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Anger – Holy Emotion or Hellish Passion?

Anger is one of the most obvious sins that we as a people must face and deal with constantly. Some of the other sins we are talking about such as lust, envy and greed can be sins that are internal. We can have them in our hearts without people knowing about it, but anger is a visible sin.

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James 1:19-21 (NIV) (NRSV)
“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. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”

Anger is one of the most obvious sins that we as a people must face and deal with constantly.  Some of the other sins we are talking about such as lust, envy and greed can be sins that are internal.  We can have them in our hearts without people knowing about it, but anger is a visible sin.  When we are angry, it shows in a raised voice, harsh words, a scowl, a punch or worse.  Anger hurts.  Other sins such as pride, sloth, gluttony do damage to us first, before they start hurting others. But anger often hurts others before it hurts us.  The face of anger tells it all.  An angry face has a furrowed brow, scrunched up nose and their mouth can be open and screaming or pinched. We have all seen it.

Anger tends to be an outward expression of hurt, fear or frustration. It can overtake you and cause you to sin. If we remember when Doug preached back in January, let’s look at the example early in the Bible of Cain and his brother Able. In Genesis 4:4-5 we read, “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So, Cain was very angry, his face was downcast”.  We pick up in verse 7 where the Lord goes on to Cain “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Cain still felt angry.  Anger boiled up inside him and rotted him spiritually. At this point Cain tells his brother Abel to go out in the field and he kills his brother Abel. Cain’s anger was not under control. This kind of anger passes the bounds of justification (even though Cain felt justified) and swerves into the area of Wrath.  Wrath is when an individual spurns love and opts for fury instead. Wrath requires that we have a sense of justice that is perverted. Wrath is irrational and can cause us to rationalize what is a wrong and sinful response to a situation.

For several years I worked at US AIR at Logan Airport.  I had to deal with anger every day.  I remember the story of a flight I was working when we still had a smoking section on airplanes and I had to change the entire flight to non-smoking.  This man came up to me (since I made the announcement) and started screaming at me that it was not fair.  He was only going on a shuttle to New York which is about an hour flight. He could not smoke for one hour and yet he felt wronged and wanted justice. Nothing about the fact that it was an FAA law and the rights of the non-smokers…that did not matter to him in the least. He literally tried to grab me; he grabbed my computer (like that would make a difference) and started to shake it and kept screaming to change it back to a smoking flight.  Not only did I NOT change it back but my supervisor called the State Police who escorted him to a nice cell.  Needless to say he did NOT make his flight to New York that day. His day, and possibly his freedom, changed simply because of what he felt he was entitled to.  He got angry over what he felt was a wrong done to him. He could not smoke a cigarette for one hour because of me. His anger response was an exaggeration of the situation.

Oh, and let me give you a little tip about dealing with delays at the airport – BE NICE to the folks working!  They are trying their best in a difficult situation.  Once I was coming back from Florida with my family (it was the day before Easter, so we were stressed) and our flight was canceled due to weather.  People were losing their minds and screaming.  I went up, very nicely saying, “I understand, and I know you are doing your best.  Is there any way we could re-book to get home since we were all serving on Easter Sunday?”  They re-routed us to Texas and then to New York and then home.  What I didn’t know was that from Texas to New York they gave my whole family upgrades to First Class!  The best flight ever!  Be compassionate!  Be nice to folks who are trying their best.  Screaming at them will get you nowhere!

Road rage is another kind of anger that we see more and more.  I must admit that I have been known to experience “road annoyance” when on the highway.  I really bothers me when drivers cut me off or try to cut in front of me at the exit from another lane at the last minute.  This is a pet peeve of mine but not road rage. I am not about to break out the crowbar because someone is a bad driver, but sadly, road rage has become a far too common occurrence and one that can escalate into a horrible situation. Maybe you have seen the recent picture of a road rage incident that escalated here in Massachusetts.  What started as a small traffic accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike turned into a life-threatening incident. Do you remember this car?  I wonder if it was that incident that caused the road rage or if it was more likely “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Sometimes anger is misplaced and can simmer and boil over when least expected.  Anger can build inside of us until one little thing can cause you to explode.  That one little thing is usually not the real cause of our anger.  Let’s look at this clip from “Inside Out,” a movie about how our internal emotions work and sometimes battle each other. Riley’s anger in this scene is not really about her parents asking her about school, but it is about her anger over moving, leaving all her friends, and being upset about it.  She doesn’t know how to process her emotions and eventually just blows up at her parents.  Have you ever done this?  Do you recognize yourself in Riley?  I know that I have been guilty of this.  I am not one to usually show anger, but when I was younger this happened to me. I was angry about the abuse that happened to me as a kid.  Why did no one see it?  Why wasn’t anyone helping me?  I was terrified and angry but forced those feelings down.  Every once in a while, though, the anger would blow up in other unconnected places. I might have flipped over a game board or two when I was a kid playing Life or Monopoly with my sisters.  Almost always it wasn’t about the game, but rather the anger that I had no outlet for. My anger was misdirected, and I had to work on that.

Anger can also be justified, invigorating, and be passionate.  In the scripture from Mark 3:1-6 read earlier in the service, we can see Jesus clearly showed his anger with the Pharisees. Specifically, Jesus says, He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” 

Anger-as-a-Holy-Emotion has justice as its object and love at its root.  Jesus was grieved at the hardness of the Pharisees’ hearts. The Pharisees deeply cared about preserving their tradition. Sometimes we can get so focused on preserving our traditions, rather than being focused on what God is doing in the present moment. This isn’t just our struggle sometimes, it was also what the Pharisees wrestled with in their day.  In this case, they were so focused on preserving their traditional understanding of the Sabbath that they missed the fact that the Lord of the Sabbath was present and healing a man right in their midst.

We do not get to choose if a particular situation would make Jesus angry, and then get to mete out our justice for Jesus. Jesus can take care of himself. We are not Jesus. If we look at all the other times that Jesus “rightly” could have been angry, we see that he instead chose gentleness and love.

In recent history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the same kind of passion to correct the years of racial injustice against black people in our country. He prayerfully and peacefully protested and helped lead this country to make changes that are still going on today. His heart was in the right place.  He knew that all people are equal in the eyes of God. He prayed and asked God for wisdom.  His anger was not one of wrath, but one of love. In the book Glittering Vices, it says that, “Righteous anger therefore expresses the desire to punish injustice, not because we delight in the evil of punishment as evil, but because punishment is required to redress a wrong. It is a desire to make things right between persons.” It isn’t that we just fight an injustice, but that we fight an injustice well. We need to see things clearly in order to deal with them appropriately. Thomas Aquinas says that “anger is an ally of justice and courage, but only if it follows a reasonable judgement about what is right.”  We need to start with reasonable judgement to see the situation clearly, and not start with anger.

There is such anger in the world and the sin of anger can be fatal to our spiritual growth.  We need to master our passions (and anger is certainly a passion) rather than let us be enslaved by them.  Dallas Willard said that, “Anger in the emotional realm is like pain in the physical world.” Anger is a killer of our spirit and when out of control, as we saw with Cain, it can cause you to sin and actually kill.  We will all be judged, and God will decide.

So, what is the remedy for our anger?  How can we deal with our anger when it rears its ugly head?  Our scripture this week is a blueprint for what God says we should do in this situation. Let’s read it again from James 1:19-21“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. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” When I read this again preparing for my sermon, I felt like it was written for us today.

I would like to propose the remedy are the Three P’s.  Patience, Prayer, and Practice.  If you can learn these spiritual disciplines, then you will truly be loving your neighbor. The first “P” is for Patience.  This is a virtue that will always help us when our tempers are flaring.  The Bible has some great verses that speak about this, so let’s see what God says we should do when faced with anger. Proverbs 19:11, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”  I never said this would be easy, but this verse tells us it is wise to try to be patient when hurt by someone else.  Psalm 37:8 says, “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath, do not fret , it leads only to evil.” Again, we need to be patient when faced with anger. Proverbs 14:29, “Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick tempered displays folly.” We need to understand human nature and work to have command over our emotions and feelings. A good practice of patience is to take a deep breath, count to 10, and breathe.  I know it is hard not to get defensive when someone literally gets in our face because they are angry with us. God asks us to have patience with people when this happens.  Be gentle. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Sometimes the anger is not about us at all, but we were the person in the right place at the right time.  We must die to self in order to deal with anger and be more Christ-like.

The second P is Prayer. Prayer will help stabilize us and help us to focus on God and away from the emotion of anger. Prayer can transform us and should allow us to see the situation through the eyes of the Lord.  Why are we getting angry?  Is it our pride?  Is it our sense of what we feel is owed to us?  Remember, we are owed nothing. I am thankful for the Grace and Mercy that the Lord has toward me a sinner. Prayer can plant seeds of gentleness and help us to release our anger. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven.” I have personally seen that when we pray for, and forgive those, who have hurt us that we can be released from the anger that churns inside us and causes us to sin. I had so much anger in my heart for the man who abused me as a little girl.  Someone once told me that when this man died, God judged him.  After a lot of prayer, I was able to forgive him and be free of anger. Anger no longer controlled me. Remember what God said in Luke 6:27-28, “But I tell you who hear Me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”. And this truth can come to you in the most unlikely places.

If you remember the song, “Already Gone” by the Eagles there is a lyric that impacted me and helped me tremendously. The lyric is “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key”. I had an epiphany!!  Anger can be like chains that bind us and keep us from becoming more Christ-like in how we deal with our emotions.  We have the key!  Jesus is the key and all we need to do is use it. We will be blessed when we have a rich prayer life. We are but humble servants of the Lord, and with prayer may each of us see Christ.

The third P is Practice.  To control our anger and our emotions we need to practice what Christ preached. To find peace we need Christ. Does anyone here play an instrument? Ride a bike?  Play a sport? When I was a kid, I played the flute and the xylophone.  Did I pick up those instruments and immediately know how to control them to make music?  No, it took practice:  lots and lots of practice.  We all need to practice to be able to master the things in life that we desire. If we desire to control our anger, then we must practice.

Anger is fierce and it will constantly irritate our soul if we let it. A time of prayer seizes our mind and then we can see the face of the person we feel wronged us.  We all have a choice then, do we pray for them, or do we let the seeds of wrath grab us?  Do we actually do what God asks of us?  For if we do, then we will bear the fruit of the Spirit.  We will have mastered self-control, peace, and gentleness.  It is hard to practice controlling our anger, but if we do not then the enemy has won. If we do not learn to love each other then we give Satan control over us. In order to control anger, we need to die to self.  We need to allow the Creator to mold us.  We are but jars of clay and if we allow Christ to mold us, we will become a vessel for Him to use.  We can be a light in a dark world.

Wrath is not a part of a holy life. In James 4:11-12 we read, “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor” Yikes!  I have been guilty of this. Gossip can be a destructive form of anger. We want others to be as angry as we are when we feel wronged. But if we work to discipline our mouths and our actions, and continue to pray, then hopefully we will all be released from the chains of anger. We must practice what we say and not let our tongue have free reign. Practice self-control. We can also practice by keeping a journal. Keep a written record about the times that you were angry and how you felt and why you were angry. Then rate your anger intensity on a scale of 1 to 5. In Glittering Vices, Rebecca DeYoung suggests doing this for a week. Then shut the journal and put it away for another week.  After you have cooled off then pick up the journal and read what you wrote. Look for patterns to emerge. Are the episodes of anger misdirected or excessive? Journaling like this can be a time-out for us and help us gain perspective.

I remember a friend who was a young mom.  She had two sets of twins under the age of four.  As you can imagine, that can be an exhausting time.  She shared that at times she wanted to scream and yell at the kids, but she instead gave herself a time-out.  How?  She had a circular baby gate for the kids to use.  She would climb in with her Bible and read for a few minutes, say a prayer and then jump back into the craziness of the day.  It always helped her she said, but it took intentionality, practice, and prayer. When was the last time you took a “time-out” when you were angry instead of instantly responding to anger with anger?

Another suggestion in the Glittering Vices book that I thought was interesting is to think about the funerals that you have been to.  What are people saying about the person? Consider if this was our funeral and consider what people would say about us.  Generally, it is not a time to read a list of accomplishments but rather to think about our character.  What would we want people to remember about us? What would we hope that they would say about us?  Write it down and think about it.  I hope that when I am called home that people would say that I demonstrated the fruits of the Spirit. That I was loving, that I chose joy, that you could see peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in my life. I pray that when judgement comes that the Lord will say to each of us, “Well done thy good and faithful servant.”

With God anything is possible.  We all have baggage and we all have issues.  Some vices are harder for us than others.  The point is to bring them before God.  Lay them at the feet of Christ. Continually ask for His help and to pray for the Holy Spirit to create a new Spirit in each us. We have a lifetime to get it right but ultimately it is our choice if we want to change.  God says in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that, “Love does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” I continue to work on each of these vices in my own life and I ask that you join me on this journey to be gentle, to have peace, to be patient and to always love each other especially when it is hard. This week as we go about our day, let’s try to remember the Three P’s of Patience, Prayer and Practice and not let anger control us.

Let us Pray: Father, thank you for your word today.  I pray that You will create in each of us a forgiving heart towards all those that have hurt us. And knowing that the Lord Jesus forgave us so many sins, I confess that we too should forgive others – just as God for Christ’s sake forgave all our sin. We joyously give you our tithes and offerings this morning to further your mission here at BBC and beyond.  In Jesus’ name. Amen

Blessing: Ephesians 4:31-32 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” 

Questions for Discussion & Reflection:

  1. Remember a time when you were angry. What was it and why did it make you angry? How did you deal with your anger? Was it a Holy Emotion or a Hellish Passion?
  1. In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus gives an example of anger that is justified. Why was Jesus angry? How can we keep our eyes open and avoid the pitfall of what the Pharisees did when Jesus healed a man’s hand?
  1. In James 1:19-21, we hear the example of how we should each deal with anger. Read the verses aloud again and discuss how you might be able to integrate them better into your life.
  1. One of the remedies of Anger/Wrath is Patience. Can you think of a time when you did this or did not do this?  Did it help or hurt the situation?
  1. Another remedy for Anger/Wrath is Prayer. How can you learn to pray for your enemies or those people you feel have wronged you or someone you love?
  1. The final remedy for Anger/Wrath is Practice. What can you work on this week or this month to practice what is said in James 1:19-21?