Christian discussions about anger frequently focus on the subject of righteous anger. Since Paul told us to be angry without sinning (Ephesians 4:26), and since Jesus got angry (John 2:13–22; Matthew 21:12–17; 23; 25:31–46), the question frequently becomes how to distinguish between righteous and sinful anger. And, let’s be frank, we all want to think that our anger is righteous.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his hearers to surpassing righteousness. Their righteousness, he said, must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. One way in which it must surpass Pharisaic righteousness is that it must flow from the heart rather than focusing on mere actions. He then offers several barriers to surpassing righteousness. The first of those is anger.
Jesus points to the ultimate manifestation of anger: murder. The religious leaders were quick to speak out against murder and were pretty good at avoiding this particular sin. But Jesus argued that, for our righteousness to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, we need to look below the surface and manage our anger. He addresses two forms of anger.
First, he addresses anger in the form of rage. This is the uncontrolled anger that we typically think of, which leads directly to murder. “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.” According to Jesus, that uncontrollable anger, where your voice raises and the veins pop from your throat, leaves you as guilty before God as murder itself.
If you think that this is not a problem that Christians face, spend some time online. Christians contribute as significantly to outrage culture as unbelievers. If we fail to show sufficient outrage toward gays and lesbians or the abortion industry, Christians are quickly angered at our lack of anger. If you dare write a book on Jesus as “gentle and lowly,” it won’t be long before someone answers with a critique that you didn’t write enough about Jesus’ anger and vengeance.
Second, Jesus addresses a far more subtle form of anger—a form to which many of us are perhaps even more prone. He addresses the subtle form of dehumanising anger called contempt. “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
“You fool” translates a dismissive term that was used derogatorily of others. The original word—raca—was derived from the sound one makes when clearing one’s throat—or when producing sufficient phlegm to spit in someone’s face. The idea is that the person crying “you fool” feels nothing for his victim. He has such contempt that he considers his victim to be of no value.
We can immediately see how such an attitude might likewise lead to murder. How did the Nazis justify the murder of millions of Jews? How did the architects of apartheid justify such inhumane treatment of fellow image bearers of God—all in the name of Christianity? By so dehumanising them that their actions were of little consequence.
We are far too quick to dehumanise those who do not share our same values and worldview. We treat them with contempt, all the while boasting that we have never killed anyone. Jesus had strong words for people like us! “[You] will be liable to the hell of fire.”
As you reflect on these words this morning, consider how your own anger and contempt makes you guilty of the murder you so happily profess to avoid. Confess your anger to God and pray for the Spirit to help you manage your anger to the glory of God.