Christians often struggle with how to express anger, which can make us feel uncomfortable. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us how to focus this powerful emotion.
Perhaps you are familiar with the old camp song that encourages us, “When you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!” The song then goes on to tell us we should “stomp our feet!” and “shout Amen!” when those happy feelings bubble up inside and need to be expressed.
But what about when we are angry? I can’t think of a single song that outlines a healthy, acceptable way to express our anger.
When you were growing up, did you get any advice about what to do when you got angry? Perhaps your parents, grandparents or teachers offered suggestions about how to channel your frustration so it wouldn’t lead to loud outbursts or unacceptable behavior. This is an important lesson for children who often experience frustration.
Think back to when you were a child. Maybe you can remember some things that made you mad. Maybe it was being told that you weren’t old enough to play with the big kids, or the inability to keep up or to master skills like tying shoelaces or riding a bike or climbing a tree. Or maybe you had siblings who made it their life’s work to hide your playthings or arrange for you to take the blame for every mishap.
There are countless incidents every day when anger, frustration or annoyance can enter our lives.
What was the advice you received? Did anyone ever tell you to take a deep breath, or to count to 10 (or maybe 20), or maybe to get outside and go for a walk, or to change the scenery so you could get some perspective?
Those tactics don’t always work, but they do provide the gift of time. It is often important to slow the moment down and to pause so we don’t do something in anger that we will only regret later.
Jesus speaks about anger as one who knows what it is like to experience that powerful emotion. In the section of the Sermon on the Mount we read today, Jesus offers a series of contradictions. He begins each statement by saying, “You have heard” and then goes on to offer a very different perspective.
Jesus gets our attention by stating the well-known prohibition against murder set down some 1,500 years earlier in the Ten Commandments.1 This widely accepted statement is something most societies across the globe agree on, at least in principle. We cannot allow our citizens to kill one another; if they do, there will be punishment. However, Jesus surprises his listeners by saying that it is not enough to simply refrain from murdering. Jesus expects more of his followers; he instructs them not to act out in anger.
If we take a moment to reflect on the life of Jesus, we can consider events in his life that led to anger. We can learn much from his reactions. One example took place toward the end of his life. Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As he came into this holy city, the crowds praised him and shouted out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”2
The impression in that moment was that the whole city was worshiping and praising Jesus — that everyone was gathering in his name, that everyone seemingly wanted to follow his teachings and that everyone was ready to love their neighbors and love God with all their heart, mind and strength.
But imagine Jesus’ disgust when he goes to the temple and finds there not people bowed down in prayer or gathered to sing God’s praises. Instead, he finds a huge throng of people using the courtyard of the temple as a marketplace. It would be like entering our beloved sanctuary on Sunday morning and finding that tables had been set up across the pews, with people selling their wares and collecting money for their own purposes.
When Jesus saw the marketing going on, he was angry. He uttered harsh words, saying, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”3 In anger, he overturned the tables of the merchants and drove them out of the temple. It must have been a noisy, chaotic scene. But nothing was going to stop Jesus in his fury.
Just a few short days later, Jesus was in circumstances where anger might have seemed an appropriate response, but Jesus didn’t express that emotion. After the Last Supper, he was in a garden with his disciples on a Jerusalem hillside. Soldiers came to arrest Jesus and take him to trial. This time it was Simon Peter who got angry, and we can understand why. Peter had recognized Jesus as the Messiah and had followed him for years; now Peter saw his beloved teacher being treated like a common criminal. Peter’s anger drove him to take his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave.
It was another loud, emotional, chaotic scene. In that moment, there must have been yelling, shouting, pushing and screaming. There was blood. There was pain. That is what anger can look like. But Jesus transformed that moment by halting Peter’s angry response. Jesus cried out, “No more of this!” and touched the injured servant and healed the wound.4 That instant of anger was changed into a witness to grace and compassion and healing.
Those are two separate examples of rage with two very different outcomes. Jesus demonstrates that anger in and of itself is not negative; however, it does matter how we use and react to anger.
Anger can be as simple as the annoyance that we experience when someone cuts in front of us in the grocery line or when a reckless driver puts our lives at risk on the highway. On the other hand, anger can be as complex as being hurt by someone we know and trust. Anger can be a profound experience of disillusionment when someone acts without integrity.
All of us have experienced this emotion that can cause us to lose sleep or have a knot in our stomach. When Jesus cautions us about anger toward our brother or sister and directs us to reconcile with those who have something against us, Jesus is not telling us to avoid anger. Instead, he is acknowledging that frustration, misunderstandings and hurt feelings are all part of our human experience. Jesus isn’t telling us how to feel. Rather, Jesus instructs us about how to respond to these challenging situations.
Jesus is talking about more than emotions here; Jesus is describing a lifestyle, a way to carry out our lives and a way to conduct ourselves. It is how we react to that anger that matters. When we are hurt, insulted, betrayed or disappointed, we will feel many things, including anger. Our response to those situations — how we act and how we treat others — matters. If we live a life of vindictiveness, focus on revenge and concentrate on avenging ourselves, we will be defined by that.
There are certainly occasions when we are justifiably angry. We human beings can do great harm to one another. There are times when we suffer an injustice or experience physical or emotional hurt at the hand of another. It is important to note that Jesus does not qualify the types of anger we might experience. Holding onto any kind of anger is generally bad for us. It is said that when we hold onto a grudge, it is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. We need to use our anger constructively, so its destructive power does not fester within us.
When we hold onto anger without finding a constructive outlet, it can consume us. On the other hand, if we lash out in rage, we can harm others. Clearly, we need the wisdom and guidance of God, and thankfully, God does not ask us to confront this dilemma alone. Jesus says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
It is not a matter of self-control, biting our tongues or avoiding the source of our fury. It is about realizing that without God’s wisdom and guidance, anger can be paralyzing. When our hearts are filled with frustration, envy or bitterness, we are not able to worship or receive God’s blessings. Jesus instructs us to first seek reconciliation and peace so we can be released from the grip of anger.
We are not alone in this struggle. We are called to be self-aware and not deny the fury that may dwell within us. If we find ourselves filled with anger or the desire for revenge, we should stop everything and go to the God of love and new life, who will minister to our warring spirit. We are not asked to have superhuman strength and never experience frustration, anger or disappointment. We are instructed to throw ourselves on God’s altar of renewal — not to be punished but instead to be healed, ministered to, surrounded by God’s balm and given a righteous way to constructively express our anger.
Anger is complicated. We may need to ask for God’s help with this complex emotion again and again. Yet the invitation is open. God welcomes us with the reminder that as we struggle with often thorny interactions with our brothers and sisters, we are not alone.
1 Exodus 20:13.
2 Matthew 21:9.
3 Matthew 21:13.
4 Luke 22:51.