Today our Lord teaches us about anger. This is a very timely reading. Everyone seems angrier lately. Speaking for myself, I know I have been angrier lately because of everything going on in the world. I know this is the case with some of you as well, and likely for many of you. Why is it that anger has increased? Well first we must answer the question, “What causes anger?” Anger is stirred up when someone treats something that you regard as important as if it were not important. We might call this the feeling of being slighted or the feeling of indignation. Indignation says, “That’s not right.” Anger is an impulse or desire that accompanies this feeling of indignation. Anger desires justice. Specifically, anger desires that the person who committed the wrong would receive some sort of physical comeuppance. This is why Jesus connects anger with the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.”
Now we might be inclined to think that, if this is the definition of anger, then all anger is a sin. That is not the case. The anger that Jesus speaks of in today’s reading is anger with one’s “brother,” one with whom you approach the altar of God. We’ll talk about why anger toward a Christian is wrong in a little bit. But we should carefully distinguish anger with one’s brother from anger with those who are enemies of God.
It is not wrong to be angry with the enemies of God. How do we know this from Scripture? Well to start, we have the example of our Lord himself. He’s the one who made a whip of cords and drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Now this doesn’t mean we should whip unbelievers. Jesus had the authority to do what he did, whereas as don’t have the authority to bring physical punishments on the wicked. Nevertheless, we can share the indignation of Jesus against those who, for instance, pervert the worship of God.
As further evidence that Christians can, in good conscience, be angry with the enemies of God, we have the psalms. If all anger were a sin, then God’s Word would cause us to sin by putting the words of the psalms in our mouths. In Psalm 26 we sing, “I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked.” Psalm 97 even exhorts Christians to a proper anger and hatred, “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” And lest we think that it’s only ok to be angry with abstract concepts but not with actual people, we have Psalm 31, “I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord,” and Psalm 119, “I hate the double-minded, but I love your law,” and Psalm 139, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
Now this is God’s Word, and God is not teaching you to sin; he’s teaching you to think and say what’s right. But let’s pause for a second and get ahold of the sinful nature, which hears verses like these and immediately concludes that all anger is permissible, especially when it feels wronged. We must carefully note that the psalmists are never angry because of personal slights, but because the world doesn’t hallow God’s name, won’t acknowledge God, seeks to put down the true worship of God, wrongly persecutes the Church, and other such things as we pray against in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. So the psalmist never sings, “I hate those who drive their chariots ten miles under the speed limit.” No. Anger at mere personal slights is not godly anger. If a man does not care about God’s name being kept holy, then God does not acknowledge any of that man’s anger as right. But as an example of the godly anger, the psalmist sings in Psalm 10, “the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’... Arise, O Lord; O God lift up your hand... Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.” You see that this lament and prayer involves anger, but it’s anger at man breaking the First Commandment, not anger for personal reasons.
And yet the godly anger of the saints is still personal in the sense that when Christ is wronged, we are wronged. Indeed, the way the world wrongs Christ is by wronging his Christians: plugging its ears when we speak Christ’s Word, mocking us, slandering us, tempting us, persecuting us, hating us without cause, all of which the world previously had done to Christ directly. When we get angry at these things, it is a godly anger, because the world is belittling what is important to God. To illustrate, consider the opening verses of Psalm 7: “O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.” In other words, “Lord, I want to be a Christian, and the world seeks to destroy my soul.” It’s important to God that we receive eternal salvation. He gave his Son into death to accomplish that salvation. When the world tries to undermine that salvation and prevent it, God gets angry, and we do too. So the psalmist prays, “Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies.”
We can now return to our initial question: why has anger increased lately? Certainly the world has its reasons for being angry, namely, that it’s insane and hates the Son of God who died for its sake. But we’re more concerned with ourselves and the anger that we’re experiencing. Why are we angrier lately? Because the world has increased its scoffing at the things of God. The government tried to force churches to stop meeting, while allowing big box stores to remain open and sympathizing with rioters. For months pastors were not allowed to give spiritual care to those in nursing homes. God made man male and female, and the world has tried to recreate the sexes according to its own sinful desires. Public schools are teaching false doctrine to our children and treating them inhumanly. God created man to live in community and to look on the faces of other men, and the world, through a variety of means, is seeking to dehumanize man. In short, creation and redemption are important to God. They are his two greatest acts. And the world treats both of them as if they were insignificant. This angers God. This angers us.
But now the important question is: what do we do with this anger? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t like to be angry, not even when the anger is righteous anger. Being angry is like having a fire in your belly, and while anger wants to lash out and burn those who have done wrong, the simple fact is that we cannot harbor anger without burning ourselves. Besides, God has not given it to us to lash out against wrongdoers and take out our burning anger on them, as it says in Romans 12, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” This means that if we give vent to our anger and take it out on the wicked, we are doing wrong, and if we simply keep it pent up, we are harming ourselves.
What then do we do with our godly anger? First, we lament to God and pray. The psalms teach us to do this, as we have already heard. It might seem strange to tell God what’s going on in the world and complain about it to him, since he knows it already. But the Lord teaches us to do this when he puts the psalms in our mouths. So don’t hesitate to lament and complain to God about the world. Don’t hesitate to pray that he arise and put evildoers to shame and break the teeth of the wicked. This is how we give a godly vent to godly anger.
Second, when you feel your godly anger burning hot, cool off with the promises of God and the hope he has given us. Psalm 37 teaches this beautifully. “Fret not yourself,” it says several times, or more literally, “Don’t heat yourself up.” “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!” Why? “For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” And again, “Refrain from anger and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.” It’s not like the wicked are going to succeed. The devil looked successful against Christ for a minute, but he wasn’t. By his death on the cross, Jesus overthrew the devil’s kingdom and plundered it, and, by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus destroyed the wages of sin and restored to us the hope of eternal life. When we’re mindful of these promises and this hope, we realize that there’s nothing to get worked up about. The world might have its hour, but it will pass, and we know what we get in the end even if we don’t know what tomorrow holds.
And third, once you’ve regained a calm heart through the hope of Christ, pray for the enemies of God, as Jesus teaches us later in Matthew 5, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We must remember that we were conceived and born as enemies of God because of the corruption of sin. If the Lord had not had mercy on us, we would be perishing eternally. Since God obviously thinks the salvation of man is important, we do too, and we pray for it, as in the litany, “To forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers and to turn their hearts: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.” Jesus prayed this on the cross, Stephen prayed this while he was being stoned to death, and we pray it as well.
Now so far we’ve been speaking largely about godly anger: that there is such a thing as anger that is not sinful, what causes it, and what to do with it. Yet we would do a disservice to Christ’s words if we did not speak also of the anger he speaks of in today’s reading, namely, anger against one’s fellow Christian, as Jesus says, “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Why is it ok to be angry with the wicked world but not with one’s Christian brother? Because your Christian brother has been set free from the wrath of God as you have. God desires the salvation of all, but those who don’t believe in his Son are currently under his wrath. It’s fine to be angry with those with whom the Lord is angry, even while we desire their salvation. But if the Lord has set aside his anger against someone, who are you to be angry with that person?
“But he did me wrong!” Perhaps he did. But when we did God wrong, though he was completely faultless and though he has the highest claim to justice, he did not seek justice, but sought reconciliation. He chose rather to kill his Son than destroy you, so much does he desire peace over strict vengeance. As it says in Colossians 1, “In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.” Therefore, we seek reconciliation with our fellow Christians, we overlook their faults, forgive their sins, and go to the altar together, confessing our mutual need for the grace of Christ and together receiving it.
And now what’s the final word on anger? Having considered both kinds of anger, the godly kind and the sinful kind, it’s inescapably clear, if we examine ourselves even slightly, that we often confuse anger. Rather than getting angry at things that slight God, we more often get angry at things that slight us, whether they come from the world or from fellow Christians. God help us! Make us regard as important only what is important to you. Do not let us regard fellow Christians as we would regard the unbelieving world. And forgive our sins in this matter, as we sang to you, “My faithful God, Thou failest never, / Thy cov’nant surely will abide; / O cast me not away forever / Should I transgress it on my side. / Though I have oft my soul defiled, / Do Thou forgive, restore, Thy child.”
And God grants this, for he is merciful. Your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ. Our Lord is raising up a new man from the baptismal font, even as the sinful flesh dies there, and the new man learns not to get so heated up by the world and to cast his cares on the Lord and to forgive his brethren. May the Lord strengthen you as his new creation and give you his peace as you await the day of deliverance. Amen.