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But I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the high council. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.
The context here, of course, is the Sermon on the Mount. When we come to the this passage we have arrived at a watershed moment. We are in the first book of the New Testament, and have learned about the genealogy, birth, childhood, temptation, and ministry beginnings of Jesus (a lot to cover in four short chapters). Now we are sitting on the side of a mountain with a multitude of people and Jesus is about to declare his first public remarks. He begins with a vision of the kingdom and explanation of how his teachings will fit into the writings of the law and the prophets. With all of that groundwork made Jesus is finally ready to start teaching.
So, if you were the Son of God, preparing to give your first incarnated sermon in the history of creation, with what subject would you begin? Jesus chose, surprisingly to us, the subject of anger. Why did He start there? Perhaps Jesus is doing more than pointing back to the Ten Commandments. He may be pointing us all the way back to the Fall of Humanity. The very first issue that arose after the Fall was the anger that overcame Cain (Genesis 4:6-7). It is there that sin began to rule us, and it is there that Jesus will begin. What is the nature of this anger that Jesus warns us about, and what is our proper response?
First, anger is not sinful in and of itself. The same word used by Jesus here is also used to describe Jesus’ own anger at seeing the hardness of heart in some individuals (see Mark 3:5). It is also the same word that the apostle Paul used when warning the Ephesians not to sin in their anger (Eph. 4:26). So, anger is not so much the issue, rather it is a manifestation of a deeper reality. Anger is a sign for us to stop and take notice. It is a great Check Engine light of the soul.
Second, anger is not necessarily marked by a quick temper. We tend to think of reactive people as possessing more anger, but in fact there is a different word in the New Testament used for that type of anger. Rather, this type of anger refers to something that is more lasting in nature, a disposition, a countenance. If you are one of the last people to burst out in anger you may be one of the first people to hold a grudge.
So, what is the proper response to anger? Perhaps some very basic grammar notes can be helpful here. Every verb has a property called voice, which indicates how the subject is related to the action. In Greek there are three voices: active, middle and passive. In the active voice the subject produces anger. In the passive voice the subject receives anger. In the middle voice the subject is participating with anger. This voice emphasizes the subjects role with anger over the action of anger (active) and the end condition of the person who has been overpowered by anger (passive). It is this middle voice that Jesus uses to emphasize the state of limbo that anger puts us in. It is in the midst of this limbo that the battle is either won or lost.
We see this in Ephesians when Paul tells us to not sin in our anger (middle voice), and then goes on to say not to let the sun go down on our anger (passive voice). The point is that when anger springs up in us we have a certain amount of time to deal with it. Once that time runs out (the sun sets on it) we will either have overcome it or it will have overcome us. Thus God warned Cain in his anger, “…sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).
One common mistake people make with anger is never expressing it. Some anger can be dealt with by “holding it in” and eventually “letting it go.” Indeed, sometimes it is best to “walk away” and “cool down.” However, constantly suppressing your anger can lead to other problems. Those include such things as passive-aggressive behavior, cynicism, putting others down, being overly critical, wishing ill towards others, giving dirty looks, and possessing an unpleasant disposition to name a few.
So how do you deal with the anger? Obviously you want to enlist the help of the Holy Spirit. Take your anger to God and use the spiritual weapons he has given you. However, there are also some simple, practical tips that you can use in dealing with your anger. Start by “talking yourself down.” Replace irrational thoughts with rational ones. For example, thoughts like “this ruins everything” can be turned into “this is frustrating, but not the end of the world.” Avoid absolute thinking like “never” and “always.” Use your energy to work on solving the problem instead of fretting over it. Learn how to communicate your feelings to others more accurately. Use your sense of humor to calm yourself or simply take a break from the situation.
Corrie ten Boom, the famous Nazi concentration camp survivor turned missionary once noted the power of forgiveness. She said, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.” The truth of this statement is much more than an anecdote or sweet sentiment. It is reflected in Jesus’ teaching on anger in the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the lesson on anger Jesus employs the language of justice. He uses statements like “liable to the court” (v. 21), “guilty before the court” (v. 22a), and “guilty before the supreme court” (v. 22b). However, he clues us in that He is talking about more than human courts when He goes on to say “guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (v. 22c). Now we are beginning to see that there is a greater spiritual reality to which Jesus is referring. There is a greater judge than can be found in human courts. With that point made he continues with the illustration. He speaks of making friends with your “opponent at law” so that you are not handed over to the judge and officer and “thrown into prison” (v. 25). Again, Jesus is referring to a spiritual reality. There is a prison that all of us can end up in from our anger. He then drives the point home by saying, “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent” (v. 26). If you are imprisoned by anger today go ahead and begin the work you need to do to deal with it. The resulting freedom will be well worth the price.