I wrote about anger last week because this strong and sometimes unpredictable emotion perplexes us, particularly as its expression relates to Christian character and witness.
Among Christians, what we may least understand is that not all anger is the same. There is good anger and bad anger. The anger that moves a man to intervene when he sees a disabled boy being bullied in public is good anger. Road rage is bad anger.
As Moses was descending from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets freshly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, he saw that the people had returned to pagan practices of worship and celebration. This made the Lord angry, and Moses, too, as God’s representative. As Moses neared the camp, he dashed the tablets to the ground, smashing them as an object lesson to the people.
In that account God’s anger is mentioned three times, and Moses’ anger is appropriate. The Lord does not rebuke him (Exodus 32:7-20). We can call this good anger.
But later, when the Israelites are without water in their wilderness journey, the Lord instructs Moses to take his staff and “speak to that rock” while the people watch. Instead, he addressed the people as rebels, speaks so as to take God’s glory to himself, and strikes the rock angrily twice (Numbers 20:2-11).
We call Moses’ anger that time bad anger — self-seeking, self-serving and disrespectful of the people he was called by God to serve. He paid dearly for his angry outburst.
Today, we are living in angry times, and too much of the anger we experience or witness is bad anger. Such anger is not just fueling terror and destruction in other parts of the world; it gets into important relationships and strikes often close to home, in family, or church.
We must not forget we are capable of anger because we are made in the image of God. Without this capability we would be less than human. Yet we need to understand that anger is like fire: under control, fire can keep a whole household comfortable on a cold wintry day; undisciplined it can burn down the house and the neighborhood too.
All this is why the Apostle Paul warns against the danger anger poses. Borrowing from Psalm 4:4 he writes, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).
If destructive anger is damaging our witness for Christ, God’s mighty Spirit who dwells in believers enables a better way. Here are three suggested steps we can take to cooperate with the Spirit.
First, we tell ourselves the truth. A woman in a Christian organization became angry with her boss and would not speak to him. One day he asked her: “Are you angry with me? She replied, “No, I’m just perturbed.”
Perturbed is a good word but not rigorous and pointed enough to summons conscience with a call for change. Attaching the right word to any condition we want to deal with is the first step toward appropriating grace to bring about the change needed. There is a saying, “To know oneself diseased is half the cure”.
Second, we tell God the truth. He of course already knows, but confession opens the way for God to work in us when we speak of our sins to Him. The psalmist prayed, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).
Third, tell someone else the truth. Sometimes we need the support and coaching of another human being, like a pastor or counselor, to face up to sinful anger. That person can be a conduit of the Lord’s grace, helping us to recognize our anger and to learn new ways of dealing with this emotion.
It is not God’s will that we become incapable of anger. Even Jesus was appropriately angry with hard-hearted Pharisees who had no compassion for a man with a withered hand who needed healing (Mark 3:5).
But in our fallenness this emotion too is tainted by sin and needs redemption. So, while we rejoice in the grace God has already given us, if our anger is corroding our spirits or proving hurtful to others we implore for added grace to make us whole, remembering the promise given the Apostle Paul: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a)
Image info.: “Moses Striking the Rock.” A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations.