The Sin of Anger
Dr. Jim Denison
Billy Martin, former manager of the Texas Rangers among other teams, told in his autobiography of going hunting in Texas with Mickey Mantle. They went to a ranch owned by one of Mantle’s friends. Mantle told Billy to wait in the car while he checked in. The friend asked Mantle to do him a favor. He had a pet mule in the barn who was going blind, and he didn’t have the heart to put him out of his misery. He asked Mantle to shoot the mule for him.
Mantle decided to play a prank. He returned to the car, pretending to be furious. He told Martin that his friend wouldn’t let them hunt on his ranch. “I’m so mad at that guy, I’m going out to his barn and shoot one of his mules!”
He drove like a maniac to the barn. Martin protested, “We can’t do that!” But Mickey was adamant: “Just watch me!” he shouted. When they got to the barn, Mantle jumped out of the truck, ran inside, and shot the mule. As he was returning, he heard two shots. He saw that Martin had taken out his rifle, too.
“What are you doing?” he yelled. Martin yelled back, face flushed with anger, “We’ll show that guy! I just killed two of his cows!”
Anger is a problem in our culture today. Eighty one percent of students said they had bullied classmates during the last month, according to a recent survey done in an Indianapolis middle school. Seventy five percent of the bullies said they’d been taunted themselves. More than 80 percent of computer network managers report that users have become abusive–smashing monitors, breaking keyboards, or kicking hard drives. Women are far more likely to suppress, repress and deny anger, leading to higher rates of depression.
Frederick Buechner’s description of “anger” is my favorite single theological definition: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 2).
In this section we’ll study the most fun, and perhaps the most dangerous, of the Seven Deadly Sins. The recently deceased pastor and Bible student Charles Thrasher’s radio talk on our subject was titled correctly: “One letter from ‘danger.'”
Defining “anger” biblically
All proper treatment begins with the proper diagnosis. Webster defines “anger” as “A feeling of displeasure resulting from injury, mistreatment, opposition, etc., and usually showing itself in a desire to fight back at the supposed cause of this feeling.”
Six biblical words are translated by the single English word “anger.” Ap in Hebrew denotes either divine or human anger; the term means “nostril,” which was considered the locale of anger. We get a picture of someone who is “fuming.” The Hebrew verb hara means “burn,” as when Balaam “was angry and beat [his donkey] with his staff” (Numbers 22:27). The Hebrew word za’am means “indignation” or “enraged”; ebra means “boiling rage” (used of Haman vs. Mordecai, Esther 1:12).
Thymos in the Greek is associated with the word for “burning” and describes a passionate longing to injure. And orge is the human emotion caused by jealousy or other harm.
“Anger” is the emotion of being displeased or upset with something done to us. This by itself is normal and human; as we will see, God feels “anger” against sinful actions. “Anger” becomes sinful when it leads to sinful actions, when it causes us to hurt those who hurt us, leading us to wrath, vengeance and revenge. It is thus a “deadly” sin because it leads to murder, injury, and vengeance.
And it is a revelatory moment. Anger is a mirror, showing us what is inside. When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, you find out its content. And you can never put them back. You cannot unring a bell.
Know when anger is leading to sin
God is often “angry” in the Bible, yet he cannot sin (James 1:13): “Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13); “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).
Other examples: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36); “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18); “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:8); “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6); “They always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:16).
These instances show that “anger,” the feeling of displeasure at the actions of another, cannot in itself be sinful.
Anger is sinful when it leads us to sin. Not the emotion, but our response, is the issue. When is anger leading to sin?
First, when it tempts us to hurt someone: “On Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5). Second, when it leads to jealousy: “Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. . . . And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David” (1 Samuel 18:8-9).