The Anger & Righteousness God Desires
9.12.21 [James 1:17-27] River of Life (16th Sunday after Pentecost)
Anger comes in many forms. We see anger in a toddler’s temper tantrum or in a football coach’s sideline meltdown. Depending on the power of the angry individual, anger can look silly or scary. But sometimes, anger is silent. Watching. Waiting. Biding its time. Until it explodes like a volcano. Anger is all around us.
Some have even dubbed it “the age of anger” and it’s not hard to see why. Turn on the TV and you will inevitably find something to get good and angry about. Log on to social media and there’s more of the same. Sit down for coffee with a friend and it may not take long before your blood is hotter than the coffee you’re sipping.
So what are we to do as children of God living in this age of anger? Part of us might think, anger is all bad and so we just need to ignore the things that rile us up—bottle up our fierce emotions and feelings. Treat it like a campfire. Douse it with water. Bury it with dirt. Then our anger won’t cause any troubles. But if you’ve tried that, you know that’s easier said than done. And as we’re going to see, that approach is hardly Biblical. That’s not how God does things.
It has become popular to deal with anger by finding ways to release it. Some people, when they’re angry like to workout or go to the range.You can find online chat rooms to scream your lungs out. You can visit what’s called a “rage room”, where you can swing a bat and break glass bottles, old computer monitors, and other things that shatter and crumble but don’t cry or bleed.
Perhaps this makes some sense to you. When we’re angry, we can feel the tension within us building. We can feel the pressure in our bodies and in our minds. And when we find ways to release that pressure, we experience a rush. That rush even has a name: catharsis. When we have a cathartic experience, we no longer feel as angry. We feel better. So it must have worked, right?
I suppose that depends on your definition of “worked”. If the goal was to make sure that you didn’t take your anger out on another person or some other living creature, then these exercises are certainly successful. If the goal is to actually deal with your anger— to understand it and master it—then it seems to be falling far short. Even modern psychologists are divided as to whether cathartic exercises reduce stress in the short term, or merely encourage future outbursts.
What’s interesting to me is the ways we release anger. They’re big and bold—and often physical. No one says, I’m angry, let me go crochet in the corner to blow off some steam. No one is suggesting that quietly whispering your frustrations is going to help at all. When we get angry, we like to express it by throwing our weight around a little bit. We move our bodies. We raise our voices. We may even throw things. When we get angry, we need to do something.
Our anger comes in many forms and today, as we look at these verse from James, we see what God has to say about our anger. (James 1:19-20) 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. Is that what you expected God to say about anger? You might expect him to tell us not to be angry. But he doesn’t. He says (Jms. 1:19) everyone should be… slow to become angry. Then he tells us why (Jms. 1:20) Human anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.
Anger in and of itself isn’t sinful. If it were, God would tell us simply Don’t get angry. It’s wrong! Rather, he gives us a pretty refined view of anger. Human anger doesn’t accomplish God’s purpose—because the righteousness of God is not its goal.
So what is human anger? Well, from what James tells us—one defining mark of human anger is that is not quick to listen or slow to speak. Human anger is always ready with (Pr. 15:1) harsh words. Human anger (Pr. 15:1) stirs up anger (Pr. 15:18) and creates conflict where there was none, and fuels the flames where it already existed.
Human anger is (Pr. 14:29-30) impatient, foolish, and destructive. Of course, human anger never admits to being impatient. In the moment, human anger argues That person wronged me. I couldn’t let them get away with it! In the moment, human anger acts foolishly because as we like to say, we’re seeing red. Our vision of ourselves, others, and the world around us—especially the gravity of the situation—is totally colored by our anger. Distorted. How many times have you been good and angry and then someone asked you why you were fuming and you said it out loud and you just felt stupid? That’s because human anger is hopelessly foolish. Human anger is also destructive. Doctors will warn you what anger does to your body—to your heart, especially. But anger also destroys marriages, relationships between parent and child, and friendships.
Why does human anger misfire so badly? At its base, anger is a passionate reaction to a threat to something you love. So human anger is dysfunctional love. Think back to that time you were good and angry and someone asked you why. You had a reason. But when you said it out loud you knew it was silly—because you were professing love to something that shouldn’t have been THAT important. Someone insults you—maybe without realizing it. What do you love? Your reputation. Your identity. A stranger yammers away with the grocery store clerk and you’re in a hurry. What do you love? Your time. Your schedule. The WiFI keeps crashing. What do you love? Your entertainment. The refs make a bad call on a crucial play. What do you love? Your team.
When we understand the close connection between anger and love, we see why (Jms. 1:20) human anger doesn’t produce the righteousness that God desires. It can’t. And it isn’t interested in doing so. It doesn’t love the same things that God loves in the same order. But human anger hates to admit this. So human anger will say that it is angry because someone is doing something wrong—they aren’t righteous as God desires. They lied to me. They cheated me. They hurt me. They wronged me.
And these things do happen. And they do make God angry. But here is a helpful little litmus test to determine if what we are feeling is human anger or anger that produces the righteousness God desires. Is my first reaction: And they need to pay!? or is it And they need to repent!? Is it: This needs to be fixed!? Or is it This needs to be forgiven!?
Far too often, we demand a wrong is righted, a debt is paid, because it has impacted me or someone I love. When it doesn’t affect me directly, suddenly I don’t care quite so much about the truth and lies, or who got hurt or wronged. Human anger is sinful because it is dysfunctional love.
So how do we address human anger? James tells us. After seeing the human anger that fills our hearts so easily in the mirror of the law, we must (Jms. 1:21) humbly accept the Word that is planted in us by God. Only God’s Word can save us from sinful human anger. And God’s Word tells us that anger in and of itself is not sinful—any more than love. God gets angry. When God gave Moses the 10 commandments a second time—after the children of Israel broke his law and worshipped the golden calf—God proclaims his name, the Lord, to Moses. Here’s what he says about himself: (Ex. 34:6) The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet, he does not leave the guilty unpunished. Now do you see why James calls us to be slow to anger? Because God is! And some of the things that make God angry often make us angry. And like we do, when God gets angry he expresses his power. But he does so differently. The Lord takes a different approach, because he has a different goal.
God says: (Ezk. 33:11) ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’ God’s goal is not that sinners pay for their sins, but rather that sinners turn from their wicked ways and repent and live. God doesn’t demand that we fix the problems that our anger has caused or repair the damage we have done, rather he calls us to find life and forgiveness in his Son.
Only divine anger produces the righteousness God desires. The most famous example of Jesus’ righteous anger happened in the Temple. He went to worship and sees all the money changers. Jesus becomes enraged. He flips tables and scatters coins. He even makes a whip to drive out the animals! Why? Because that space that was being used for commerce was meant to be a place to commune with God. God’s Temple was meant to be a (Mk. 11:17) house of prayer for all nations. Jesus was mad because the moneychangers had moved into the only place where Gentiles could gather at the Temple to pray.
Another time, the Pharisees were trying to find a reason to accuse Jesus. So they watched him and how he’d respond to a man with a shriveled hand. To heal on the Sabbath was to perform work, not to rest, they said. So Jesus pressed them: (Mk. 3:4) Which is lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill? But no one said anything. Their hearts were stubborn. And this was deeply distressing to Jesus. It made him angry. How could people have lost what the Sabbath was all about?
It made Jesus angry when people did not listen to the Word of God because divine anger is passionate about the righteousness of God. But we also see how Jesus’ responds to anger and his love for God’s righteousness in his innocent suffering and death.
As he hung on the cross, a strange thing happened. People were gleeful. They hated him so much that it made them happy to watch him suffer and die. They loved to watch him pay for what he claimed to be. And do you remember what he prayed? (Lk. 23:34) Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing. What a perfect example of who our God is! (Ex. 34:6) The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.
Yet he did not leave our guilt unpunished. Rather he took upon himself our iniquities and transgressions of anger. The Lord heaped it all upon his Son. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath down to the very last drop because divine anger has a different goal. Not to make sinners pay, but to make sinners pure. To redeem us, Jesus gave himself up for us all. He shed his holy innocent blood for our blood-thirsty anger. He died the death angry sinners deserved so that we might be set free from our bondage to human anger.
Divine anger shocks us because it does not operate like our anger. It has different goals. Micah puts it beautifully. (Micah 7:18-19) Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
The Lord our God is slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. He rejoices, not in seeing sinners get what they deserve, but in gifting them his undeserved love. He does not take pleasure in making sinners pay, but in seeing sinners repent. God does not demand that sinners fix what they broke, but delights in forgiving sin. His anger is slow. His forgiveness is quick.
And that is how we ought to live as his children. Human anger is messy and haphazard—it’s different based on the moment. Divine anger is meticulous and methodical—it gets angry so that sinners might see the seriousness of what they have done and be brought to repentance. Human anger is chaotic, cruel, and merciless. But divine anger is careful and purposeful. Divine anger loves to drive people to the cross so that they can experience God’s mercy.
Human anger says it’s cathartic, but it’s not. Catharsis is actually a Greek word that means cleansing or purifying. Shouldn’t that be the goal of our anger—that the sins we are angry at are washed away by the blood of the Lamb? Not merely to make us feel better but to actually heal others? That the sinner who has wronged us might be purified by Christ’s precious death and powerful resurrection? May God continue to purge our hearts of human anger and produce in us the righteousness he desires—even when we are angry. Amen.