Anger & Bitterness

Be angry, Paul says, but do not sin. There are those in our age of all-embracing tolerance and shallow "love" that assume anger is at least as bad as lying or fornication. Yet the apostle's words clearly indicate that anger itself isn't wrong; it all depends on how we deal with it and express our anger.

It also depends on the cause of our anger. If we get mad because someone cuts in front of us at the supermarket, clearly we're also dealing with pride and selfishness, and our anger is sin. But if injustice and abuse toward the world's poor and defenseless is the root of our wrath, we have done nothing wrong.

This is precisely the kind of anger most people have a problem with. The reason isn't that they're sadistic and want to see people suffer, but that they don't want to be told that there's an objective standard of behavior to which everyone must conform. They prefer to be free agents, and anger against human sin, failure, and shortcomings curtails their autonomy.

Jesus experienced this often enough with the Pharisees. He didn't perpetually smile at them and say He loved them but hated their sin. Instead, he told them they were hypocrites, drove them out of the temple, and called them to repentance. The Gospel isn't that God loves you just the way you are and wants to be your friend; it's that you need to be changed by Christ's blood so that you may be loved as His child.

Ironically, this Gospel message (so simple and yet so difficult to believe!) in turn makes those who reject it angry. They can't abide the thought that putting all their faith and trust in God will save them; surely, they're own wonderful abilities and accomplishments have something to do with the equation?

The Bible tells us no, we are saved by God's grace alone and by nothing we do on our own. It is also by God's grace that we are able to be angry and not sin. Ordinarily, the things we'd get mad about would cause us to sin in our wrath, but in Christ we take on a new mind, one that reflects not our own well-being but a primary concern for His, and that of His Church.

But though there is a place for anger in the life of the Christian, we must not fail to see the dangers of cultivating it. Anger that takes root is very, very dark. It becomes something worse than mere anger, it becomes bitterness. Bitterness comes as a result of constant blame-shifting, self-deception, and unmitigated pride.

When Naomi and Ruth returned to the land of the Israelites, Naomi told people to call her Mara, bitter. Her bitterness was the result of suffering, the loss of her husband and sons, and it was directed at God, where all bitterness is really directed. We only become bitter because we believe God owes us something He's held back, or allowed something to happen we didn't deserve, or that someone who ought to be punished has escaped unharmed.

All these are things God has in control, and to question His plan and to grow bitter because His plan controverts our will and desires is to sin. We may pray in faith for relief, but we dare not second guess the Lord of All Creation. Eventually, bitterness left unchecked becomes a rotten place in the soul, eating away and destroying everything it touches.

Paul's admonition to be angry without letting sin overtake us is further qualified: Do not let the sun go down on your anger. This doesn't have as much to do with time frames as it does with a principle: that our anger should not be sustained, should not become a defining element of our character and personality, should not rule us.

Rather, we need to be governed by joy. Not the song-and-dance happiness of the movies, but the deep-down joy that is calm and peaceful and Christ-centered. Just as Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, yet brought with Him the joy of the Father, so we must be angry at the evil and rebellion in the world, but be characterized by our joy.

Anger and bitterness are boggy ground where only weeds and slime flourish. Cultivating these attitudes makes us weak and ineffective members of Christ's Church, fit only to scowl and rant. Joy is the perfect alternative, replacing our self-righteous attitudes with complete reliance on a Savior who has already endured the Father's wrath on our behalf, and who delivers us from all sin that we might live as sons and daughters of the Most High God, content in His love and free of anger.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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