“Be angry, and do not sin” – Ephesians 4:26a
I don’t know about you, but recent developments in our world have riled me up. Reading the news or watching it on TV or online in some form, has percolated an anger in me. Is that right? Is that wrong? Can a Christian be angry?
The recent legislation and celebration in various states of making it legal to murder a baby up to birth, has revved my spiritual pulse to the red line. I really saw red when the governor of Virginia spoke of deliberating about whether or not a baby just born, should be allowed to live or be left to die. When I see the flooding of our local communities, state, nation, the world with immorality, injustices, persecution of Christians, ill-informed world views, propaganda instead of education, fake news instead of real true news, well, my temperature rises. When I see children exploited in viciously victimizing ways, I’m ready to explode. And so, when a local Bible College where I teach asked me to speak on “Anger” from a passage in the Sermon on the Mount, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Sermon on the Mount is arguably Jesus’ best-known sermon. It is a sermon that strikes at the heart of humanity. What distinguished it from what religious leaders of His day were teaching was that it transcended mere outward legalism and called for a deeper, inner heart response from people. Jesus made this distinction by saying:
- Matthew 5:20 – “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This verse is the key to the Sermon on the Mount. This verse separates the spiritual from the sanctimonious, the word of God in the Spirit from the legalistically human interpretation of it. It distinguishes working toward God from having a relationship with Him. What Jesus taught went beyond law and human tradition. Jesus taught relationship.
Jesus was dealing with a major issue and problem. The Pharisees were top of the line religious people. If you wanted to know what a religious person was like, all you had to do was look at a Pharisees.
I remember Pastor Chuck Smith saying, “If you strive to gain, you will have to strive to maintain.” He would say that to contrast ministry and Christian life attempted in one’s own strength, versus relying on and following the Holy Spirit. Success and victory in the Christian life and ministry are determined to a great extent by whether or not you strive or surrender. The Apostle Paul was inspired to write, “So neither hew who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Ministry and Christian life are all about surrendering, fully surrendering to the Holy Spirit.
Pharisees were strivers. Pharisees strained in their attempts to keep the Law; all 613 of them. When they inevitably failed, (e.g. Romans 2-3), they would manipulate, and excuse, and try to rewrite their life narrative to excuse their failings. They were all show. The effort they may have begun with all their heart, because of the failings of self effort, led to discouragement, which led to a callousness and eventual hardening of their heart.
By the time Jesus came those who were supposed to be the religious leaders of Israel, had to be confronted by the Holy One of Israel, Jesus. The Pharisees were all outward and what was on the inside was dead. Later in His ministry, Jesus confronted them saying:
- Matthew 23:25-28 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.26 “Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.28 “Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Jesus didn’t come to make Pharisees, He came to make disciples.
Jesus came to provide a way not only to change our heart, but to exchange our calloused, hard hearts of stone and replace them with a spongey, living, beating, passionate heart that was teachable and that would soak up His word.
That’s what Jesus meant when He spoke of exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees. What Jesus taught exceeded (“exceeds” – Greek perisseuo – over above, abound, super-abound, excel, exceed, much more than) the outward religion taught by the Pharisees.
There’s no better indicator of the condition of our heart than the way we respond or react to the circumstances of our lives. When we respond in the control of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23), it indicates our hearts are fully surrendered to God and His will. When we react with rage, it indicates we have not relinquished the throne of our heart to the Lord; we’re still hanging on the reigns; still holding on to the driver’s wheel; still trying to call the shots; still trying to live by self-rule rather than Spirit-rule.
In His Sermon, Jesus spoke of anger because He knew anger was a gigantic indicator of the condition of a person’s heart. Jesus taught:
- Matthew 5:21-26 – “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’22 “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.23 “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,24 “leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.25 “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.26 “Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”
That Jesus devoted a significant amount of space to this issue of anger. It’s important we understand what He and the Bible say about this issue.
Anger is a God-given Emotion/Feeling
Anger is an emotion. It is a God-given emotion. An emotion is a feeling about something. Feelings can be very fickle. Feelings are not always attached to facts. We can wake up feeling happy. We can wake up feeling sad. We can wake up in love with the world. Or we can wake up mad at the world.
It’s important we keep our emotions and feelings under control. It is possible to control our feelings. The Bible says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We might apply that here as “We should walk by faith, not by mere feelings.” There’s a principle for controlling emotions and feelings contained in this verse. Feelings follow acts of faith. To illustrate we might say, “Faith is the engine, feelings the caboose, Feelings follow acts of faith.” Our feelings can be formidable. Our feelings can derail us. If we are to win the war against feelings that beset us, we must choose to walk by faith.
God gives us many things. How we use and apply them determines whether or not we use them for holy or unholy purposes. Both the Old and New Testament indicates it is possible to “Be angry, and do not sin” (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26). But don’t miss the emphasis in those verses. It states, “BE angry.” There is a place for us to “be angry.” There is a time when anger is called for. Anger can be volatile. It is not always the appropriate response. Misusing it can result in sin. That’s why “be angry,” is coupled with the precaution, “and do not sin.” Holy anger can be explosive. It needs to be handled with care. I have a friend who oversees a bomb squad. When he or his men are called upon to deal with a bomb, they take very important precautions. They put on protective gear and they use tools to guard injury to themselves and others. We too must take precautions with anger. We don’t want our anger to be unholy. But holy anger is a powerful emotional driving force to help us do what God calls us to do. Unholy anger can be a destructive emotional dark force that destroys what God is trying to do. Let’s look at the distinguishing characteristics of these two types of anger.
Jesus unpacks unholy anger for us in His Sermon here. He addresses the issue of anger by using the example of murder (Matthew 5:21). Unholy anger taken to its logical conclusion results in murder. “Of old” the issue of anger and murder were legally dealt with by God (e.g. Noah in Genesis 9:5-6; The Sixth Commandment – Exodus 20:13). The religious Pharisee felt that as long as they didn’t actually murder somebody, that they were fulfilling the law of God (5:21). Jesus said that wasn’t enough for a disciple.
Jesus sought to draw people deeper than merely not murdering someone. Jesus aimed at the heart. That’s why Jesus goes on to speak of being “angry.”
First, unholy anger is out of control; rage (Matthew 5:21-22a). The word “angry” here is translated from the Greek term orgidzo which means to become exasperated, wrathful, rage. It’s the same word used by James the half-brother of Jesus when he was inspired to write, “for the wrath [orge] of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). The anger Jesus is speaking of hear is anger out of control.
Second, unholy anger lacks justification (Matthew 5:22b). Jesus spoke of bring angry, “without a cause.” If you do a little digging, you’ll see in the margin of your Bible that older manuscripts do not include this phrase. Whether or not this phrase was from Jesus or inserted at a later date, it is still relevant. As we mentioned above, it is possible to be angry and not sin. Unholy anger has no justifiable basis. Unholy anger is selfish; self-promoting; self-centered; self-serving. I say this based on the list of the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21) given by Paul in Galatians where he mentions the sister sins of “hatred” (Greek echthra – enmity, hatred) and “outbursts of wrath” (Greek thymos – fierceness, wrath, indignation, angry passion). Unholy anger lacks the basis of the truth of God’s word, His righteousness, His holy purposes.
Keep in mind here that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our flesh will try to justify our anger by seeing a “cause” for it when there really is not righteous cause. Beware of the lies and rationalizations of your flesh. Keep in mind the person who is angry “without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” Not a good situation to be in.
Third, unholy anger sees the object of its wrath is being “Raca!” or worthless (Matthew 5:22c and d). Jesus goes on to say, “And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council.” The council” refers to the Sanhedrin who oversaw and heard civil as well as religious disputes. The seriousness of unholy anger is seen in its potential consequence. Jesus added, “But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” “Fool” (Greek moros) means dull, stupid, blockheaded, heedless. The word “moron” is derived from this word. Notice both the words “Raca!” and “fool!” have exclamation points to them. These ar words shouted or expressed in the unholy heat of raging anger.
The unholiness of this anger is seen in the words “Raca.” “Raca” is a transliteration of the Aramaic word from Greek to English. It’s actually an onomatopoeia, it sounds like its meaning. “Raca!” is a kind of growling, raging, venomous word that targets someone or something as worthless or empty. Unholy anger reduces a person to worthlessness. It is blind to a person’s value in God’s eyes. It fails to see the image of God in the personal object of your rage. It forgets that Jesus died for that person. But there’s something worse about such anger.
This kind of anger can be best described with the acronym RACA – Rage Against Christ And… When we are selfishly angry in an unholy way, we are really raging at Jesus Who saw fit to allow such circumstances in our lives. Unholy anger in reality rages against Jesus and whatever He has deemed necessary to enter your life. Unholy anger selfishly feels slighted. Unholy anger is rooted in a feeling of being intruded upon. Unholy anger feels as though they have been treated unfairly, unjustly, even though there is no scriptural or Holy Spirit provided for feeling that way. Jesus is Lord. Jesus said that those who follow Him must deny themselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Denying self, and taking up the cross are two very uncomfortable things to do. Your self doesn’t go down easy. Your self will kick and scream when you try to deny it. It will shout and scream when you try to deny it. The cross is an object of pain and suffering. Jesus came to take up the cross for us; that was His purpose in life (e.g. Matthew 18:11; Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10). Our cross, is God’s purpose for us in life. Unholy anger gets us all riled and lathered up and causes us to lose sight of Jesus’ calling on us. Unholy anger causes us to forget that Jesus is in control. It causes us to forget Jesus’ words “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). Therefore, unholy anger expresses not only our discomfort with someone or some situation, it expresses a rebellion, a dissatisfaction with life circumstances that are a part of God’s plan for us; are part of what Jesus has allowed to happen to us. Unholy anger is really raging against Jesus for letting discomfort into our lives by way of circumstance or human agent. Unholy anger judges its circumstances to be worthless. Unholy anger is a statement that what Jesus sees as fit and necessary in our lives is wrong. Unholy anger is a statement against Sovereign Lord Jesus. This is what is at the root of why such anger or rage is unholy; it is a rebellion against Jesus.
To see anger in its holy form we need only look to Jesus. That Jesus was angry on occasion tells us that it is possible to be angry and yet not be sinful. What does holy anger look like?
First holy anger seeks to rectify an abuse of God’s property and purposes (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47; John 2:13-16). Later in Matthew Jesus went to the temple of God and “drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple.” It says He, “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” These were merchandizers who would take advantage of pilgrims coming to worship at the Temple. There was a scam in place that the Temple priests would judge any animal brought by pilgrims to sacrifice as not being “clean” or suited for sacrifice. Then the pilgrims would have to go first go to the moneychangers to exchange their secular money for Temple money (at an exorbitant exchange rate) so that they could then go to those who sold sacrificial animals (at an exorbitant cost). Jesus went into the Temple and turned over their tables ousting them out of His Father’s House. Mark tells us the religious leaders didn’t appreciate this because they were in on the take too (Mark 11:18a).
Second, holy anger is based justly on the truth of God’s word. When Jesus, in holy anger, cleansed the Temple, He was able to point directly to the truth of scripture saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Matthew 21:13; Isaiah 56:7; Jeremiah 7:11). When brought before Pilot Jesus said, “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37). If God’s purpose for us is to be conformed to the likeness of His Son Jesus (Romans 8:29), to follow His steps (1 Peter 2:21), and walk as He walked (1 John 2:6), then we too should “bear witness to the truth.” That truth is found in the word of God. That truth is what sets us apart from the lost world (John 17:17). Holy anger will help us stand and contend for God’s truth in this fallen world (e.g. Jude 3-4).
Third, holy anger does not mince words; being politically correct is not a priority. While we are to always speak God’s truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), And we should not be belligerent, harsh, or vulgar, that doesn’t necessarily mean we will be politically correct. Here are some excerpts of some words Jesus had for the objects of His holy anger:
- Matthew 7:6 (NKJV) – 6 “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.
- Matthew 12:34 (NKJV) – 34 Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
- Matthew 23:13–16 (NKJV) – 13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. 15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’
- Matthew 23:33 (NKJV) – 33 Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?
- Luke 13:32 (NKJV) – 32 And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’
- John 8:43–47 (NKJV) – 43 Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
Fourth, holy anger hates evil. Jesus instructed His disciples to pray that God would deliver them from “the evil one,” or Satan (Matthew 6:13; John 17:15). Jesus said the heart of people brings forth evil (Matthew 9:4; 12:35; 15:19; 24:48; Mark 7:21-23; Luke 6:45). He said men’s deeds are evil (John 3:19-20; 5:29; 7:7). Elsewhere in the Bible we are instructed to “hate evil”:
- Psalm 97:10 (NKJV) – You who love the Lord, hate evil! He preserves the souls of His saints; He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked.
- Proverbs 8:13 (NKJV) – The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate.
- Amos 5:15 (NKJV) – Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate. It may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
It’s not a stretch to say that if we are instructed in the Old Testament to “hate evil,” and Jesus in the New Testament tells us to pray for deliverance from evil and denounces the evil practices of people, that holy anger should “hate evil.” Holy Anger is the holy driving emotion to resist and destroy evil.
When we seek to be Christlike and have any anger in us be of the holy variety, we need to keep Jesus in mind as well as His gospel and New Testament words. We need to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. And that is especially true when speaking of holy anger.
Handling Unholy Anger
What do you do if you fall into unholy anger? Jesus tells us very clearly.
First, make dealing with unholy anger and its carnage a priority (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus said, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” If you have acting sinfully in unholy anger, make it a priority to go to the person you’ve sinned against and reconcile with them.
What if a person refuses to be reconciled with me? What if you go and try to be reconciled to your brother or sister, and they refuse to reconcile with you? If you have made a good faith effort, you are freed from obligation. The Bible says this will be characteristic of the Last Days mentality of people. Paul was inspired to write:
- 2 Timothy 3:1-5 – “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come:2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!”
The priority is that there is forgiveness in your heart. You can only affect your own heart by confession and repentance, you cannot cause another person to confess and repent of their sin. In Romans it clarifies this by saying:
- Romans 12:17-21 – “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.20 Therefore 1 “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The phrase, “as much as depends on you,” implies that we need to make every effort to reconcile with others. It’s a hard and difficult thing when we desire to be reconciled and make every effort to do so, but our efforts fall on deaf ears and hard hearts. AS long as we make every effort as the Holy Spirit leads, then we have done what is necessary.
In Romans 12 it tells us that we should not strike out in frustration when others refuse reconciliation but entrust them to God and “overcome evil with good.” Reconciliation is a work of God in the heart.
Second, deal with the imprisoning effects of unholy anger (Matthew 5:25-26). Jesus said, “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” We should not only make dealing with the sinful effects of unholy anger a priority, but we should waste no time in dealing with it. The danger of procrastinating with those you’ve offended is that they could drag you into court. But worse, Jesus words are not talking only about paying civil legal costs, there is a broader imprisoning principle here. When you allow the sinful affects of unholy anger to remain a loose end, you risk the enslaving effect of guilt and the guile of the enemy who will use it to beat, distract and hinder your Christian life and ministry. If the Holy Spirit has brought something to your attention concerning unholy anger or some other sin issue, deal with it as soon as you are aware of it. This will nip the potential problem in the bud and have a better chance of keeping the consequences to a minimum.
Ambrose Bierce, American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War Veteran, is noted to have said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” That may be true of unholy anger, but there is a time for holy anger.
Martin Luther, one of the key figures in the Protestant Reformation, was noted as saying, “I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; for when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.” Holy anger can help us accomplish great things, hard things, that God calls us to do.
Henry Ward Beecher the 19th century preacher and abolitionist and one who emphasized the love of God said, “A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good.” There are many injustices in our fallen sinful world. We are called to, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4). The Lord hates, “hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17). He tells us, “Open your mouth for the speechless, In the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). The Christians of Acts were taught by Paul to “support the weak” (Acts 20:35). Is this not a holy calling to stand up and speak up for the right to life of the unborn? It’s time for the reborn to stand for the unborn. There is an infanticidal holocaust taking place on our watch. We cannot stand by passionlessly, lifelessly, without an ounce of holy anger to do the good God calls us to do. If we are to rise up and be used by God to strengthen, speak and stand for the weak, we will at some point need a holy anger to do it.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon wisely said, “A vigorous temper is not altogether an evil. Men who are easy as an old shoe are generally of little worth.” Jesus said lukewarmness in His Church made Him sick to the point of vomiting (Revelation 3:16). Too often our pilot light is off and our heart furnace is cold. We need to be lit up and burn bright for our Lord. At Pentecost one of the signs of the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence was “tongues of fire” over those He was empowering (Acts 2:3). Maybe, just maybe, those tongues of fire had a little bit of holy anger included in them. Maybe, just maybe, there was a little holy anger that Israel had missed their Messiah promised by the prophets.
It’s more important to be biblically correct than politically correct. Sometimes, being politically correct makes us biblically incorrect. Sometimes we shrink and skirt the issues for fear of not being accepted or offending. We should have none of that. We need to remember the reality of “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11). Yes, indeed, we should walk cautiously about the emotion of anger. We can’t allow it to get out of control. But we must ride it like a bucking bronco and break it until it obeys us and we can ride it. Yes, unholy anger is dangerous and can derail us, but holy anger is a God-given force to help us overcome evil. Do you need to repent of something related to sinful unholy angry actions? Don’t waste any time addressing such issues. Are you passionless? Do you lack fire? Are you satisfied to be a Christian couch potato? Then you need to pray to God for a holy anger to help you accomplish God’s callings. Let’s pray for revival, for life, for fire in our bellies, for holy anger. And lets’ pray such holy anger is wholly focused on fulfilling the will of God to the glory of God. Let’s pray God make us what we need to be, to do what He calls us to do, for His glory, until Jesus returns. Let’s pray for holy fire. In Jesus’ name. Amen!