If you have an anger problem, it could be that you are just too religious.
When Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes,” he was not telling us to try harder. Jesus’ first concern is not what we do but who we are. He is more concerned with our heart than our behavior. The righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes never fixes the heart. It only legislates behavior, and whenever we try to mask our broken hearts with good behavior, we not only play the hypocrite, but we lose our ability to love God and love other people; and we become angry.
Here is what Jesus said in Matthew 5:21-26,
You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I assure you: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!
As Jesus quoted the Law, “Do not murder,” it is likely his hearers felt pretty good about themselves. They knew of a few murderers, but they were not murderers. So what did this have to do with them? Then Jesus said, “But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
When sin has its way, hate replaces love and contempt replaces compassion. The first recorded act of sin outside of the Eden was a brother murdering his brother. There was no self-defense involved. It was not accidental. It was a crime against another human being, rooted in anger. So Jesus gets to the heart of the issue and said just as the murderer will be subject to judgment, so will the one who is angry with his brother.
But Paul indicates that not all anger is wrong by writing, “Be angry, and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). Jesus showed indignation toward the religious leaders on a number of occasions. So Jesus was not condemning anger toward injustice. Neither was he talking about the anger of personal frustration. Instead, he was condemning a selfish anger, rooted in pride, jealousy, unforgiveness and bitterness toward the people around us. He was confronting our unwillingness to love one another. Jesus’ goal here was not to reduce crime, but to confront and ultimately heal the corruption of our hearts.
Our lack of love shows itself in a number of ways, but it is most quickly revealed in our speech. Jesus called out the word “raca.” Some translations use the word “fool,” but it could also be translated, “air head,” “jerk,” or “worthless.” It was a well-known word of contempt, which even sounded rough when spoken. It was intended to mark another person as one with no value. Jesus went further and said, “Whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.” Raca impugns a person’s worth, but “moron” shows disregard for a person’s character. You have to face the religious tribunal (the Sanhedrin) for “raca,” but “moron” will land you in hell. Jesus was very serious about this and our lack of love for one another.
He was so serious that he said we cannot relate to God with any kind of authenticity if we are in conflict with the people around us. Jews would bring their gifts on the Day of Atonement to offer as a sacrifice. It was a big deal that only happened once every year. It was a real sacrifice that required planning and travel. Their righteousness, so they thought, depended on it. But Jesus said, don’t bring your gift until you have reached out for reconciliation with your brother. Our problem with another person is not just between two people. People problems are an offense against God.
It could be that our worship is so dry; it could be that our prayers are empty; it could be that our appetite for God’s Word is so small; it could be that our service is fruitless because of our attitudes of pride, jealousy, unforgiveness and bitterness toward the people around us.
So Jesus said to take care of the conflict before it goes to the judge. Jesus was referring to actual court proceedings and encouraging both parties to settle out of court or else they would have to live the harsher legal ruling of the judge, in which case would be a tougher pill to swallow. He was saying that if we refuse to deal with our anger when it is small, it will only grow too big to handle at all.
How then do we “reach a settlement” with our brother who has become our adversary? Here are seven practices of reconciliation that can bring healing to our angry hearts.
- Humble yourself. Just because we have not killed someone yet, does not mean we are without guilt. When we are offended, our pain is legitimate. But when we have been offended, it is also very likely our brokenness has affected the offender in ways we know nothing about. The other person may be just as hurt as we are. We may or may not deserve the treatment we are getting, but we all deserve much worse than we are getting. The log in our own eye is there, and until we acknowledge it and deal with it, we will have a difficult time reconciling with anyone else. Humility is the currency of reconciliation.
- Show honor. The terms “raca” and “moron” were bad words that revealed a bad attitude. Paul wrote, “Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). Affection and honor are signs of respect. They are not only attitudes; they are actions. Jesus demonstrated his love for us. We did not deserve it, but he showed it by giving his life. We do not endorse offensive behavior; but by giving our time and effort to others, we show honor to them as people who have value as image bearers of God.
- Guard speech. Jesus flat out condemned calling people names or speaking of one another in negative ways. Maybe you have noticed, but we often feel justified to offend whenever we have been offended. Our negative speech often validates our negative attitudes, but biblical Christianity calls us to something better than that. “Kind words are like honey— sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” (Prov. 16:24). Our speech should be pleasant to the ears and to the soul of those who hear, and even to those who do not hear us right away.
- Take initiative. Jesus said, “Go and be reconciled.” If you know there is something between you and another person, step forward and show concern and a willingness to reconcile. We can never anticipate or control their response, but that is not our job. Our job is to obey God and trust him with the results. “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18, emphasis mine).
- Move faster than slower. Jesus said to make it quick. First settle the conflict, and then bring your gifts. Conflicts may get quieter with time, but they never get smaller. You may have a cool down period so that emotions are in check, but Jesus calls us to settle our accounts without delay. The longer the conflict continues, the more pain and bitterness grows and the more opportunity for public disgrace.
- Forgive like you have been forgiven. Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker is extremely helpful here. He makes the point that forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiveness is not forgetting. We do not have the capacity to forget. And forgiveness is not excusing the offense. Instead, forgiveness is a decision to “release from the liability to suffer punishment.” It is as if we forgive a debt. We consider it paid, although it is not, and we “absorb the liability someone else deserves to pay.” When we forgive, we do not dwell on the offense, we do not bring it up or use it against them, we do not talk about it to others, and we do not allow the offense to stand between us. “Remembering what Jesus did to purchase our forgiveness should be our greatest incentive to release others from the penalties they deserve.” Perhaps our greatest testimony to the grace of God is how we forgive others who have deeply wounded us.
- Trust God. “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for his wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom.12:19). Here is a liberating thought: We do not have to manage all of the consequences of another person’s offense. God is perfectly capable of that. God is also very capable of healing what has been lost. Sometimes restoration is possible. Other times it may be out of reach. But either way we can rest in the sovereign hands of God.
Paul wrote, “But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21). Instead of trying to fix people and right wrongs, we just keep serving people, and we trust God to change hearts.
We must not think that because we are not on death row, we do not deserve to be. We may not have murdered anyone, but we may have allowed anger toward another person to feed a root of bitterness in our hearts. Perhaps it is time to kill the root and restore the relationship. Until we do, we are the offender in need of the very mercy we are withholding.
This article was originally published here.