If pride is the most subtle of the seven deadly sins, anger is the most obvious. For one thing, it's visible. The other sins are internal—lust, envy, greed. We can be harboring them in our hearts without people knowing. When we're angry, it shows—raised voice, harsh words, a scowl, a punch, or worse. For another thing, it hurts. The other sins—pride, sloth, gluttony—do their damage to us first, before they start affecting others. But anger often hurts others before it hurts us.
So anger shows. And anger hurts. It is the most obvious of the deadly sins. Chances are most of us can look back over the past week and think of a time (or two or three) when our anger showed and was hurtful: on the job, around the house, at school, in the car.
At the same time, of all the vices, it's the only one that can also be a virtue. None of the other six are ever good, but there are times that anger is the appropriate response to something or someone. In fact, it's the only one of the seven that we can legitimately ascribe to God. God may be "slow to anger," but even God gets there sometimes.
Of all the deadly sins, anger may be the most tricky to understand and deal with. While the others must be overcome, this one must be managed. We don't talk about "managing" lust, greed, or gluttony. We want to get rid of them, to expunge them from our lives. But we can't expunge anger, apparently. It's an aspect of our nature we must learn to express in a godly way. If we don't, then anger, like the other six vices, can be deadly.
We began our Lenten journey last week, exploring the seven deadly sins handed down to us in the Christian tradition. We're asking God to use these seven vices to reveal what's wrong inside, to heal the damage that's been done, and to change us from the inside out.
We introduced a simple chart we're using to better understand and deal with these dark tendencies. For each of the deadly sins, we're identifying a corresponding "lively virtue," and then a "healthy habit" that gets us from one to the other—something we can "do" beyond just gritting our teeth and trying harder. In the case of pride, we want to get to a place of humility, and the practice of worship helps us get there by reminding us who we are: sinners saved by grace, destined for glory and gifted to do something good and beautiful in this world. We learned that we are freed from pride when we remember who we are before God and in Christ. You heard me confess my own struggles with pride. I want to thank those of you who stopped in the lobby last Sunday to say, "Lousy sermon, pastor!" Thanks for keeping me humble.
An angry young man
Let's begin with a case study. We'll call it the "Case of the Angry Young Man," and it's found in Genesis 4.
Pride is the first of the sins to appear in Scripture—showing up in Genesis 3—but anger follows right behind in Genesis 4, where we meet Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Adam and Eve. Let's see what we can learn about anger from this case study, and then we'll come back and try to fill in our chart.
The first thing we learn from this story is that anger is a natural human emotion. The human race is only one generation old, and anger shows up already. Cain didn't have to manufacture this response. No one had to "sow the seed" in his heart, like Satan did with Adam and Eve's pride. Something happened Cain didn't like, and he got mad.
"His face was downcast," the text tells us. You see, we are emotional beings, made in the image of God. And those emotions are meant to be expressed. When we're happy, we smile. When we're sad, we cry. When we're mad—we scowl, we frown, we holler, we gnash our teeth, "aarrgghh!" That's to be expected. Emotions aren't meant to be hidden, buried, or stuffed. They're meant to be expressed—in healthy, God-like ways, of course.
Ephesians 4 tells us, "'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold" (v. 26-27). Paul seems to acknowledge that we're going to feel angry sometimes, and that feeling may not, in itself, be sinful. It's a natural human emotion and a reflection of God's image in us.
I find it interesting that the first display of anger in human history happened at home, or, at least, between family members—in this case, two brothers. Why is that we often get the maddest at the people we are closest to—family and friends? Maybe it's because we spend so much time together. Or maybe it's because we care so much. We have so much invested in those relationships, and we expect so much from them. "Family" can bring out the best and worst in us.
If pride is near the top of my personal deadly sins list, then anger is probably at the bottom. It's just never been a big issue for me. Back when I was a youth pastor, I worked day in and day out with 100 or so middle and senior high school students for three years. And as the saying goes, "kids can do the darnedest things"—especially when you take them on a five hour van ride or a 10-day wilderness trip. But in all those trips and years, I never really "lost it" with those kids: even with all the wacky, rowdy, and sometimes annoying things they did. I was actually quite famous for never getting mad.
Then I had kids of my own. I really had no idea how angry I could get until I had to deal with a terrible two-year-old, 12-year-old, or 20-something-year-old. I was shocked and dismayed at some of the ugly feelings and hurtful words that came gushing up from some deep, dark place I didn't even know was down there. By God's grace, that anger never got out of control, but I'll confess there were times I was too harsh, too loud, too demanding, too controlling.
I was talking to a police officer the other day. He told me the calls any officer fears the most are domestic disputes. When family members are fighting, it gets ugly fast—and dangerous. You never know what you're going to walk into when you open that door, what they might do to each other and to you. "It's ugliest," he said, "when husbands and wives are fighting. It's deadliest when brothers are fighting." Anger is a natural human emotion, and it's no surprise that it shows up first among members of a family.
The second thing we learn here is that anger tells us something is wrong. We get angry when things don't work the way they're supposed to work—when our flight gets delayed, when spring doesn't come, when a criminal gets off on a technicality. We get angry when somebody does something they're not supposed to do—when a driver cuts us off in traffic, when a coworker doesn't pull his or her weight. We get angry when our kids disobey, when a friend betrays us, or when someone hurts an innocent person. Those are all legitimate things to be angry about. Something's wrong. Anger springs from our sense of justice, our sense of right and wrong.
Of course, sometimes that sense of justice gets skewed by our self-centeredness: by what feels right or wrong to us. We get mad because things don't go the way we want them to, like when we have to wait more than 30 seconds in line at Dunkin' Donuts, or when our spouse isn't being as attentive as we'd like, or when someone else gets the promotion. Sometimes, when we're mad, it actually means that something is wrong with us.
In this case, Cain was angry because his brother's offering was accepted, and his was not. That didn't seem right to him, so he got angry about it. We're not told exactly why it wasn't accepted. Maybe because it was a grain offering instead of a blood offering. Maybe because it wasn't a first fruits offering, like we're told Abel's was. Maybe there was nothing wrong with the offering itself, but rather with Cain's heart. Maybe he brought it begrudgingly rather than gratefully. We don't know. And Cain didn't know. But his anger told him that something was wrong.
Anger is like a warning light on the dashboard of your car: It tells you something is wrong, that something's not working the way it's supposed to. You don't always know what it is right away, but you know you'd better find out and tend to it before something bad happens. Anger is a signal that something is not right—with the world, with a situation, with a relationship, or with us. We don't always know right away what it is. But the fact that we're mad tells us something's not right.
The third thing we learn from this case study is that anger presents us with an opportunity to do right or wrong. Anger itself is not sinful; it's a signal that something is wrong. It's what we do with that anger that determines whether it's sinful or not. Let's continue reading at verse six.
Anger is part of our innate fight-or-flight instinct. It tells us that something is wrong, and that we'd better act, quickly, to make it right. That's why our pulse quickens, our senses are on high alert, and we want to react, quickly and decisively. We want to fix whatever is wrong. And that can be a good thing.
In 1979, a young man named Marcus Brown, aged 18, was killed by a drunk driver on a Florida highway. His mother, Beckie Brown, channeled her grief and anger into action, and she formed a local coalition of parents who had lost children to drunk driving. She began a campaign to increase awareness and prevention. The group came to be known as MADD—Mothers Against Drunk Driving—and over the years, that group has changed the culture and the laws surrounding drunk driving and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
There is such a thing as righteous anger. When Jesus arrived in the temple and found moneychangers exploiting the poor and crowding out seekers and worshippers, he was angry. It wasn't right! That's not what the temple was for! Jesus acted on that anger, driving out the moneychangers. When the temple's courts were clear, Matthew tells us, the blind and the lame and the children came to be ministered to (Matt. 21:14).
There is a way to be good and mad. When we get angry about the things that God gets angry about, when we act in ways that promote well-being and the purposes of God, it can be a virtue.
Unfortunately, our anger far too often prompts us to do something wrong, which leads to our fourth lesson: Sinful anger is a hurtful and misdirected display of passion. Let's pick it up in verse eight: "Now Cain said to his brother Abel, 'Let's go out to the field.' While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him" (Gen. 4:8).
Cain's anger over his offering being rejected told him that something was wrong. But instead of finding out what was wrong, he tries to make the problem go away by killing his brother. Now, had Abel done anything wrong? No! He had simply brought God an offering. Cain's problem wasn't really with his brother; it was with God. But instead of directing his anger at God, he directed it at his brother and killed him. And did killing his brother help anything? No! All it did was increase the pain and heartache. His brother was now dead. His parents were now grieving. He was now guilty and afraid and more isolated than ever. Cain's anger was hurtful and misdirected, and it didn't accomplish anything.
The Book of James tells us, "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (1:19-20).
You see, anger is always about control. If I yell loud enough, if I speak harshly enough, if I sulk long enough, if I strike hard enough, I can fix things. I can make people do what I want them to do. Anger gives us the illusion of control. The irony, of course, is that when we do that, we end up "losing control" rather than gaining it. We make things worse instead of better.
Let's come back to that definition again: "Sinful anger is a hurtful and misdirected display of passion." We said that passion is a natural human emotion and that those emotions are meant to be expressed, not stuffed. There's nothing wrong with a healthy display of passion. Anger becomes sinful when it becomes hurtful instead of helpful.
Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment" (Matt. 5:21-22a).
Most of us are not likely to commit murder when things don't go our way. But there are many ways to hurt people—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
My wife Karen and I are sitting in on the marriage course this spring. Two weeks ago, the lesson was on conflict, and we learned that people tend to respond to conflict in one of two ways when they're in a marriage or any other relationship: They respond like a rhino or a porcupine.
Some people, like rhinos, are aggressive. When they're attacked, they charge, leading with their horns. Other people, like porcupines or hedgehogs, are more passive. When they're attacked, they withdraw; they curl up into a ball and put out their prickly quills. While porcupine behavior is more socially acceptable, it's just another form of hurtful, controlling behavior.
Remember how "proud" I was about never getting angry? It's not that I don't get angry; it's just that I'm not a rhino. I have more subtle ways of using my anger to punish or control people. It might make for some interesting conversation over lunch—go around the table and find out who's a rhino and who's a porcupine.
Anger becomes sinful when it becomes hurtful. While we've had a little bit of fun with it here, I don't want to gloss over the fact that anger unchecked can quickly lead to abuse, especially in the home. Abuse is defined as "one person in an intimate relationship trying to dominate or control another." Abuse isn't always physical. When we yell, swear, threaten, throw things, or punch walls in an attempt to intimidate or control someone, that's abuse—even if there isn't any physical violence. If that's going on in your home, it's wrong and it's sinful and it needs to stop. If you're the perpetrator, get help, or get out, or both. If you're on the receiving end, you also need to get help, get out, or both.
Anger becomes sinful when it's hurtful, and anger becomes sinful when it's misdirected. Cain was angry with God, but he took it out on Abel. When you get mad at the waitress because your steak is overdone, when you yell at your kids because you had a bad day at work, when you punish yourself for something someone else did, that's misdirected anger. Psychologists tell us that depression is often anger turned inward. Sinful anger is a hurtful and misdirected display of passion.
Lively virtue: righteousness
With that understanding in mind, let's see if we can't get this moving in a better direction. Let's come back to our chart: If anger is the deadly sin, what's the lively virtue that corresponds to it? Is it patience, gentleness, or meekness? Those are certainly admirable and Christ-like qualities, but they miss the urgency and intentionality that anger is meant to rouse. Some have proposed justice, since anger is about putting things right, in the way they're supposed to be. That comes close, but it seems too narrow; anger isn't always about justice. Eventually I came around to righteousness.
Isn't that what God calls for? He says to Cain, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" (Gen. 4:6) James tells us that "human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (1:20).
But what exactly is righteousness? Well, it's just what the word says. It's about doing right and being right. It's about doing justice, but it's also about preserving relationships. It's about putting things right, but it's also about putting people right—with you, with each other, and with God.
Let's say your teenager comes home with the car two hours after curfew. You're angry. Not only have you been up worrying about them, but they disobeyed you. They broke a trust. So you let them have it. You tell them how disappointed you are. You tell them they're grounded for two weeks: no going out with their friends. That's justice. The next morning, you tell them how much you love them and suggest that since they can't see their friends next weekend, maybe the two of you could go skiing together. Now that's righteousness. Righteous anger is about putting things right and putting relationships right. It's about being angry in the right way, with the right person, at the right time, for the right reason.
But how do you do that? How do get from anger to righteousness? How do you know the right thing to say or do when you're angry? Where do you find the strength? I'd like to suggest that the antidote to sinful anger is prayer.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Just like a preacher—the answer's always "prayer" or "Jesus." But hear me out. I'm not talking about prayer as in "Lord, help me not to be angry." That's certainly an appropriate prayer, but the prayer I'm talking about comes before that prayer. I'm talking about, "Lord, I'm so mad right now—at him, at her, at myself, at the world, at you—and I don't know what to do about it!" I'm talking about telling God exactly how you feel. How mad you are. How hurt you are. How helpless you feel. I'm talking about an angry prayer.
We find them all through the Bible. Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah: They all let God have it from time to time. They expressed their frustration with his people, with his ways, with the world he'd made. Some of the psalms are downright uncomfortable to read out loud. We call them "imprecatory psalms," when the prayers call on God to let their enemies have it.
Listen to a few lines from Psalm 10. "Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? / Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (v. 1) David is not happy with the way things are going, and he lets God have it. Later in the psalm, he writes: "Break the arm of the wicked man; / call the evildoer to account / for his wickedness" (v. 15). Pretty rough stuff!
And God takes it. He lets people pray those things. Now, he doesn't usually do what they ask for. He doesn't let them stay in that angry place. But he hears them, and through their prayer, he gets them to a better place. He reveals to them what's really going on—what's wrong with the world or with his people or with them. And then he shows them what he wants them to do: the righteous way to express their anger.
Sometimes the right thing to do with our anger is to speak it and name what's wrong so it comes to light. Sometimes the right thing to do is to channel it into a positive and productive response to what's wrong. Sometimes the right thing to do with our anger is to release it, by forgiving whoever has wronged us. That last one can be the hardest, but sometimes it's the only thing we can do.
The apostle Paul writes, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph. 4:31-32).
Those, really, are our only three options for expressing our anger in righteous ways. We can speak it so it's brought to light. We can channel it so it accomplishes something useful. Or we can release it by forgiving the one who's made us mad. Only God can show us which one is right in any given situation, and only God can give us the grace to do them. It's prayer that gets us from the deadly sin of anger to the lively virtue of righteousness.
William Willimon was, for many years, the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He's written a helpful book on the deadly sins called Sinning Like A Christian. He concludes his chapter on anger with the story of a woman from Belfast whose husband, a good man, had been murdered in cold blood, right in front of her eyes, by revolutionaries trying to make a point. Here was a woman who had every reason to be mad—at God, at the world, at her husband's murderers. And yet she was one of the most committed and compassionate Christ-followers he had ever met. He asked her how she was able to overcome her anger.
She told him that as she stood over the lifeless body of her husband, overwhelmed with grief and anger, the only thing she could do was pray. The only prayer she could muster was the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." She said that at that moment, she knew the only way she could deal with what had happened was to forgive the people who had done this. She asked God, then and there, to help her every single day to do that. And God did. And it gave her the freedom and the passion to devote herself to the work of the kingdom.
Willimon wondered how a person could forgive such a thing until he remembered another good man, also murdered in cold blood by people trying to make a point. That man, with his dying breath, prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Willimon realized that there, on that cross, God's righteous anger was on display—punishing sin and forgiving sinners. God cared enough about us to get angry at our sin, angry enough to punish it and forgive it in one dramatic and decisive act.
How does the song go? "Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. For every sin on him was laid, here in the blood of Christ I live." If God could be angry at our sin in a way that actually accomplished our salvation, he can most certainly show us the right thing to do with our anger.
I don't know who or what might be making you mad these days. I don't know if you're a rhino or a porcupine. All I know is that if you are human, you're going to get angry. And what you do with that anger will either be helpful or hurtful. It will either be righteous or sinful. Bring it to God first, in prayer. Bring it to him honestly and completely, because when we bring our anger to God, we're able to do something good with it.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.