In Your Anger
Topic: Topical Scripture: Psalm 37:1–37:40
Synopsis: Anger is one of the most dangerous and destructive of human emotions. In this message, In Your Anger, we examine the nature and causes of anger and then look for a Biblical strategy for dealing with our anger before God – before it does harm to ourselves or others. We use the first nine verses of Psalm 37 as our primary text.
Anger. It is one of the most common of all human emotions. We all experience it to some degree, almost on a daily basis. It is one of the first emotions described in the Book of Genesis, occurring as early as Genesis 4 with the jealous anger of Cain against his brother Abel. Anger lay at the root of the first murder, and has been the cause of countless murders since. Anger destroys marriages, families and friendships, and leads nations into war. It is impossible to even begin to estimate the price tag in human misery that has been and continues to be caused by this one human emotion.
I am going to tell you what I wish I could promise you this morning. I wish I could promise you that when you become a follower of Jesus Christ, all your anger is taken away. But I can’t do that. I would like to tell you that as your commitment to Christ and his kingdom grows, your struggles with anger will become less. But I cannot promise you that. As some of you know, in the last two years before coming to Abu Dhabi, I worked as a pastoral counselor at a counseling center in California. And all the people I talked with were either missionaries or pastors. Do you know what the single human emotion we spent more time talking about than any other? You guessed it. Anger.
Oh, we don’t always call it anger. We have a whole list of other synonyms we use to disguise or sugarcoat our anger. I’m not angry. I am just…frustrated, disappointed in you, hurt, a little irritated, and the list goes on and on.
In this series of messages, each week we are looking at a different human emotion and using a psalm or selections from the psalms to help us understand the emotion and then look for Biblical, faith-based ways to respond to or manage the emotion. Today we are going to examine anger.
The psalm we are going to spend most of our time in is Psalm 37. I want to begin by looking at the Hebrew vocabulary that is used to describe anger in this psalm.
Psalm 37 begins with the words “Fret not.” I believe this is a somewhat inaccurate choice of words by the translators, although all the major translations use it and I must confess I do not have a better one to suggest. When most of us hear the word “fret” we tend to think of worry and anxiety, don’t we? But that is not what is in view here. The grammatical form of this word represents a particular kind of anger as we will see at in a few moments, but the root word itself is one of the most common Hebrew vocabulary words for anger. It comes from an original root meaning to start a fire or cause something to burn.
This is the word that is used to describe Cain’s emotion in Genesis 4. When Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God and his was not, we are told that he became very angry; literally, “Cain burned…”
This idea of heat is born out in another Hebrew vocabulary word that is found down in verse 8: Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
The word that is translated “wrath” in that verse is a different word, but it also contains the idea of heat; to become hot as with a fever or from the sun or a fire. So anger is a hot emotion. It is described as a fire that is kindled and burning. Anger makes us hot. “That really burns me up!” we sometimes say. The color most often associated with anger is red; a hot color. Angry people often get red in the face as though a fire is burning inside.
There is another Hebrew word for anger found in the first part of verse 8: Refrain from anger...This word seems to be derived from the effect that anger has on one’s facial expression. It comes from the root word for the nostrils and the nose. There is some speculation as to just what the connection is. Is it describing the flaring of nostrils that sometimes accompanies strong anger? Or is it the heavy breathing that some display? Some relate it to the snorting noise that many people make when they react with angry disgust. Maybe it’s all of the above. In any case, the face and the breathing are affected by strong anger.
Frequently, these two words and concepts are put together in a Hebrew idiomatic expression: “his anger burned” or “his anger was kindled.”
There is one more interesting word used for anger. This one is found in Psalm 4:4 where we read, “Be angry and do not sin.” This word literally means to tremble with a strong emotion.
So what do we have so far? A very strong emotion that burns like fire, causes the facial expressions and/or breathing to alter, and can cause the whole body to tremble. Do you recognize anyone yet? Can you relate to any of these descriptions – either in yourself or in others?
Now I have an important question for us. Is it a sin to get angry?
I want to declare to you, clearly and without hesitation that it is not a sin to get angry.
We know that it is not a sin to get angry, because God himself gets angry. In fact, by far the majority of the references to anger in the Bible, using all of the vocabulary I have just described, are attributed to God. God gets angry! It is the emotional reaction of his holiness to sin and injustice and disobedience. God himself gets angry, so anger itself cannot be a sin.
Secondly, I believe that the emotion of anger is part of what it means to be fully human. Remember, we said that emotions constitute the nervous system of the soul. They are the way the human soul, the inner, intangible part of us reacts to life and the circumstances of life. In reality, we cannot “will” ourselves to not feel anger any more than we can “will” our bodies to not feel pain. If we cannot choose to not feel anger, then anger itself cannot be sin.
So if anger is a human, emotional response to some external stimulus in life, what kinds of stimuli normally trigger anger? There are actually many, or at least many subtle variations, but let me just mention several primary ones quickly. I cannot give chapter and verse for these, but they are categories that have helped me analyze feelings of anger in my own life.
One is unfulfilled expectations. We expect something to be a certain way or for someone to do something or to do it by a certain time, and our expectations are not met.
A second is a blocked goal. We want to achieve something, get somewhere, accomplish a goal, and someone or something is standing in the way, physically or metaphorically.
A third cause of anger is a sense of powerlessness. This goes along with the blocked goal, but the root problem is that we do not feel that we can do anything to change the situation.
A fourth type of anger is a reaction to pain or hurt. This can be as simple and temporary as our reaction when someone bumps us with a shopping cart in the grocery store, or as deep, complex and long-lasting as the feelings we experience when we are betrayed by a friend or abandoned by a loved one.
A fifth common theme in our anger is a reaction to real or perceived injustice or unfairness.
This list could obviously be longer, and I am sure that you could make your own additions to the list. The point I am trying to make is that there are many situations and experiences in life that can produce the feelings of anger in us. And the angry feelings themselves are simply normal, human reactions to those experiences. It is not a sin to feel angry.
To further support this contention, I would simply refer to the verse we already looked at; the one in Psalm 4:4 which is quoted in Ephesians 4:26. “Be angry and do not sin.” That tells us two things. First of all, it is possible to be angry without sinning. That is what I am stressing first. But it also tells us something else. Anger puts us at great risk of sinning. That is why the warning is there in the second half of the verse. We could paraphrase it this way. “When you are angry be careful not to sin.” You see, anger is not only a very strong emotion. It is a very dangerous one and one that is very difficult to manage without sinning.
The Scriptures are full of such warnings. We can go all the way back to the account of Cain and Abel. God himself confronted Cain about his anger with this warning in Genesis 4:6:
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.”
Sin is portrayed as a lion or a leopard crouching at his door, ready to pounce. He was particularly vulnerable because of his anger. Cain ignored God’s warning, and we know the rest of the story.
The Book of Proverbs is full of warnings about the dangers of anger: (These verses are taken from the NIV translation)
A quick tempered man does foolish things. (14:17)
A patient man has great understanding,
But a quick-tempered man displays folly. (14:29)
A fool gives full vent to his anger,
But a wise man keeps himself under control. (29:11)
An angry man stirs up dissension,
And a hot-tempered one commits many sins. (29:22)
There are numerous other warnings like that; warnings about what happens when we fail to manage our anger appropriately. Anger itself is not sin, but it very quickly leads to sin if we do not respond Biblically. I repeat. Anger may not be a sinful emotion, but it is a very, very dangerous one.
So, how can we deal with our anger Biblically and in a way that will not harm others or ourselves, or bring dishonor on the God we serve?
Let me just state what I want to do in this message. It is found in that sentence: deal with our anger Biblically. There has been a lot written about anger in the psychology and self-help books. A lot of it is good and helpful. Anger is such a common human problem that the people helpers in society have devoted a lot of attention to it. I, personally, have benefitted by what I have read. I have especially found such books helpful in understanding what anger is, what causes it, and the different, often subtle ways in which anger is expressed. So, I am not in the least dismissing these books as a helpful resource. But, as Christians, the Bible is always our primary source of help in dealing with our problems, because it points us to resources that the secular people-helpers do not have. It points us back toward God. The key to dealing with all our emotions is to process them with God and in his presence through prayer, and by reviewing our emotions and evaluating them against the background of a Biblical world view.
To answer the question of how to deal with our anger Biblically, at least in part, we are going to turn to Psalm 37. (You were probably wondering when we were going to get back to that, weren’t you?)
Psalm 37 opens with these words:
Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
Let’s consider this closely. First of all, the psalmist is identifying a particular issue or stimulus to which he was reacting with anger. “Because of evildoers.” Not only were there people doing wrong, but as the rest of the psalm makes clear, it appeared that they were getting away with it. The bad guys were winning. And that’s not fair! This in one of the causes of anger we identified earlier: a response to injustice or unfairness. “He cheated on the exam and got an A. I studied hard and got a C+.”
Let’s look at the command itself. I already pointed out that the phrase “fret not yourself” is a translation for one of the Hebrew words for anger; the one that talked about kindling a fire. But this is a particular grammatical form of the verb. It is what is called a “reflexive” in which the subject of the verb is actually acting upon himself. We might paraphrase this: “Don’t kindle the fire of anger within yourself…”
In other words, what is described here and what we are warned against is the temptation to take a particular set of facts and use them as fuel, as kindling to start or keep alive the fire of anger in our hearts. This is not a moment in time reaction, but a calculated feeding of perceptions and thoughts that create and keep alive the feelings of anger. “Stop doing that!” the psalmist instructs us.
Let’s drop down and look at how he repeats this similar warning and instructions in verses 7-8, starting in the middle of verse 7:
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
Once again, the presenting cause is the same as in verse 1. The bad guys are winning. They are getting away with it! Life isn’t fair! David calls on us to turn away from this line of thought. Stop using it as fuel to kindle and sustain the fire of anger within us. That is only going to lead to more evil, to more trouble. It will poison our own souls and lead us into sin ourselves. “Refrain from anger!” he tells us. “Forsake wrath.”
So, how do we do that? What water of divine truth can we use to quench the burning flame within us? Let’s examine some more of this psalm. The best way to drive out negative and harmful thinking is to replace it with new thoughts and a different focus of attention. Let me walk us through David’s thought process, and then I’ll come back and try to summarize it. Let’s pick up in verses 3-4:
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
4 Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
You see, when we fret, we are trying to tell God how to run his universe. We are declaring, at least emotionally, that God is not quite up to the job. In fact, we’re ready to move in and do what God ought to be doing and whip those bad guys into shape. And at the same time, of course, make sure we get the honor and reward we deserve. What the psalmist tells us in these verses is, essentially, “Stop doing God’s job!”
Trust in the Lord. Let him be God and do his job, and focus on doing what is right yourself, and not on what the other guy is doing wrong.
Dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
This line has puzzled translators and scholars because of the ambiguity of the original language and what appears to be a rather odd metaphor. The word translated “befriend” literally means to feed or pasture sheep as a shepherd does his flock. Only the object of the verb is “faithfulness”. Putting the whole thing together, I think it’s a rather powerful picture. “Dwell in the land and raise and tend a flock of faithfulness.” It is a way of saying, “I am just going to stay where I am and keep doing what I know God wants me to do. No matter what is going on around me, my task is to remain faithful; to not allow myself to get knocked off course by what others are doing or even by the way others are treating me.
The next verse is even more poignant and powerful.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Replace your fretting with delight in the Lord. Make him your focus. Take your joy and meaning in life from him. He will satisfy your longings and desires.
How does this relate to anger? Let me suggest a way. One of the basic causes of anger is a blocked goal. We want something and we are prevented from getting it. Therefore we are angry. But is it possible that our goal was wrong in the first place? Our feelings of anger can sometimes by a helpful clue that our priorities are wrong and we are operating off a false value-system. How do we correct that? Refocus! Delight yourself in the Lord. Make him our ultimate delight and goal in life. When we do, guess what? He will satisfy us. He will fulfill our desires because what we are desiring is him! It won’t matter what others around us are and are not getting. We are getting our fair share of God! Let them have the other stuff!
Let’s move on. One of the things that triggers angry feelings is when we feel that our reputation and our honor is being attacked or damaged. We want vindication! Look at how the psalmist addresses this issue:
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
If you feel that you have been falsely accused and that your reputation is suffering, commit it to the Lord. He is the only one whose opinion really matters, anyway. And in the long run – he will vindicate you if your cause is indeed righteous.
Let’s finish up this section of the psalm:
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
9 For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
The first part of verse 7 lies at the heart of a Biblical response to anger. Anger is a very impatient emotion. In fact, I find that I am most prone to anger and its effects when I am in a hurry. To counteract its harmful effects, we need to practice being still and quiet and patient before the Lord. You know the old adage of counting to 10 before you react. Think of it as waiting patiently for the Lord. Only when you get to 10, just keep counting.
This stanza ends with a promise:
9 For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land
The rest of the psalm is an expansion of this promise. It is an exhortation to think clearly and take the long view. The prosperity of the wicked is temporary. Ultimately, the wicked will be cast down and the righteous will be delivered and rewarded.
We are not going to finish the rest of the psalm, because the prosperity of the wicked and the perceived unfairness of that apparent reality is only one cause and source of anger. If that is one source of anger that you are struggling with, I would encourage you to come back to this psalm as a source of meditation to help get your orientation and thinking straight.
While this psalm focuses on one particular cause of anger, I believe the section we have been focusing on in the first 9 verses actually describes a very good strategy for managing our anger, no matter what the root cause of it might be. In fact, I would encourage you to memorize this section of the psalm and use it for meditation and even to recite it to calm yourself when angry feelings start to burn inside you.
As we close, let me summarize this Biblical strategy for coping with angry feelings.
1. Refocus on God
I don’t know about you, but my anger almost always focuses on me; my rights, my goals, my agenda, my time table, my reputation. Treat your anger as an invitation to refocus on God and to make him your greatest delight. “Delight yourself in God,” the psalmist invites us. If we make him our greatest pleasure and his glory our highest goal, in most cases our anger will quickly lose its heat. Unless, of course, our anger is triggered by the fact that it is God’s glory and God’s reputation that is under attack, in which case we should be angry, and our righteous anger may be a reflection of God’s own holy wrath. In most cases, though, if we’re honest, our anger is more about us than it is about God – and should be a reminder to refocus our lives, thoughts and hearts on him.
2. Trust in God
Anger is very much a “control” emotion. We feel angry when we feel powerless, and our anger, more often than not, is an effort to reassert control over situations, circumstances and other people. Trust is about yielding control to God and trusting him for his outcome – and believing that his outcome is the best outcome.
I like the image found in the vocabulary of verse 5: Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act.
The word that is translated “commit” in that verse means literally “to roll some object away or on.” We roll “our way” and our situation off of our shoulders and onto God’s.
3. Do the right thing.
This is the real challenge, isn’t it? We have already seen that our anger leads us into sin: the hot-tempered man does foolish things. Instead, we must concentrate, with God’s help, on doing the right thing. We cannot control what others do to us, and we cannot control what others around us do, but we do control our actions and reactions. Do good.
Feelings are feelings. Actions are actions. Anger is a feeling. It is a feeling that predisposes us to wrong action. “It tends only to evil.” But we can overcome it and do the right thing.
4. Wait patiently.
In order to do this, we need to think straight. We need to think Biblically. And we need to think long-term. Our anger almost always pursues a short term and immediate goal. Sometimes we achieve the goal and sometimes we do not, but there are almost always disastrous side effects. A faith response calls us to wait patiently as an act of trust. Wait patiently for God to exonerate us when we have been wronged. Wait patiently for God to punish the wicked and to exact justice. Wait patiently for God’s reward.
This is not intended as an easy, 4 step strategy. These are simply four building blocks of applied theology and a Biblical world view. God is in control. He is a righteous judge. He will reward the righteous and punish evil-doers. We don’t have to take things into our own hands. When the hot feelings of anger arise within you, take them to the Lord. Process your feelings in his presence. Feed your mind and heart on the spiritual realities and instructions laid out in this psalm. Apply your theology through prayer.
I want to close by reading another psalm, because I think it is a wonderful example of David doing exactly what we’ve been talking about. There are two times or situations when I find myself most prone to the sins that accompany anger. One is in the heat of the moment when the offense or the crisis first occurs. This is often the hot explosive kind of anger. The other one is at night, when I can’t sleep, and I am tempted to mull an offense over in my mind, and kindle the fire of anger again by my thoughts and endless ruminations. This is the corrosive, soul-embittering, sleep-disturbing form of anger that David has been warning us about in Psalm 37 when he tells us to “fret not.” Keep this second kind of situation and anger in mind as I read Psalm 4, and listen as David follows his own advice in this prayer by implementing the four responses: Refocus on God. Trust in God. Do the right thing. Wait patiently.
1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?
3 But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.
5 Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”
Now here is the promised result of this kind of prayer:
7 You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Pastor Cam points out some of the underlying images in the Hebrew vocabulary for anger (burning, snorting or heavy breathing, trembling). What are some images or figures of speech in your culture or language to describe or portray the feeling of anger?
- How was anger expressed in your home growing up? Do you think it was healthy? Why or why not?
- What did Pastor Cam mean when he said that anger is not a sin, but it is a dangerous emotion.
- In the message, we briefly looked at five common triggers or causes for anger. Give examples of each one. Can you add any to the list? (Unfulfilled expectations, A blocked goal, A sense of powerlessness, A reaction to pain or hurt, A reaction to real or perceive injustice or unfairness)
- Read Psalm 37:1-9. What particular cause for anger is in view in this psalm? How is this particular source of anger especially prone to “fretting ourselves” (kindling anger with ourselves)?
- How do the series of commands in this passage address the problem of anger? Do you think they get to the root of the problem? Why or why not?
- Discuss specific ways to use this passage in your struggles to overcome anger’s harmful effects in your life.