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Of the 7 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. So says Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking Transformed By Thorns. Paul has said quite a bit about anger in the verse we have been studying lately. In these two verses, Paul sums up his teaching about anger, and then tells us about what should replace it. We should not live in anger, but in forgiveness.
In verse 31, we have five things listed in a row, and then one summary word given at the very end. One scholar has helpfully pointed out that this list is progressive. First, Paul talks about bitterness. Bitterness is that form of anger that stays inside, in the heart. We are usually blind to our bitterness. Nevertheless, we might know that we are unhappy. One of my professors told a story of a woman who came to him for counseling. She was unhappy with life, but didn’t know the way out. So, my professor told her to keep a journal. She was supposed to say what happened, what were the possible responses to it, how did she actually respond, and what did she think about it. After a few months, she gave that journal to my professor, who read it, and went through with a colored pen, underlining every statement that indicated bitterness. He told the woman what he had done, and gave it back to her. What she said was so interesting. She said, “The lady who wrote this was a very bitter lady.” She did not know that she was bitter in her heart! She kept on blaming everything and everyone around her for the problems in her life. I wonder if any of us do the same thing. We want to justify ourselves, and so we make everyone around us look bad, so that we’re the only one left standing at the end. That comes from a bitter heart. The other problems with bitterness involve our accusations against God. We think we deserve a better life than we are getting. Then we come to expect such a good life. So, when we don’t get it, we get bitter. Bitterness, of course, takes a while to develop. People are not usually bitter overnight. The solution is Jesus Christ. Did He have the life He deserved on earth? No, He most certainly did not. He had a life full of suffering. But He was not bitter. He came because we deserve much worse in life than what we are getting. He came so that we could have the forgiveness of sins. He can understand you. He knows what your life has been like, and He can sympathize with you. And He can forgive your bitterness against God. Let it go. Let go of your bitterness, and embrace the joy of new life in Christ.
The second thing in this list is rage. This word usually refers to an outburst, or the tendency to burst out, and do something in wrath. So, it is more intense than bitterness, but of much shorter duration. Usually, this happens when we feel that we have been wronged in a specific instance. Billy Sunday was talking with a lady once, and he came up with a perfect illustration for this. The lady was saying that there was nothing wrong with her losing her temper. She blew up, and then it was over. Sunday said, “So does a shotgun. But look at the damage it leaves behind.” The kind of rage that Paul is talking about in this word is the shotgun kind of rage. It is an “action” kind of anger, not primarily a “word” kind of anger. It is what might happen if someone punches you in the face, and you immediately get into a fight with that person. Let us consider for a moment how we ought to react. First we need to know that we are not required to strike back. That is only one of the many responses that we could have. Just realizing that can be a turning point for some people who are prone to these outbursts. You do not have to react in a shotgun fashion. Instead, you can say, “I forgive you, as Christ has forgiven me.” As we will see, since God has forgiven us, so also ought we to forgive one another.
The third word Paul uses here is a word that describes a boiling pot of anger. It is a fairly steady, longer-lasting hot kind of anger. We might use the phrase “our blood is boiling.” A good example of this is King Ahab. You will remember that he wanted Naboth’s vineyard. However, Naboth would not sell the land that had belonged to his family for generations. And so, Ahab went home, Jezebel his wife asked him what was the matter. And Ahab vented to his wife, who came up with the suggestion of murdering Naboth in order to have the vineyard. As Benjamin Franklin says, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.” And that was true enough in Ahab’s case, since he died a very shameful death, as did Jezebel. If some of us are prone to this kind of anger, then we need to remember God’s anger against sin. Is it a sinful anger? That is a difficult question to remember to ask, since anger is an emotion that clouds the mind. We are not usually thinking all that clearly when we are in a boiling rage. Nevertheless, as Paul says, we should not be mastered by anything except Jesus Christ. Do we really have the right to be angry? That is the question that the Lord asked Jonah as Jonah lost that plant that gave him some shade. Jonah thought he had the right to be angry, since God had spared Niniveh when Niniveh repented. God as much as told him to shut up, since Jonah was angry at God. It is important here to remember that if we are angry at God, it does absolutely no good to deny that we are. God knows our hearts anyway, so it is useless even to try to hide it from Him. Instead, we should confess and ask God to change our hearts.
The fourth word that Paul uses here is a word that describes someone shouting out loudly in anger. It is that torrent of words that come pouring out of an angry heart. They are usually loud. A father of three won a shouting contest with a roar louder than a passing train. “If you want a war, you go!” Yoshihiko Kato shouted. The sound meter registered 115.8 decibels, louder than the racket of a train passing overhead on an elevated railroad. For that winning shout, Kato won the $750 grand prize of the 10th annual Halls Year-End Loud Voice Contest. Kato admitted that he probably built up his loud voice shouting at his children. What does shouting accomplish, exactly? Well, it usually makes you feel powerful, although the truth of the matter is that the person who can control and master their anger is a lot more powerful than the one who simply gives in to it. Such shouting also makes people afraid of you, particularly those people who are under you in authority. It never convinces anyone else of your point of view. You may shout someone into silence, but it will not be an agreeing silence. It will be a sullen and rebellious silence. Instead of shouting out at people, we should be crying out to the Lord out God to guard our tongues and lips.
The last word is the worst word of all. Literally, it is blasphemy. Now, as this word is used in the New Testament, it can refer either to slander against someone else, or it can refer to blasphemy against God Himself. The last result of rage is that we attack that person with our words, and sometimes with our actions. All of anger (and we are talking about unrighteous anger here) is opposed to forgiveness. You simply cannot forgive someone if you are angry with that person, and stay angry with that person. However, speaking against someone what is false, or speaking against God something that is blasphemous is the worst sin that is in the category of anger. You are burning all your bridges with this one. In fact, this sin seeks to eliminate the possibility of forgiveness. We need to remember that forgiveness is more powerful. God’s grace is more powerful. Nevertheless, it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that is the unforgivable sin. We need to repent of our slander against one another, and our blasphemy against God. Putting away all evil, as Paul says, is the same thing as putting on Christ.
Paul gives us three words that describe first and foremost how God acts with us. God is kind to us, not treating us as our sins deserve. Kindness is doing good to someone even if that person doesn’t deserve, and maybe even doing it precisely because that person doesn’t deserve it. An illustration: British statesman and financier Cecil Rhodes, whose fortune was used to endow the world-famous Rhodes Scholarships, was a stickler for correct dress–but apparently not at the expense of someone else’s feelings. A young man invited to dine with Rhodes arrived by train and had to go directly to Rhodes’s home in his travel-stained clothes. Once there he was appalled to find the other guests already assembled, wearing full evening dress. After what seemed a long time Rhodes appeared, in a shabby old blue suit. Later the young man learned that his host had been dressed in evening clothes, but put on the old suit when he heard of his young guest’s dilemma. This illustrates not only kindness, but also hospitality as its finest.
The second word that Paul uses here is “compassionate.” Again, to illustrate: in the early days of his presidency, Calvin Coolidge awoke one morning in his hotel room to find a cat burglar going through his pockets. Coolidge spoke up, asking the burglar not to take his watch chain because it contained an engraved charm he wanted to keep. Coolidge then engaged the thief in quiet conversation and discovered he was a college student who had no money to pay his hotel bill or buy a ticket back to campus. Coolidge counted $32 out of his wallet — which he had also persuaded the dazed young man to give back! — declared it to be a loan, and advised the young man to leave the way he had come so as to avoid the Secret Service! That is compassion and mercy. Another illustration will help us here: A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. “But I don’t ask for justice,” the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy,” Napoleon replied. “Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son. No one on whom we have mercy deserves it. But then, neither did we deserve to have mercy from God. And yet, He has given it to us. Magnificent, isn’t it?
And lastly, one of the best ways to show mercy and compassion, and kindness, is to forgive one another. In this respect, Paul tells us what our motivation should be. God has forgiven us. Therefore, we should forgive one another. The parable of the ungrateful servant is something I have brought up rather a lot in recent sermons. There is a reason for that. It is the best illustration of this principle that we are ever going to find. God has forgiven us a debt that we can never repay. In return, He asks us to forgive those who have sinned against us, even in major ways. They have not sinned against us nearly as much as we have sinned against God. Therefore, we should forgive them. So, we can see from all this that anger has many forms, many expressions, some subtle and remaining in the heart, some coming out in actions and some in words. But the answer to all of those sins is the forgiveness of God leading to our forgiving one another. Do not be angry, but rather forgive.