The Heart of Anger

Photo by ahmad gunnaivi on Unsplash

This post is adapted from a sermon.  If you’re interested in hearing more, feel free to follow my sermon podcast on Apple Podcasts, Anchor, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Breaker, PocketCasts, RadioRepublic, or other podcast apps.

Anger is one of those sins that can infuriate us in the Christian life like no other. Our own anger can be hard to read. It can be righteous or unrighteous, but often it is a mix of both. It can be deceptively hard to kill. We think we have a handle on our anger, and then something happens, and we’re ashamed that our angry hearts reared up so quickly and over something so small. And anger is often so forcefully projected. Anger can be a very hard sin to keep under wraps. All it takes is for one person to cut me off in traffic, and my façade of Christian maturity is shattered, much to my shame.

The bible speaks much about anger, and it gets right down to the heart, which is the heart of the matter, as we will see. Let’s read Numbers 20:2-13:

2 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah,[a] where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.


With the story of Moses and his anger in the background of our minds, I’d like to begin by examining how Proverbs describes an angry person.
First, Proverbs describes an angry man as a fool. An angry man is a fool. Proverbs 14:17 tells us that a quick-tempered man acts foolishly. A man with a short fuse is a fool. He’s not merely passionate; he can’t blame it on his Irish blood. It’s not just because of his heritage, or his background, its not a peculiar family trait. He is a fool. Proverbs 14:29 tells us that “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick tempered exalts folly.”

Whatever else he may be, whether a doctor of theology, an encyclopedia of biblical knowledge, a beloved pastor or deacon, a diligent worker, an encouraging person, a sweet little old lady, whatever else that person may be, an angry person is at root a fool.

An angry person is a fool for multiple reasons. They’re foolish because they let their passions and emotions control them. They’re led astray by their desires, rather than being governed by the Holy Spirit. They’re self-governance is dictated by circumstances around them. They’re reactive, rather than self-controlled, which causes all sorts of problems in this world.

Which leads to the second observation: not only is an angry man a fool, but the bible makes clear that an angry man will have strife. Proverbs tells us that an angry man will have strife, or trouble, conflict, discord. He will be surrounded by relational friction. People around him seem to always be on edge, and the potential for a fight is ever-present. Proverbs 15:18 teaches us that a hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger pacifies contention. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way: “Hot tempers start fights; a calm, cool spirit keeps the peace.”

We’ve all experienced this before. Somebody says something mean, that person says something back, things escalate one step at a time, and all of a sudden, things explode. It happens on the playground, it happens in politics, it happens on the ball field, it happens in marriages, and it happens in the church.

Rather than choosing to use a soft answer and turn away wrath, we choose to speak out of our fleshly impulses, and we end up throwing gasoline on the fire, which ends us burning us and others in the process. The result is strife. We have strife with our friends, strife with our family members, strife within the church.

And we do well to notice also that it is the angry man that stirs up strife. He is the guilty one for inciting the fuss. Angry people always like to blame someone else for their problems. If those kids would just behave, if my boss would just get off my back, if my spouse would quit doing that and pick up after themselves, if this circumstance were just over and done with, if this sickness would just go away, then I wouldn’t be so angry all the time. That’s not how it works. It is the angry person that is stirring up the strife in his life; it’s not the circumstances that are to blame.

What does James say about this in chapter 4? Listen to what he says: “why are there fights and quarrels among you?” which means “why is there strife among you?” He tells us the reason that there is strife and quarrels among us is because our sinful passions are at war within us. We crave something that we don’t have and we get angry about it and fight about it. It’s not the external circumstances that are the root of our anger problem. The root is our own sinful desires.

We crave peace and quiet, and we don’t get it, so we yell. We crave comfort, and we don’t get it so we complain. We crave attention from someone, and we don’t get it, so we sulk and withdraw. We crave, we crave, we crave, and we don’t get, so we pitch a fit, like a toddler that has been denied a cookie.  The angry man stirs up strife, rather than pacify contention.

And this stirring up of strife usually compounds itself. 29:22 tells us that “An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression.” An angry man abounds in transgression. He is overflowing in offenses, he is spilling over with sins. It’s not like an angry man has no other vices to contend with, like he is an otherwise holy man that has this single character flaw.

For example, an angry man is usually impatient. People testing his patience makes him angry. He erupts at the first sign of someone not using a blinker in traffic. He loses his mind when the elevator takes too long, or when the doctor makes him wait, or when you don’t respond to his text fast enough. Angry people often have problems with patience.

Think of Moses in Numbers 20. Moses is leading God’s people in the desert, and they need water. They come to Moses and complain about the lack of water, and about how he has brought them out into the desert to die, and how much better it was in Egypt. So God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water will flow. But Moses instead is impatient and angry with the people of God. His anger led him to be impatient and lose self-control, and because of his lost temper, he was unable to enter into the promised land. Our anger can likewise lead us to be impatient. People don’t listen, don’t follow our clear instructions, don’t do what we say, and we lose our cool, we get angry. Does any of this sound familiar? It sure does to me.

Or, if it’s not impatience, an angry man may have control problems. He likes to be in control, likes to be the boss, likes to have things done his way, in his time, by his methods, and if those things aren’t done the right way, he blows up. The kids aren’t cleaning up, and he loses it. Someone is not doing it the way that he would, so he gets annoyed and dismissive. Someone tries to help out, and he feels threatened, so he lashes out. He likes to be the king of his little kingdom, and when that idolatry isn’t brought to fruition, he explodes.

Or, an angry man may not be impatient or have control problems, but he might just medicate his issues in another way. He gets angry at God for the pain that he’s having to endure, so He may resort to drinking a little more than he should, partly to alleviate the pain, partly to forget about the anger. Or maybe he escapes into pornography. The wife just frustrates him and won’t give him what he deserves, so he tries to get it from somewhere else, driven more out of anger than anything else. How dare she not give me what I want? An angry man abounds in transgression, Proverbs says, which may look like any number of related sins.

Third, not only is an angry man a fool and destined to have strife, but an angry man is in danger. Proverbs tells us that an angry man is in danger. The author paints a picture for us of angry man being in peril. “Like a city that is broken into and without walls, is a man who has no control over his spirit,” says Proverbs 25:28. He’s exposed. He has no defenses. Like a city that is at the mercy of whatever is outside of its broken walls, so too is a man who can’t keep control of his anger. He is at the mercy of whatever the circumstances are around him. He’s not the one in control, he is controlled by his circumstances.

Furthermore, he is in danger of punishment. Chapter 19:19 tells us that a “man of great anger shall bear the penalty, and if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again.” An angry man will bear the punishment for his anger. He’ll reap the fruit of the seeds of anger that he’s sowing. And when that time comes, he will be even more angry. He’ll reap the fruit of broken relationships. His anger will drive his wife away from him. His children won’t want to spend time with him. His friends will not want to hang out anymore and nobody invites him over like they used to. His employees will look for jobs elsewhere. He’s bearing part of the penalty of his sinful anger.

But the real danger that this angry fool has is his relationship with God. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5 that if we’re angry with someone we are liable to judgment. Our sinful anger in our hearts, even if not expressed in violent rage, is more than enough to merit for us the righteous anger of God against us. And we’re all guilty of that. We’ve yelled at our children, or mumbled some insult under our breath, or cursed someone in traffic, or had bitter thoughts about a rival, or any number of other murderous thoughts.

And in most, if not all of these situations, we’ve blamed the strife, blamed our anger on something outside of us. It’s the circumstances, it’s the staff, it’s the traffic, it’s everyone and everything else’s fault that I’m mad. It’s not my fault. It’s certainly not because of my sinfully angry heart. These are the actions that condemned each and every one of us. And outside of Christ’s forgiveness, we all stood condemned. We all stood under the unrelenting, white-hot, righteous indignation of God who, in his holy anger can’t not judge and punish sin. That’s the status of all of mankind naturally. We’re born with this judgement upon us and we stoke the fires of God’s anger toward us with every angry word, every bitter thought, every murderous intention of our hearts.

But, praise God that the bible doesn’t leave us there. Jesus Christ is able to help us in our blind anger. The gospel starts with a God who, before all-time knew that his people would rebel against him. He knew that those beings made in his image would act hatefully toward him and toward each other. And yet, he chose for his own son a bride, a church, a chosen group, and shows that group eternal favor, rather than their just-deserved wrath. God determined not to be eternally angry at them, but to be peaceable.

Then, at the fullness of time, God sent for this very own son. This son was slandered, he was imposed upon, he was handled hatefully, he was insulted, he was treated as a criminal, rather than a king. He was betrayed, he was denied, he was scourged, he was mocked. And how did he respond? He didn’t lash out in unrighteous anger; He didn’t call his people names, like Moses did against God’s people. He didn’t stew in bitterness. He didn’t mumble under his breath about the coming judgement. He wasn’t the foolish man of proverbs that lacked self-control and thereby stirred up strife. Rather, he was the wise man that was slow to anger, and thereby pacified contention. That was true of him in his relationships on earth, and it was even true of his relationship with the Father. Because Christ was the faithful one that never showed unrighteous anger, because he was the dutiful son that never murdered in his heart, he earned the peaceful gift of eternal life for his bride. He became the prince of peace that earned an eternal life of peace for his brothers and sisters.

But not only that, he was even willing to take upon himself the punishment, the guilt, the just reward that was earned by his bride’s unrighteous anger. He died on the cross, felt the full and just wrath of the father, the righteous anger, the holy indignation that God’s divine essence executes upon the slightest of evil, that punishment was not given to us, though we deserved it. It was taken upon his body on the cross. Because he felt the full weight of God’s anger, we can be forgiven of our anger.

Picking up on the themes from Numbers 20, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10 that Christ was the rock that was struck, thus nourishing and sustaining his people so that they could have the strength to travel to the promised land of rest, which pictures our entrance into eternal rest with God. Because Christ felt the wounds of holy indignation on the cross, because he was struck, we can be pardoned for our sinful outrage. That’s the good news of the gospel for angry sinners like ourselves.

Do you believe that? Have you tasted of the salvation that flows from our rock and savior, Jesus? Salvation comes through that rock and that rock alone. All of our sinful anger and impatience and bitterness and rage can be washed, we can be forgiven, if we would just come to him in faith, believe that he is the son of God sent to take away the sins of the world, and turn away from our sins, seeking to kill them in godly repentance. Do you believe this? I hope that you hear this good news and heed it.

And it is only in light of this good news that we can and must repent of our sinful anger. We must be humble enough to recognize the sinful patterns in our life, humble enough to see that we really do have a problem with anger and irritability and wrath and rage and bitterness and jealously and resentment, and all the other species of murder, and we have to strive to crucify it. We have to kill it.

To use the Pauline language of Ephesians 4 we have to take it off, or the lay it aside, as Hebrews says. We must figure out what idols are still erected in our hearts, and topple them by the power of the spirit. Those idols might be our comfort, or the praise of others, or our reputation, or our preferences, or our time, or whatever. Whatever I idolize in my heart, when it gets threatened or taken away, and I get angry, that tells me I still have heart work to do.

Reflect on the state of your heart. Ask yourself, “why am I getting angry? What is it that I am craving that I’m not getting?” And if the motive is sinful, then prayerfully put it off. Take those thoughts and desires captive, ask the lord to help you crucify them, and then, when your heart has been made full by the forgiving power of the gospel, strive to put on holiness.

Put on a peaceful spirit, a spirit of deference to others, a spirit of charity and love, a spirit of self-control that manifests itself in our being slow to anger, just like God himself. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is not easily angered and not irritable. That’s what we strive for in the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the book of James. The book of James says a lot about anger and the tongue. Turn with me to chapter 3 in letter of James in the New Testament. James tells us early in the book that “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” I used to think that that verse was about wisdom in decision making, like who to marry, what job to take, where to live, things like that. But James goes much deeper, down to the heart. How does James talk about wisdom later in the book? He doesn’t talk about it in terms of the discernment needed to make decisions, though wisdom certainly helps with that. James talks about it interns of Christian character. Look to the end of James 3:13-17,

“13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”

Wisdom from above is peaceable, gentle, open to reason, he says. To be wise, to have God’s wisdom, means that you’re not quick-tempered, not irritable, not blinded by rage. The wise man is peaceable, cool headed, calm under pressure, and diffuses situations, rather than stirring up strife. That’s what it means to be wise, and that’s what we’re called to do, and we can do, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

All it takes is for us to ask God in faith for wisdom from Above. We’ve already been promised in James that God will give it generously, and he will give it without reproach. Be encouraged in that, in your asking, that God gives wisdom lavishly and without reproach. He doesn’t get angry at you for coming back again for more wisdom even though you chose foolishly 10 minutes ago. He gives without reproach, as our loving father doling out good gifts to his children, all because Christ was perfectly wise in our place. Come to the father again and again and be encouraged in your asking for wisdom, because he delights in giving good gifts to his people.

I want to give a few concluding thoughts and applications about anger. A few concluding thoughts and applications about anger

First, be careful of befriending someone who is habitually angry. This is especially important for our young ones to hear. Proverbs 22:24-25 tells us to avoid angry people, lest we learn their ways: “Do not associate with a man given to anger; or to with a hot-tempered man, lest you learn his ways and find yourself in a snare.” Anger is a contagious vice, and the effects of this vice cause shockwaves around the angry person. You may not even be guilty of anger like your angry friend is, but you will be affected by the fruit of your friend’s anger. Don’t be ensnared by someone that is given to anger.

Similarly, young ones: Do NOT marry someone that can’t control their anger. Don’t date someone that is given to habitual anger. It’s not going to get better if you get married, it will only get worse. If they blow up in anger at others, they will eventually direct the rage at you. Don’t be naïve and think that they would never do that to you; it’s only a matter of time.  A wise person will be very leery of associating with an angry person, either as a friend or anything else.

Second point of application: What do I do if I feel my anger is justified? Paul says in Ephesians 4 to “Be angry and do not sin,” which assumes that it is possible to have a righteous anger that is not necessarily sinful. What do we do when we think we’re in that position, when we think we are angry and justified in our anger? These few thoughts are drawn from something that Christopher Ash, a British pastor, once preached.

First, Be suspicious of your anger. Be suspicious of your anger. If you believe that your anger is justified, we would do well to be initially suspicious of our anger. Our motives are rarely, if ever, pure in this life, and there are often selfish intentions hiding away behind an otherwise noble emotion. We can be convinced that we’re fighting for truth, when hidden amongst that desire is a sinful craving for contention. Or we can think we’re trying to help another see their sin, when in reality we’ve got a little bit of anger that they would dare speak to us in that way. If you believe your anger is justified, be careful with it, and prayerfully analyze it, reflect upon it in light of God’s word.

Second, if you think you’re justified in your anger, be sure to Leave room for God. Leave room for God. Scripture is clear that vengeance and revenge are not ours to take. You, perhaps, might be the person that God intends to address some injustice or someone else’s error, but it could be that God will address it in his way and in his timing. I am especially speaking to the personality that always feels like it is there job to confront, correct, and rebuke sin. Make sure you leave room for God.

Third step if I feel my anger is justified, Meditate on the gospel. Meditate on the gospel. Saturate yourself with the truth of what God has done for you in Jesus. When we really have pressed the truth of Jesus’s grace down into our souls, and we’re deeply affected by his initiative taking and offense overlooking love, then we’re often much slower to confront and much quicker to overlook an offense. You might have real and justified anger for someone that has sinned against you, and you might be completely justified in confronting that brother or sister in love, but Proverbs also tells us that it is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense. It may be that after calming your heart through meditation on Jesus’s work in your place that you find yourself better able to overlook and forgive. Meditate on the gospel.

Fourth, after you’ve analyzed your motives, left room for God, meditated on the gospel, then you may speak when capable of doing so with love and self-control. Speak when capable of doing so with love and self-control. Biblically-justified anger, that is, anger that is not sinful, is expressed within the bounds of faithful self-control and with the motive of love. Without those two things, then you have sinfully expressed your anger. So, if you can confront in love and remain sober-minded and controlled in the process, then you may do so. If you cannot, then it is probably best to remain silent until you can, or let someone else speak in your place.


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