[This is the first part of an ongoing series of posts I intend to present, based on questions I get in my everyday life as a pastor.]
Q: Is it wrong for Christians to become angry?
A: For some people, anger is a way of life. Filled with a sense of personal inadequacy, unable to cope with life, they lash out at others, usually spouses or children. Through outbursts of anger, they think that they can control their lives.
But anger isn't always bad. This may come as a surprise to some people, Christian as well as non-Christian.
If you are a Christian, you may have had the experience of becoming angry with a family member or co-worker and then hearing them indignantly say, "And you call yourself a Christian?"
The Christian may feel ashamed, thinking that they've given a bad witness of their faith because they lost their cool.
But they may have no reason for shame. An interesting passage in the New Testament tells us, "Be angry but do not sin." The very phrasing of that admonition should tell us that there's nothing inherently wrong or sinful about getting angry. It's possible to be angry without engaging in sin.
One clearly legitimate reason for being angry is when we see an injustice.
Once, Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem. It was the center of Judah's worship life, the place where Jesus and His fellow Jews said that the presence of God lived in a place called "the holy of holies." One of the ongoing activities of the place was the sacrificing of animals or, in the case of extremely poor believers, cereals, on the altar. Most people came to the temple without sheep, doves, or cereals to be used as sacrifices. Those would have been purchased at the temple. But those purchases could only have been made with special temple currency. Set up in the temple then, were various "money changers," who would exchange whatever currency worshipers might have for the temple money, apparently at exorbitant rates. After securing the temple money, the faithful would then have to purchase the objects of sacrifice, again for exorbitant sums of money.
The entire business was unjust. Playing on the piety of sincere worshipers of God, the temple merchants made a killing. This enraged Jesus! No wonder He upset the tables where the business was done and set the animals there to be sacrificed loose.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus was both God and human and that our salvation depends on Him having led sinless life above reproach. Only a sinless Savior could be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
If anger were always a sin, Jesus' ability to work forgiveness of sin in our lives would be forever negated. But anger can lead us to sin.
We can also be angered when a person treats us inconsiderately. Is that wrong? Not, apparently, if we use our anger as an occasion to work things out with the other person. "Be angry, but do not sin." Anger can lead to sin when we nurse it, feed it, and allow it to cause us to be sanctimonious or to be disrespectful of the person with whom we're angry. It's a sin to be self-righteous or hateful.
The same New Testament verse that advises, "Be angry but do not sin," says that when we do get angry we shouldn't let "the sun set on [our] anger." In other words, resolve your differences.
Jesus, in fact, gives a process by which conflicts can be resolved among believing people, one which I think contains principles for resolving differences among all people. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus says that we should first go to the person we feel has treated us unjustly, confronting them directly rather than gossiping about them. If no satisfactory resolution results from that confrontation, a disinterested third party, another believer, should be asked to, in effect, mediate, offering a solution. If the confronted party still refuses to deal with matters, an authoritative group within the Church should be brought in to mediate.
If this process looks cumbersome and not worth the trouble, that may mean that the situation that has made you so angry may not be a big enough deal to warrant such treatment. If that's the case, then you should simply ask God to help you forgive and then go on. The last thing you want to do is to continue harboring anger.
It's this harbored anger, I believe, that Jesus has in mind when He says, "“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 [some of the ancient manuscripts insist that Jesus adds here, "without just cause"] with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:20-22).
Much of our anger is unjustified. And it could be avoided if we would remember Paul's admonition in the New Testament book of Philippians: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). Chances are, 95% of our anger would go away if we followed this advice.
Anger isn't always wrong. Some people say that we should count to ten before expressing anger. That's not bad advice, especially if during that ten-second interval we ask, "Lord, am I justified in feeling anger? Let me know one way or another and then, whatever may be true, tell me how to deal with it."