There are only so many colors of pencil that one can buy, especially if the colors are to be distinct enough to be easily identified. Various shades of green and blue I have found can be virtually indistinguishable on the page. So I’m now out of those subjects that I could identify by underlining the proverbs dealing with them in a particular color. Parenthood, marriage, sex, speaking and listening, managing controversy, and pride and humility were all subjects that had enough material devoted to them in the book to warrant their own color. Not so with anger; but that is not to say that it doesn’t receive important attention in the book.
I find it, I wonder if you do as well, somehow encouraging to know that the problems we deal with today are the very same problems that human beings and God’s people in particular dealt with thousands of years before Christ. Why did Cain kill his brother? We read, right at the very beginning of the Bible, that Cain “was very angry” [Gen. 4:5] because the Lord had more regard for his brother’s sacrifice than for his. And what did the Lord ask him? “Why are you angry?” Cain’s anger was, as we put it nowadays, the “presenting problem.” And later, when the women of Israel sang that “Saul has slain his thousands but David his ten thousands” Saul became very angry. We are not surprised that there was behind the anger another condition: viz. jealousy. And so it has continued up to our own day. The life of mankind has not changed in its fundamental nature. It is what it has always been. Changes in politics or technology are, at the last, superficial, not fundamental. Or, perhaps we should say, sin makes of human beings what it has always made of them. And one thing sin has always done is to make people angry.
To be sure, there is a kind of anger that is absolutely proper, righteous even. The Lord Jesus was angry at the defilement of the temple by the moneychangers, and God, we read in Psalm 7:11, is angry with the wicked every day. We are right to be angry at the injustices that hard-hearted and uncaring people perpetrate against the weak and helpless. We are right to be angry about cruelty to human beings and to animals and about many other things. But, most human anger is not of this righteous kind, the expression of truly righteous indignation. Most human anger is selfish, hurtful, and disgusting. And so not surprisingly most of the human anger to which the Bible draws our attention in its ethical teaching is not of the righteous kind but the unrighteous. So much is this the case that James felt free to lay it down as a general rule:
“…the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” [1:20]
Therefore it is a fundamental rule of Christian living that we are to be “slow to anger” and to be as quick to get rid of our anger when it appears, or, as Paul puts it, “…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” [Eph. 4:26-27] According to one count, anger, with qualifications, is approved in one case in Proverbs and roundly condemned in nine others! Rabbi Duncan once recommended to someone John Owen’s great works on the mortification of sin but he said, “Prepare for the knife!” Well, prepare for the knife if you are dealing with Proverbs and its teaching about anger.
Anger is and remains a great problem in human life. To say that it is wrong and unworthy is not the same thing at all as gaining real control over it. Anger is the terrible scourge of many homes. There are many women and children who live in fear of an angry husband and father or employees who step on eggshells around an angry boss. Ask a waitress or a stewardess about anger and prepare yourself for the stories. Domestic abuse, of which there is a terrible amount in our country today is but one consequence of what is usually uncontrolled anger. How many women and children have been beaten or killed by angry men? How many relationships spoiled? How many children come to adulthood with all manner of psychologial and spiritual troubles because they were raised in angry homes, where fear and insecurity were more characteristic than love, happiness, and peace? Or think of the stories of road rage that we are treated to time and time again nowadays.
Angry people typically justify their anger and offer excuses, but the Bible does not hesitate to expose the emptiness of those excuses. In the famous dialogue in the last chapter of Jonah, the Lord asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” and Jonah petulantly replied, “Yes, I do well…” But in fact Jonah’s anger was small-minded, selfish, and bitter and he had no excuse for any of it and the Lord, by asking him a few deft questions exposed him for the fool that he had been. He was angry because the Lord had been merciful to the hated Assyrians, and that was selfish, all the more for the very man who had preached repentance to them in the first place. He was angry, if you can believe it, because they had listened to what he had said and had believed his message! He was angry that the plant that had been giving him shade had withered and that was both selfish and small-minded. He hadn’t minded the thought of thousands of Assyrians perishing under the wrath of God, but couldn’t bear the death of a plant because it gave him shade. And, of course, that is a key insight with regard to anger: it is a particularly virulent form of selfishness. The angry man or woman resents the fact that the world at this moment and in these circumstances is not as he or she wants it to be and thinks he or she deserves it to be. There is neither humility nor honesty in anger.
We’ve all seen it and been disgusted by it: a mother screaming at her children, a husband speaking cruelly to his wife, a shopper abusing a store clerk, a father at one of his children’s basketball or baseball games abusing the referee or the other team or the coach or whomever. Ask any referee or umpire what it is like nowadays dealing with players, fans, and parents. The death threat is now almost commonplace following a controversial call. Who does that? Angry people do. The world is full of anger.
Nothing is as pathetic as a man or woman attempting to justify his or her anger. It is equivalent to an effort to justify a lack of self-control, or bad manners, or cruelty, all of which anger usually is. You are always going to sound pathetic justifying your anger because such behavior is invariably pathetic and everyone can see it except you. The worse thing about anger, besides the harm it does to others, is that it has the power completely to undo a person’s character. Angry, a man will become the reverse of what he knows a human being ought to be, what he himself aspires to be, and what most of the rest of us think he is because we don’t ever see his anger. That latter fact, by the way, is the proof that the person really does know better. The proof is that he controls his anger in any number of contexts, only venting it to some people and in certain circumstances. If one can control it most of the time, one knows the difference; one knows that his anger would not be excused by others and so doesn’t show it to them.
But inexcusable as it is, pathetic as efforts may be to excuse it, and harmful as it is to others, the fact is there are still a very large number of angry people about. No wonder we read in 16:32:
“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”
Which is to say, anger is such a chronic human problem that the man or woman who has surmounted it and lives without it or with very little of it, is noteworthy. Such a person is the one who ought to be famous. Songs ought to be sung about him or her. Even people who can control their anger for the sake of their employment or their public reputation, often lose control even when we might have expected otherwise. Perhaps you read the other day of the man who refused to put out his electronic cigarette on an airplane and the flight had to return to Portland to put him off. Imagine the scene in that plane! What a fool; and it was no doubt anger that made him a fool, being told to do what he did not want to do; standing on his rights, insisting that an e-cigarette isn’t the same as a typical one, yelling at the stewardess, then at the other customers who began to complain that he was interfering with their schedules. See him being escorted off the plane red in the neck, shoulders hunched. What an idiot! He harmed himself more than anyone else. Anger does that every day to vast multitudes of people.
Are there reasons why some men and women grow up angry? Sure there are. A very large number of angry men grew up with angry fathers. They are imitating the behavior of their upbringing and, perhaps, are acting out their own resentment toward their fathers. Isn’t it interesting that the one thing Paul chooses to say to fathers about their parenthood is “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” And he says that twice! Why is that so important? Because a parent’s anger – which is what is indicated by a father’s provocation in most cases – has powerful effects on the character and the heart of a child. Similarly a man who treats his wife angrily is often doing what he saw his father do to his mother times without number as he was growing up at home. Others can be angry because they are bitterly disappointed at life. Their expectations never came to pass or they are unhappy that God made them as he did or put them where he did. This is very obvious. But, again, while such causes may help explain a particular person’s anger, but they do not excuse it. No one is a slave to his past or to an unhappy present unless he is willing to be and, again, the proof of that is that in virtually every case a man or woman can disguise his or her anger when it suits and only lets it fly when he is alone with the unfortunate few with whom he feels free to let down his hair.
So, what does Proverbs have to teach us about this piece of biblical wisdom: the control and management of anger. Most all of us have the problem to some degree, but, as so often in life, some of us have more of it than others. You know who you are, we may not. I say most of us have the problem. The fact is, some do not. I know a very fine Christian man who will tell you he never gets angry. When I first heard that I scarcely could believe it. Never? But it’s true and everyone says it’s true including his wife. I’m sure he would be the first to tell you that he has plenty of sins to mortify, but anger is not one of them. He is with anger what I am with alcohol. I’ve never once been tempted to drink to excess because I don’t drink at all. I hate the taste of alcohol. I thank the Lord over and over again that one cannot become inebriated by drinking iced tea! I would have a real problem then, but I have no problem whatsoever with alcohol. Drunkenness is not a sin I have ever had to worry about. I would never dare to say that about anger. But my friend has no problem with anger. In fact, sometimes his wife will get frustrated with him because the children are misbehaving and he isn’t getting angry at them for it. And she’ll tell him, “Honey, don’t you see what the kids are doing. They need to see you angry about that behavior.” And he’ll realize that he needs to be angry so he’ll rise up and hunch his shoulders and try to look and act angry; but, of course, his children know he’s not because he’s no good at being angry; he hasn’t put in the practice.
But that, alas, is all too rare a condition. Most of us need everything that Proverbs can teach us about anger.
- The first thing we are taught in Proverbs is that anger is the fruit or expression of other sins. A very important point. We often don’t appreciate anger for what it is; we don’t condemn ourselves for being angry as we should, because we refuse to make the connection between our anger and other base and unworthy states of mind and heart that lie beneath it and are being expressed by it.
Consider these two proverbs.
“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” [27:4]
“Scoffers set a city aflame, but the wise turn away wrath.” [29:8]
Much anger is produced by envy or jealousy and Proverbs shows great insight in connecting the two. What is more, there is the same kind of connection between anger and scoffing, by which Proverbs means ridicule. The critical spirit and the angry spirit are one in the same. We often don’t connect cruel and critical speech with anger, but the one is an expression of the other. No one wants to admit, of course, that he is jealous, or that he is eaten up with envy, that he looks out on the world with a sense of insecurity, conscious of what he does not have more than he is conscious of what he does have. There is something pathetic about such a person. Nor does anyone want to admit that he or she is cruel. No one will stand up for cruelty. It is easier to admit that you are angry because you can always offer some justification, some reason why your anger is righteous indignation. But it’s much harder to find an excuse for being cruel. But Proverbs cuts through the cant and connects the things for us. Angry people are often jealous and often cruel, which, of course, is the same thing as saying their anger is dispicable. The Bible is nothing if it is not relentlessly honest about our behavior. Where, for example, are the thoughtful Imans telling the Afghani Muslims who have been rioting and killing other of their fellow citizens, NATO soldiers, and so on, all because of the report that Korans had been burned on a U.S. base, that their anger is an expression of other things than zeal for Allah: viz. jealousy, insecurity and fear.
Anger rarely is found with no particular object, as if someone is just angry, not at anyone or anything in partiuclar, just angry. Anger looks for a victim and attacks. Anger is always against someone or something. In fact, it has been defined as “passionate againstness.” [Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 165] A great deal of the anger we encounter in life is resentment, aimed at someone or something that the angry person regards as objectionable to him or unjust or superior, or demeaning to him. Again, as with all sin, the concentration on the self is obvious. Anger is selfishness acting out, nothing more nor less.
Now very righteous people can get angry, and often do for the right sort of reasons, but they would never excuse themselves for being jealous or resentful or cruel. They are sharp-sighted enough to see what really is going on and what their motivations actually are and so they are ashamed of such anger. The great problem with the perpetually angry person is that he or she does not see what everyone else can see so well: that the motivations, the states of mind and heart that produce the anger ought to be humiliating to an honest person. There is something small, very small, about the always angry person and about everyone of us in that moment when we are giving vent to an angry spirit. No one wants to be small or be thought to be small, but if you’re angry, you are, and the very first step in coming to terms with your anger is seeing it for what it actually is. Proverbs says this directly.
“If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.” [24:10]
If you can’t control your anger there is something very small about you. You’re a jealous person, an insecure person, a cruel person. Are you willing to admit that? Are you willing for your wife and children or your husband to hear that about you?
- Second, anger is destructive, harmful to others. The angry person may think himself or herself simply giving vent to strong feelings, or expressing his sense of injustice or righteous outrage, but what he or she is really doing is hurting other people. Always! Anger is always harm to another human being.
There are a number of proverbs with this theme.
“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” [15:18]
“A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.” [29:22] Very few angry people ever face up to this fact: that their sin causes others to sin. Anger begets anger, bitterness, hatred. Over time it, especially in a Christian home, it begets unbelief in one’s children.
“It is better to live in a desert island than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman.” [21:19] Which is to say, that it would be better to live utterly alone, in complete isolation, than have to live with an angry person. That’s how destructive to life and happiness anger is when one can’t get away from it.
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” [22:24-25] “Sin is contagious.” [Bridges, Proverbs, 420] How many times have we seen this. Angry fathers beget angry sons; angry mothers beget angry daughters. The one fire ignites the others. One of the very worst features of our anger is the way it stokes the same unrighteous behavior in others.
“For pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife.” [30:33] What anger always does, in other words, is to sour and destroy relationships and to put and keep people in an adversarial relationship.
One of the most important ways to begin to deal with anger is to admit this: that it is, in fact, an attack on other people. There is a reason why Jesus likened anger to murder in his Sermon on the Mount. The two acts partake of the same principle of disdain for the life of another. Once that is admitted there are great arguments to bring to bear. Who are you to attack the Lord’s child or creature? What right have you to make life more difficult for someone the Lord loves, someone made in his image? Will not the Lord hold you to account for actively harming someone you were obliged to love? My goodness, you are required in the Gospel to love your enemies. That means there is no one left that you are free to attack or to harm. And if you are to love and care for others as Christ loved and cared for you, how can you justify darkening their lives with your anger, your selfish pride, your small resentments? Anger in this way is seen to be the repudiation of virtually every principle of the Christian faith. Are you a Christian or are your not?
If there were ever someone who had a right to be angry all the time it was the Lord Jesus. His disciples were often dopes, his enemies were unconscionable, he was lied about, purposefully misunderstood, and hated for no other reason but that he had done so many people such great good. They put him to death though he was perfectly innocent of any crime. And yet he forgave his killers as he prayed for their forgiveness even as life ebbed from his body. Now, with the Lord’s example before you, justify if you can, the anger you show to your wife or husband, your children, or the people who work for you or with whom you work, your neighbor, the store clerk, the waitress, or anyone else who has been made to feel your wrath! The Lord remained calm and loved those who had done him great wrong, but you get angry over nothing and ruin their day. Speak up; tell us why it is right for you to do that to another human being!
- Third, anger, if allowed a place in our hearts and lives becomes addictive, hard to root out.
This is, of course, true of every sin and every form of pride, but it is important to face this fact if it is anger that we are struggling to control.
“A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.” [19:19]
The sense of the proverb is a painful one. People who are habitually angry will not be helped, no matter how hard one tries. It may be that the proverb is actually instructing us not even to try, though it may be more a warning to the angry that if they do not deal with their sinful habits at once, it will be forever too late. [cf. Waltke, ii, 113]
One of the young men who came from us into the PCA pastorate some years ago found in his new church that he had an elder who was an angry man. If there wasn’t something handy to be angry about, he would find something. He was an old man, already in his retirement, and he had a dear wife whom everyone loved. But if any folk had confronted him about his anger years ago, they had long since given up. No one liked him very much; no one respected him, though he was an elder and had been for years. Our young pastor did his best to keep him mollified, but there was always something. And finally the angry man left, having found a man who would stand up to him and having discovered that nobody else would take his side. His pride was mortified. Everyone felt both relieved that he was gone and so sorry to lose the fellowship of his wife, who was sorry herself to leave the church she had loved and served for so long. But it was too late. He couldn’t stop being angry. What a sad story to tell of a man professing to be a Christian!
How many times have we seen that: anger so deeply rooted that it becomes a fixture in the behavior of a man, so much a fixture that no exposure, no penalty is great enough to cause a man to think again. There is a reason why anger has been described as “the chief sabateur of the mind.” [Collins, Christian Counseling, 100]
- Fourth, the control of anger, the mortification of this sin is a noteworthy achievement.
I think, sometimes, we fail to address our sins because we don’t appreciate the nobility of sanctification in such an area of temptation. Every Christian wants to have done something significant with his or her life. When you are taking that last step out of this world and looking back over your shoulder at the life you have lived, what will you see? What will please and satisfy you? What great work will you have done for Christ’s sake and by his grace? What thing can your children take pride in as they tell the story of your life?
Most of us dream of doing something for the Lord, something noteworthy. But that something is usually not the thing that the Lord has actually put before us to do. I’ve often said that I would love to be a martyr, but I have had to admit that I would like to lay my neck on the chopping block just after learning that I had terminal cancer and just before the symptoms began to bite. But most of us must face the fact that the great thing that lies before us to do in our lives is much more mundane, prosaic than martrydom by execution. It is facing the reality of some affliction and bearing it with grace, enduring some suffering in our lives with faith and submission to God, or mortifying one of those sins that the Puritans used to call besetting sins or bosom sins by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of Christ, and by the embrace and the practice of the principles of the Word of God.
And so for some people, many people indeed, the great thing that lies before them to do for Christ’s sake, the way for them to be able to say that they kept the faith and ran the race and fought the fight is to face down anger in their hearts and their behavior and cleanse their lives of it. That would be a great thing; that would be a story for your loved ones to tell!
“Whoever is slow to anger, is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” [16:32] In other words, there is something greatly to be admired in a person who controls his anger and, that must mean that there is something very much to admire in a person who has had an anger problem but learned to control it. We glory in the achievements of great military men, but they have not done anything so great as this!
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” [19:11] Or, in other word, it says much to a man’s credit that he is not provoked to anger even by the offenses of others. Such self-control brings one to the higher levels of human and Christian achievement. A man who controls the impulse to be angry is a man to be admired!
What would you rather they remember you for: your anger or how beautifully you came to exemplify the truth of this proverb?
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” [15:1]
So, what are we to do? Well, here are the perfectly obvious answers to that question.
- We are to stop denying we have the problem if others have told us we do. Denial leaves the anger in place and perpetuates the harm it does to others, while deepening its grip on the soul.
- We are to admit the great sin of our anger and be properly ashamed of the fact that we would be mortified, absolutely mortified, to have others hear and see what we have often said or done when angry. We would be stripped naked before them and exposed as fools.
- We are to confess the sin to God and plead with him for forgiveness through Christ and his cross.
- We are then to apologize for it to those who have felt our lash. Apologize again and again for what we have said and what we have done. Humbling ourselves before others in that way is the best way to train the heart to despise anger and despising it is the important first step to controlling it.
- We are to apply the biblical principles and the gospel principles, of which there are many, as an ax laid at the root of our anger. No one can believe in God’s love for the unworthy and remain angry; no one can accept that he is a sinner saved by grace and remain angry; no one can face the fact that he must give an answer for his behavior on the great day and remain angry. And on and on it goes.
- We are to ask a friend to hold us to account. The man who has the courage to admit to another that he has need of such accountability is the man who is likely, very likely, to change.
- And then, to the extent we are able, we are to change whatever circumstances may have provoked our anger in the past. Avoid the occasions. If you can’t manage your kids’ sports events, then by all means don’t go. Better that they don’t have you there than that you make a fool out of yourself in public and dishonor them and your testimony. Believe me, your kids will thank you for it!
The main thing is to take the Word of God to heart and your Christian faith to heart and admit to yourself: this cannot continue. It cannot! And because it cannot, it will not. The Lord helping me, it will not.