How to Handle Anger

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42

Natural disasters have dominated the headlines this week.

Wildfires are burning in California. Power has been cut to as many as three million customers as officials try to prevent further incidents that would make the fires even worse.

A tornado roared through Dallas last Sunday, causing $2 billion in losses. And a lightning strike in the Harbor destroyed an entire condo unit.

Other tragedies are manmade. A shooting Saturday night at a Texas A&M Commerce homecoming party killed two and left fourteen injured. And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of ISIS, is in the news with reports that he was killed in a raid Saturday night.

As we continue our conversation with the Sermon on the Mount, we come today to Jesus’ teachings about enemies, those who choose to hurt us. We all have them. Perhaps not on the scope and scale of those who attacked the homecoming party, or perpetrate horrific violence in the name of their religion, but they are nonetheless real and painful to us.

When I ask you to name the person who hurt you most recently or most deeply, what name comes to mind? Let’s ask Jesus how we should relate to that person today, to God’s glory and our good.

The law of retribution

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). And it was.

This statute, known to history as the Lex Talionis, is the oldest law in the world. It first appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, the man who ruled Babylon (ancient Iraq, ironically) from 2285 to 2242 BC. Exodus 21:24–25 states it clearly: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Note that the law was intended not to justify conflict but to limit it. Without it, if you scraped my car, I could wreck yours. If you injured my son, I could kill all your children. This law limited revenge.

It also took vengeance out of individual hands and put it into the courts. The judges of ancient Israel determined what constituted proper restitution for injury and levied monetary fines as a result. They developed elaborate ways to ensure the rights of all citizens.

The law of grace

Now Jesus adds: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist on your rights. Then he gives us four examples of this principle in action.

The first regards our honor: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (v. 39b).

The right hand was almost always the one used in public. So, to slap your right cheek with my right hand is an insult. This was not a threat to life and limb, but an insult to character and reputation. It was a sign of great contempt and abuse, so that the rabbinic fines for such an action were twice those of other physical injuries.

Jesus says: Do not retaliate. Do not slap back, though this would be within your rights. Do not prosecute for financial gain, though this also would be within your rights. Turn the other cheek instead. Do not insist on your rights.

Next Jesus speaks to our possessions: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (v. 40).

Shirt was the inner garment, an undershirt with sleeves. It could be taken in a lawsuit. But the coat could not—it was the outer garment which protected a poor person from the elements and served as his bed at night. And so, Exodus 22 forbids keeping the coat.

But not Jesus: “hand over your coat as well.” Even though it is your right to keep it, and he has no right to take it. Do not insist on your rights.

Now Jesus comes to an issue of great urgency for us today: our time. He says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (v. 41).

Here Jesus refers to a custom known and despised by every person who heard his sermon. A Roman soldier could require any Jew to carry his military pack for the distance of one mile. No matter where you were going or what you were doing, the soldier could “force” you to do this.

But none could force you to carry his pack for two miles. Jesus says to do it anyway. Sacrifice the time. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.

Finally he deals with our money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Give when you are asked to give and lend when you are asked to lend.

As St. Augustine commented, we are not told to give everything that is asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though you don’t owe this person anything. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.

Instead, return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. Do not lower yourself to the one who has taken from you. Simply refuse.

Choosing grace

West Texans taught me a crude but appropriate statement: The dog looks at the skunk and says, “I can beat you, but it’s not worth it.”

You can choose not to insult those who insult you, not to hurt those who hurt you. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.

You say, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.” Of course, you don’t. No human wants to be hurt, to give up his right to revenge or justice. But do it anyway. And as you act in love, your feelings will follow.

And ask the Spirit to help you. We cannot fulfill the word of God without the Spirit of God. The same Spirit who empowered Jesus will empower us. The same Spirit who inspired the word of God will empower the people of God.

Name the person with whom you are in conflict. Ask the Spirit to help you be the presence of Christ. And trust that he will as you take your next step in grace.

C. S. Lewis: “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. . . . The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or ‘likings’ and the Christian has only ‘charity.’ The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning” (Mere Christianity 116, 117).


Jesus’ teaching is clear: We are to return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.

Heed his example: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

He was insulted for us and suffered for us. He wore our sins on his body, our failures on his soul. He had the right to call ten thousand angels to his side, to end his crucifixion before it began, to condemn all of humanity to a hell we deserve. But he did not claim his rights.

Now he invites us to faith in him, to experience his forgiveness for our sins and the eternal life he died to give. Do you have his eternal life today?

If so, where will you share it with someone else? What personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Will you show the selfless love of Jesus Christ to that person this week?

During the horrific Thirty Years War (1618–1648), a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius offered this maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Let’s choose all three, to the glory of God.

Two Words That Will Change the World

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:21–24

Ryan Diviney was a star athlete in high school before enrolling in West Virginia University in Morgantown. He planned to go into law and dreamed of becoming a judge or even a US senator.

On November 7, 2009, he and a friend got into a verbal altercation with some young men outside a Dairy Mart convenience store in Morgantown. Then a WVU student steaked up behind Ryan and punched him in the face. He fell to the ground, then another student kicked him in the head.

Ryan’s jaw was broken, his skull was fractured in two places, and he began bleeding from the brain. For nearly a decade, he lived in a vegetative state. His father quit his job to devote himself to Ryan’s daily care at home. His mother kept working, in part to maintain the family’s health insurance. His sister, inspired by her brother’s plight, became a special-education teacher.

Ryan died 10 years later at the age of twenty-nine.

The student who punched him spent a year in prison; the one who kicked him spent four years in prison. All these years later, Ryan’s father says he remains angry at the two. Any father would feel the same.

But imagine the difference if the two men who attacked Ryan came to his family today and said, “I’m sorry.” Or better, imagine the difference if they had said those words rather than attacking Ryan in the first place.

Imagine the difference in marriages if every couple sought reconciliation rather than pursuing retribution. Imagine the difference in friendships and employment relationships. Imagine the difference in national affairs and geopolitical challenges.

Is there a place in your life where you need to hear those words? Where you need to speak them?

Let’s see how two words can change the world, and how they can change your world and mine.

Refuse to hate or hurt

Jesus continues his Sermon: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment'” (v. 21).

They “heard” this because the rabbis read the law to them in the synagogue each Sabbath, including this Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13). A murderer was “liable to judgment,” the local tribunal composed of seven persons. These tribunals inflicted punishment for capital crimes.

Now we find Jesus’ commentary: “But I say you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (v. 22a).

Jesus is not dealing here with the simple emotion of anger. This is an inevitable human reaction to hurt or harm. And it was an emotion Jesus felt himself. In Mark 3:5 Jesus “looked around at them with anger” for their unbelief; in John 2:15 he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. Ephesians 4:26 tells us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The emotion of anger is not a sin.

He is dealing with a different thing here. In the Greek language, thumos describes the spontaneous and unavoidable emotion of anger; it is not the word here. Orge is this word; it means anger that is long-lived, cherished in the heart, nursed and kept alive. The deliberate choice to continue holding onto your anger. Absolute unwillingness to pardon and move on.

Such cherished anger makes us “liable to judgment.” In other words, hating my brother is as wrong as the murder which hate spawns.

Jesus continues: “Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin” (v. 22b NIV). “Raca” was an Aramaic term of contempt which literally meant “empty-headed” or stupid. In ancient Judaism names were much more significant than they are for us. A name denoted a person’s character, and a word took on its own life and power.

So expressing your cherished anger by a term of contempt made you answerable not to the local tribunal but to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They typically required reparations in money for such an insult to a person’s reputation and status.

Jesus then adds, “and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell” (v. 22c).

“Fool” was the worst, most slanderous term you could use against a person in ancient Israel. It comes from the Greek word for “moron,” and meant a person who is morally deficient, corrupted, immoral, a person with no character or value whatsoever.

This level of anger deserves “the fire of hell.” The Greek says, “the gehenna of fire.” The Valley of Gehenna stood to the south of Jerusalem. During the reigns of wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh, children were sacrificed to idols there. King Josiah stamped out such heinous sin, and make the valley a trash dump. Fires were kept burning there constantly to consume the trash; worms lived there and lived off the refuse. Jesus would later make Gehenna a metaphor for hell “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48).

What is Jesus teaching us? Refuse to hate or hurt your brother. No matter what he may have done to you. In a moment Jesus will teach us how to reconcile with him. For now, how do we handle the anger our pain has caused?

Act on your anger immediately, before it takes root in your soul: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26–27 NIV). Deal with this infection before it spreads. Admit it and give it to God.

Guard your tongue, especially while you are angry: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). What we say shows who we are.

Choose to pardon, for your sake and his. Tim Stafford: “I would rather be cheated a hundred times than develop a heart of stone.” A wise old saint added, “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.”

The Didache is the oldest theological document outside the New Testament. It gives us good advice: “Love those that hate you, and you will have no enemy” (1.3). Ask God’s help, and it will be yours.

Who has made you angry this week?

Make things right today

Now, how do we reconcile our relationship with this person? Jesus will tell us: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (vv. 23–24).

“Offering your gift at the altar” describes the holiest moment a Galilean peasant might ever experience. Very rarely were non-priests allowed before the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem, and only when they were bringing animal sacrifice for a very special occasion. Some would prepare for years or all their lives for this moment. This is something akin to baptism for us.

There you “remember that your brother has something against you”—not just that you have something against him. “Something” is anything. There is no distinction here as to whether this is just or not, whether you are wrong or wronged. If anyone has anything against you today, you qualify.

Leave your gift. Don’t give it to the priest but leave it where it is. Despite the holiness and significance of this moment. The person comes first: “go and be reconciled.” Take the initiative to make things right. Only then can you give your gift to God. You cannot be right with me if you are wrong with one of my children. Our heavenly Father feels the same way.

How do we attempt this reconciliation? I recently read an article in Psychology Today entitled “Making Amends.” It suggests that a meaningful apology requires three steps:

Regret: recognize that your action or inaction hurt this person, whether you intended such pain or not. Empathize with the pain they feel.

Responsibility: accept total responsibility for your actions or inactions.

Remedy: offer restitution or a promise to take action so that you do not repeat this behavior. Find a way to resolve the situation and restore the relationship.

Take the initiative to reconcile with your brother. Go to the person directly: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). Don’t talk about the person, but to him.

Do it now. The poet Edwin Markham lost everything when an unscrupulous banker betrayed his business confidence. He hated that man. And he could not write poetry, but doodled circles on paper for hours. Finally, he realized he must forgive the man or die. He said aloud, “I forgive him.” For the first time in months, words began to flow. Looking at the circles on his paper, he wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.
Start your circle today.


Many stories have been told about the painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. One of my favorites is that da Vinci made the face of Judas similar in appearance to a personal enemy. As the artist thought of how much he disliked this man, it was easy to paint him as the traitor of our Lord.

However, when he turned to paint the face of Jesus, he could not. His eyes wandered to the face of his enemy, creating thoughts within his heart which made it impossible to concentrate on the beauty and purity of Jesus. He painted the face of Christ only after he painted out the face of Judas and reconciled himself with his enemy.

To paint the face of Christ tomorrow, whose face must you change today?