others around us can explode any moment.
Some years ago I was in a video story picking out a movie. That tells you how long ago this was. Anyway, I heard a voice behind me say, “Would you get out of the way?” I figured it was someone from my church having fun with me. So I turned around, I didn’t recognize the person, but still figured it was someone who knew me. I said, “I might eventually.” He got red in the face and said, “Well your blocking other people. Quit being so rude!” And I realized, “This guy isn’t joking.” Sooo, I pulled out my pocket New Testament and said, “Have you ever read the words of Jesus in Matthew?” I think you know better than that. I just stepped out of his way.
When Jesus says “do not be angry” he is addressing one of the greatest threats to our public health today. What makes this particular issue confusing is how it seems Jesus struggled to practice what he preached. He said if you call someone a fool you will be in danger of the fire of hell. Yet Jesus told lots of stories calling people fools: he will talk about a foolish builder before the end of the parable! The foolish bridesmaids, the man who was fool because all he did was build big barns. He talked about not being rude to others yet he called religious leaders of his day snakes and hypocrites. He said don’t get angry yet he drove money changers out of the temple with a whip!
If Jesus calls us to live by a standard he has trouble following, what hope do the rest of us have?
This is where we get in trouble when we interpret scripture too narrowly. In Jesus’ life he demonstrates the different types of anger we have. Anger is a God-given emotion. It is meant to serve a good purpose. Anger is what prevents us from just accepting things we shouldn’t. Some things should makes us angry: people being abused, systems that put some at disadvantages; people who disregard the needs of others because of self-consumption. This we could call righteous anger, anger that is not really about us, but about the rights and welfare of others and our world.
But there is another kind of anger, an anger that is about us, that happens when we are offended, or we don’t get our way, or we are being prevented from getting what we want. This is the anger that can turn inward, that if not dealt with becomes corrosive to anything good in life. This is the anger Jesus talks about in Matthew 5.
So let’s look at these verses and consider what they teach us about How to Live Not Be Ruled by Anger.
Look at how the passage begins, “If you enter your place of worship and…suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you…” Notice two things about this sentence—two things Jesus does not say. He doesn’t Jesus say, “If you’re working outside and there you remember? If you’re washing the dishes and there you remember? If you’re going the road and there you remember?” Why the altar? Because there is something unique that happens when we come before God. When we allow ourselves to be still in God’s presence, then we’re on a different agenda. We aren’t pursuing our goals or what we want to accomplish. We allow ourselves to be spoken to. And often God will help us hear things we otherwise don’t.
We have an outdoor shed in our backyard where the lawnmower is and other tools. I was out there the other day looking for something. It was so quiet. Of course, being winter it would be, no lawn mowers or equipment running. So in the quietness I heard the sound of claws scratching wood and I knew there was a critter in the shed with me. And while I didn’t tend to it then, I know, I have a critter to get out at some point.
That happens often when I am quiet before God. I become aware of the critters in my soul. The things that need to be removed. When it comes to anger this makes many Christians uncomfortable, because we believe anger is bad and therefore a Christian is supposed to be angry. So we say, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.” “I’m not angry, I’m hurt.” “I’m frustrated.”
Several years ago when Dave Williamson was on staff he preached a sermon in which he shared very vulnerably about how he had gone through this period in which he knew something was right inside of him, and he discovered he was hiding some anger. He was angry about some things. And said he had to admit, and said pretty forcefully, “I’m angry.”
That week I got a letter from someone in the church very disappointed by that message, saying it was terribly uncomfortable, wondering how it would sound in the community if word got our a pastor of our church was struggling with anger? I thought, “Well, I hope it sounds like good leadership, because it displays a very healthy way for dealing with anger.”
The first step in not being ruled by anger is to admit it. Otherwise anger will find a way out. It will either explode or implode. It would be an outburst, or erode us from within, but it will find a way out. When we can say without screaming, without denying, “I am angry,” we are then able to face it and begin moving past it.
Anger must be exposed. If you enter your place of worship. That might mean church. It could also be a place where you pray in your home. It might be an area in your yard or a quiet area at your workplace, some place you can just be still before God. There you might remember. The step in not being ruled by anger is to Allow God to Point It Out.
Then the second thing to notice about this sentence: “If you enter your place of worship and suddenly remember a grudge a friend has.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say a grudge you have. It would be hard to remember a grudge someone else has if you are focused on your own grudges. If we are consumed with how others have wronged us, we will look like an old Three Stooges episode where Curly keeps getting hit in the chest by Moe. He can’t stand it anymore. Finally he straps dynamite to his chest, puts on his shirt, and says, “I’ll show him!”
Anger is self-destructive. Part of the way of we release anger is to focus on what others are going through. Let’s imagine you are scammed by a business partner, someone you trusted. They took from you and hurt you deeply. You have a right to be angry. But you have now exhausted all measures of being able to get your money back. There’s nothing more you can do. But it’s hard to move on. You start obsessing over what that person deserves, and you even start delighting in imagining that person getting what’s coming to him or her. Its all you talk about. Its starting to affect your relationships at home and with friends. Others are trying to say to you, “It’s time to move on,” but your response is, “You people just don’t care!” Anger is becoming corrosive.
What would help is to help others who are victims. Help others who are hurting. Serve in places where you can help them. Listen to their stories. Spend time praying for people who going through tough times. One thing that usually happens is that it puts our wounds in perspective. It begins to make us feel like, “That person’s problems are so much greater.”
And the other thing that usually happens is we begin to understand that no one is born to hurt. We begin to see our offender as a human being. Someone who probably has lived by a narrative that told them wronging others is okay. And eventually we may even find ourselves in a place where we can forgive them. In our own hearts at least, we can release them.
So along with Allowing God to point out our anger is Turning Our Attention to Others.
Then notice how Jesus continues this teaching: “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…go and be reconciled to them, then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.” Now, who is the disciple in both of these examples? The defendant. Someone another person has a grievance toward; someone who has been accused. Jesus says, “You go, you settle matters.” You take responsibility. You act. You may have been victimized but you don’t have to have a victim mentality.
Jesus is saying, you have the power to act. You have some control. Sometimes when we are angry we feel as if we have no control. We can’t control ourselves. But just think about it for a moment. Let me describe something and honestly ask yourself if you have ever done this.
You’re at home and get into an argument with your kids or spouse. The argument flares up into a good old-fashioned fight. Nothing physical, but voices are raised and you’re losing control and about to say things you regret, when the phone rings. You answer, and suddenly you just became a new you. You answer in the sweetest voice, “Hello.” You’re calm. Your demeanor is changed. And it happened instantly. Have any of you ever done that?
I believe Jesus gives us more credit than we give ourselves. You have control. So use it. You go. You settle. Because it comes down to this: do you want a good life or do you want a fair life. If you want things to be fair, you are probably going to spend a lot time angry. And life will be fair, just in a different way. When you’re asked, “How’s life going?” You’ll say, “Fair.” Finding ways not to be ruled by anger leads to a good life.
So a third step is to Exercise the Control We Have.
Then the last verse I want to point out is not from our reading in Matthew but Romans 8:11. This is one of the most important truths in the New Testament. “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.”
That is a verse worth taping to your computer and coffee maker, some place where you will see it everyday. The power that brough Jesus back from the dead, the power that allowed Jesus to live as he did, lives in you! You not have control and ability, you have God’s Spirit to help you live a life that is not ruled by anger.
So we talked about some of the anger Jesus showed in his earthly ministry, but remember this. He was wrongly accused. He was arrested and beaten for it. He was tortured and crucified. And as if that’s not bad enough, he had to endure while dying the taunts and verbal abuse from his accusers saying things like, “He saved others, let him save himself.” They made fun of him. How would you have responded? It would have been hard for me not to let my last breath be spent spewing out foul things at them. But what does Jesus do? He prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He displays extra-human ability. Yet the Bible says that same power is in you!
So what we ultimately need is to Let God Replace our Pain with Jesus’ Power to Love. That’s ultimately what we need. It’s not getting other people to act right. They’re not going to. It’s not getting God to make things go our way in life. Life is about more than getting our way. Jesus wants to get at the root of our problem, and that is an ability to love no matter what. Jesus wants to give his love and peace. Jesus wants to replace whatever might be at the source of anger in your life with his Spirit that can give us joy even when things don’t go our way.
Prayer: O God, some of us today are dealing with a lot of anger. Some of it comes out. But some of us hold it inside. And we need to release this. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to change things that should be changed. There are many things in our world we should be angry about, but you don’t want our anger to destroy us in the process. Lord, today we all need you to come into our hearts and give us your Spirit to live with love and peace. Give us your Spirit that can face challenges and love anyway. Take away any unhelpful anger within us, replace it with you love, so we can enjoy this life you have given us. In Jesus name, Amen.