The Problem of Anger

Read Psalm 37:1-9 1 Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. 2 For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. 4 Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. 5 Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass. 6 And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday. 7 Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass. 8 Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. 9 For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.

Sometimes I choose a sermon topic a week or so before speaking. This time, I had my subject picked out a while ago, pretty much from the last time I spoke, as it was a topic that’s been on my bulletin board as a possible sermon topic for a while now. So having decided, I looked up a number of scripture verses to act as possible starting points, which is always a good place to start when you are preparing a sermon. Wouldn’t you know it, more than one of the passages I chose has been spoken on, or at the very least referenced, from this platform, since I came up with my list. As recently as last Sunday one of the key verses I had found was featured in the Sunday sermon.

The thing is, there are a lot of verses, found throughout the scripture, going all the way back to Genesis chapter 4. Just because some of the passages I had intended to use have been discussed recently doesn’t use up the supply of verses, if I happened to be concerned about going over the same ground that someone else had recently dealt with. There is plenty of scripture to use on this subject, literally hundreds of verses. Don’t worry, we’re not going to look up hundreds of verses. I had found and taken note of a number of applicable passages, and we’re not even going to look at a quarter of them. There’s that much of it available.

I’d say fortunately there’s plenty of scripture on the subject, but perhaps it is unfortunate that it was necessary for the Bible to include so much instruction on this topic. The Lord knows what we need help with, and the volume of verses strongly suggest that this is one of them. My subject this morning is the problem of anger. We are going to look at some key things about anger, things you might not have realized or understood. Most importantly, we are going to look at what scripture says about anger, and as mentioned, it says quite a lot on the subject.

You might be wondering why I’m calling anger a problem. After all, it is one of the most universal of all human emotions. As well, we are told that God gets angry. Psalm 7 verse 11 says that God is angry with the wicked every day. And all four gospels tell of how Christ himself drove those who sold animals and exchanged money from the temple, saying that they had made His Father’s house into a den of thieves. It’s hard not to hear about injustice, about cruelty, about some deeply offensive behaviours that certain people not only undertake and condone, but work to support and go out of their way to champion these behaviours. It’s hard to hear this, to see this, and not feel anger. How is that a problem?

Righteous anger may not be a problem, but how much righteous anger do you and I actually experience? What percentage of your anger is in any way righteous? If you think that it’s even a measurable percentage than you are far ahead of me. What’s more, the first verse we read from Psalm 37 said not to fret about evildoers. We are not to be focused on anger, righteous or otherwise.

What good would we even hope to achieve by our supposedly righteous anger, I wonder. The other week at Tuesday study we looked at the latter part of James chapter 1, where verse 20 says 20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Our anger, our wrath, is not likely to advance God’s work in any useful way. Quite the opposite, in fact. People get upset about things that are wrong with our society, things that go against God’s law, and they take the law into their own hands, and it does not go well. As much as the practice of abortion is offensive, the bombing of a clinic is every bit as wrong, if not more so. Two wrongs are not how you go about making a right. We probably all learned that before we learned how to tie our shoes, but sometimes we forget, we lose sight of that — the two wrongs don’t make a right part, not how to tie our shoes. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.

Even when we are convinced our anger is correct, it is not our responsibility to administer God’s justice, it is not our right to act on God’s behalf. I am not God. You are not God. Sometimes we seem to think that we are, though, or that it is incumbent upon us to get angry on God’s behalf. This can seem like the right thing to do. It says in Proverbs 14, verse 12, there is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. We may be convinced that we are right in being angry for God’s sake, that might seem entirely right to us, but seeming right does not make something correct. God has asked those who would follow Him to do certain things, being angry is not on that list. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. The verse before that, James 1:19, says 19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. We are not to fly off the handle, we are to be slow to anger, not quick to it. We are to hear, we are to listen, and not to act rashly, if we want to work the righteousness of God, that is.

That might be a pretty big if, though. We’ll talk a bit more about that in a few minutes, but for now, lets talk about anger. Normal, run-of-the-mill anger, not something that we might attempt to label as righteous anger. Anger is common, both in that it is frequent, and it is very widely distributed. People get angry in all manner of situations, in all walks of life, and at every age. Even babies get angry. I know this from experience. Children who aren’t old enough to walk or to talk can easily get angry when they don’t get what they want. They learn this very young. It’s not like they need to be taught how to get angry. Anyone who has children, or who has spent any time with young children, will agree with me on that, or if not, then congratulations, you’ve had the most mild-mannered children in the history of the world.

My own children are not mild mannered. But then again, when I was younger, I had a terrible temper. This might be a little surprising, because I’m halfway decent at keeping my cool now. But that was not always the case. The fact that my children get angry should not be surprising. I get angry now, just not as often. My wife gets angry as well. And as established, my kids get angry. We all get angry. Looking at everyone here today, I know some of you better than I know others, but I’m willing to bet that every person here gets angry at times. Maybe not all that often, or maybe far too often, I don’t know. If that’s not the case, then I’m wrong, and I apologize, but I’d be very surprised if that’s the case.

Because anger is so universal, and because it’s a problem, it’s something that’s important to talk about. It’s something that can often be downplayed, or ignored, or not worried about, perhaps because it is so universal. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Anger very often has consequences.

Right now at home we don’t have a little baby, Levi is a toddler, he can walk, he can talk a bit, and wow, he can get angry. He screams and he’ll throw things when he is upset. He can’t really do much damage at this point, but he can express his anger, and it’s not very pleasant. When he doesn’t get what he wants, we all know about it. The other day he wanted to get a toy that his brother was playing with, and when he didn’t get it, he threw a toy car and hit his brother on the head. Direct hit to the temple. There was more anger then, and more tears. It did not go well.

It’s never very pleasant when someone expresses their anger, is it? It’s not a good experience for the person who gets angry, it’s certainly not any better for the subject of the anger, and if you happen to be a bystander, well, that’s not exactly a fun time either. Anger doesn’t improve anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Proverbs 29, verse 22, it says that an angry man stirs up strife. Very often getting angry makes things worse, sometimes immediately or in the short term, sometimes in the long term, and sometimes both.

In the verses we read to start, at verse 8 there is the instruction to cease from anger, and forsake wrath. God does not want us to be angry. This is for our benefit, as well as for all those around us. Three times the psalm says “fret not yourself.” We shouldn’t think of fret in the modern sense of the word, as to be worried or troubled about something or other. The word used here is I think much stronger, much sharper than that. The Hebrew word is Charah (khaw-RAW) meaning to burn, and in fact many other times in scripture the same word is translated as kindle. There is a sense of ignition here, of burning. This isn’t a quiet troublesome fretting, this is a pot on the stove that threatens to boil over, this is a smouldering fire that could go roaring into a blaze at any moment.

Anger is like a fire in a lot of ways. Anger, like fire, is a destructive process, it consumes and destroys whenever and whatever it can. Both are also difficult to control, they spread and grow when allowed to do so. How many times have you seen a grass fire that someone set because they thought it was a good idea get rid of some brush or dead grass or something, which is a stupid idea, really, but I digress, and it gets out of control, and causes far more damage than anyone could anticipate? Anger is much the same way, it leads to tremendous harm, and can be vastly more far-reaching than ever expected.

Here’s an example of anger that went much farther than anyone saw coming. It actually the first example that we have in scripture of anger, it comes from Genesis chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel. It’s no doubt familiar, but I’ll read a few verses from there to refresh your memory, starting at verse 1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. 2 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: 5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. 6 And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? 7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. 8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

We’ll end there for now. Cain got angry, and it did not go well. It did not go well for him, if we read the rest of the passage we would learn how Cain ended up going into exile, away from his home and his family. And as badly as things may have gone for Cain, they went far worse for Abel. Cain lost his home, Abel lost his life.

I can’t imagine that Cain got up one morning and thought, “This is a good day to start down a course of action that will culminate in the murder of my brother.” There probably aren’t very many people who would ever have that sort of thought process. But Cain did indeed go down that road, not with that goal in mind, no doubt, but that goal was eventually reached. How did he arrive there? Let’s take a look at what happened.

Both Cain and Abel were farmers, Cain grew crops, and Abel kept livestock. Nothing wrong with any of that, no doubt they were both very good at what they did. Both are honourable and important professions, and no doubt what they did was valued by their parents and their other siblings whose names we do not have. When it came time to present an offering to the Lord, both of them did so, and they did it according to what they produced in their day to day work – Cain brought produce, Abel brought a sacrifice from his flock of sheep.

I have heard it taught on many occasions that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected because it was not a blood sacrifice, whereas Abel’s was. And that might well be true, although this passage does not tell us that specifically. Nor does it say that in Hebrews chapter 11, but rather that Abel’s sacrifice was more excellent, and that is was offered by faith. The common interpretation is blood versus no blood, but that may be in part our understanding thanks to the perspective we have, we can look back at the cross, and at the centuries of animal sacrifices that anticipated Calvary. Cain and Abel had no such perspective. But one was right, and the other was wrong.

It’s possible there may have been additional problems with Cain’s sacrifice, rather than the issue of blood. After all, in the law of Moses there are instructions for offerings of grain, with oil as well. It could be argued that the category of Cain’s sacrifice may not have been wrong. But something was wrong. It may have been that Cain just took whatever was available and offered it up. Abel took of the firstlings of his flock, and the fat thereof. He was offering the best, and he was doing so through faith. Cain, well, we aren’t told anything about faith on his part, which suggests a lack thereof. What Cain offered, he did so not by faith, but according to his own ideas. He offered what he thought would do the trick. Whether that was intended to be just enough to get by, or if it was indeed his best, and it was entirely the wrong offering, he did what seemed right to him.

Once again, as it says in Proverbs 14: 12, there is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. The offering he brought seemed right to Cain, but God did not agree, and we know that it did indeed put him on the ways of death, quite literally as far as his brother was concerned. Cain was furious that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted while his own was rejected. He was very wroth the passage says. Same Hebrew word, Charah (khaw-RAW), as mentioned earlier, meaning to burn or kindle, this time with a modifying word ahead of it meaning exceedingly. Cain was angry, very angry.

We are told in verses 6 and 7 that God spoke to him, questioned his anger, and advised him to do better. If you do well, you will be accepted. If not, then sin is waiting on the doorstep. Cain was given an opportunity for a do-over. He got at least one second chance that we know about. We don’t know how much time passed here, if Cain smouldered in his anger for weeks or months, or even years, perhaps, or if he acted upon it the next day, but Cain made his choice. He kept his anger, and it wasn’t a case of sin waiting at the door. No, he invited it in and cooked breakfast for it. His anger lead directly to his brother’s death.

Why was Cain so angry? It boils down to one simple fact. He was angry because he did not get to have things his own way. He had a plan, he had an offering in mind, and when it was refused, he became enraged. He didn’t rethink his plan, he didn’t change his approach. He didn’t say, “Well, it seems that God doesn’t want a fruit basket, I should maybe follow Abel’s lead here.” No, he didn’t do that. Instead of re-evaluating and making a change, he stuck to his own ways, and got angry when it didn’t work. How much of that anger was because of jealousy over his brother’s success, and how much of it was anger with God, but ultimately directed at his brother, we don’t know, probably an unhealthy mix of both. But following his own intentions, his own desires, lead him down that path.

That’s the thing about anger. It comes from within. People are quick to excuse anger, and say that someone made me angry, or that they have a bad temper, a predisposition to get angry, so it’s not really all that bad. Well, as it happens we all have a predisposition to all manner of sin, it’s called our sinful nature, so we can’t say that’s any excuse. That doesn’t make it somehow okay. That’s like saying that you have a car that’s built for speed, it has a predisposition for going way too fast, and so the officer shouldn’t give you a ticket for doing 90 in a 50 zone. That doesn’t make it okay, that’s not going to work in a court of law, and it’s not going to work with Almighty God.

As far as someone else making you angry, well, it is true that another person can provoke an angry response. Someone does something contrary to what we want, they thwart our plans, no matter how good or poor those plans might be, and we get angry. But the anger is coming from within, it’s not an external force.

Anger comes from within. Much anger is caused by frustration when we don’t get what we want, when our desires, our intentions, our plans, are unfulfilled. We see something, we experience something, that displeases us, it causes frustration when we are not able to resolve something to our liking, and so we lash out in anger. That’s why Cain became so upset. He didn’t want to bring a proper sacrifice in correct manner, and when that didn’t work out for him, he got angry. He wanted to do it his way.

Sound familiar? The world is full of people who want to do it their own way. Individuality and non-conformity is readily celebrated. Quick, think of two songs by Frank Sinatra. Got two? Is one of them “My Way”? The notion of “I did it my way” speaks to our old nature, the one that doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to obey, doesn’t want to follow God. That describes a lot of people, it describes a lot of people who would much rather do things their own way, rather than God’s way. There is a way that seems right unto a man, remember. There is a way that seems right. We know how that ends. When we go our own way, when we seek our own wishes, our own desires, it leads to disappointment, and it leads to anger.

Earlier we talked about working the righteousness of God, and how anger does not accomplish that. If we want to actually do God’s work, if we want to further the progress of His Kingdom, then we should not be angry, we should not be filled with wrath. If we are indeed angry, I would suggest that is because we are not trying to work the righteousness of God at all, it is because we are following our own desires. We are going our own way. And when we do so, we meet with frustration and anger. That is what our desire brings us to. Even when what we desire is perfectly fine, when we our own desires, when that is our focus, it leads down the path to anger.

On the topic of our own desires, let’s flip back to the passage we read to start, in Psalm 37. There is a familiar verse, verse Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Ever wonder what that verse is doing in the middle of a passage that cautions so much about anger, that advises us to cease from anger, to fret not, to not burn with anger? What’s that verse doing there? After all, when we follow our own desires, sooner or later it leads, I would suggest without fail, to unfulfilment. Even when we get what we want we don’t remain content with it for long, do we? That leads to more desires, and eventually when those cannot be satisfied, or when they fail to bring contentment, it leads to frustration and to anger, with all the damage that brings.

And let’s not forget just how terrible what we desire often tends to be. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, after all. In Matthew 15 we read that out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts, murders, adultery, fornication, theft, lies, and blasphemy. That which is decidedly evil is not likely to desire good and pleasant and holy things in the first place.

So how then will God give us the desires of our hearts? The key is in the first part of the verse, delight also in the LORD. When you delight in God, that which you desire will change, it will move into alignment with what God wants. When your heart is with God, when you are turned to Him, when you are listening to His word and seeking His will, then the desires of your heart will be quite different.

How do we go about this? After all, it’s one thing to say “Cease from anger” and quite another to do it. Filling our hearts with the fruit of the Spirit is an excellent place to start. As listed in Galations 5:22 and 23, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. Running down that list, there are a lot of those which are entirely incompatible with anger. It’s impossible to have anger and peace at the same time, for example. Longsuffering, or patience, meekness, and temperance, or self-control, those all are contrary to anger. You can’t have those at the same time. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of someone who can be exhibiting gentleness and anger at the same time. And love, well, we could probably do an entire study on love, and how love is the opposite of anger.

God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. Were He merely angry with us, angry with our behaviour, angry with our wicked desires and sinful actions, in His anger He would destroy us all. He has held back His wrath, He has set aside His anger, in His love for us. He has every right to be angry with us; we have transgressed against Him in countless ways. But he chose love instead. Love does not leave a place for anger.

Today, if you recognize that anger is a problem, and I think that it quite clearly is, it’s time to do something about it. This is something that the world is quick to dismiss as unimportant and excusable, but God does not agree. He would not tell us to cease from anger if it were no big deal.

Anger is a big deal. It causes damage to ourselves, it causes damage to those around us, those we care about, and it causes damage to the testimony of Christ. No one has ever looked at an angry person and thought “He has something special, he has something that I would like to have as well.” If our anger gets in the way of someone else coming to Christ, that’s a serious problem.

Saying “Cease from anger,” does not solve the problem of anger, any more than saying “Lose ten pounds” results in weight loss. Recognizing that anger is not okay, and that it comes from the heart, that is a starting point. Realizing that our own desires, and the unfulfilment thereof, are at the root of much anger, is another point to take home from this sermon. Letting go of selfish desires, and instead delighting in the Lord, in His Word and in His ways, that’s an important step, not even a step really, but rather an ongoing process. When we are filled with God, when we are allowing His Spirit to operate, then the fruits of the Spirit will come to the forefront, and there will not be a place for anger.

I know I’ll most likely get angry in the future, just as I have many times in the past. It’s not something I want, and it’s not something I can solve on my own. But I don’t need to get angry, and with God’s help, I can do, I will do far better than I have. I can ask the Lord to change my heart, to realign my desires, and replace them with His. And I can remember that God’s instruction is to cease from anger, to forsake wrath, and to not fret, to not burn. He would not command us to do so if He were not willing and able to help us with it. Let’s close in prayer.