My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
- James 1:19-20
I once approached an elder at the end of a church service to seek prayer. I told him that I was struggling with anger, and that I wanted him to pray that God give me the power to knock down this stronghold in my life. Before praying over me, this man informed me that anger is childish, and that I needed to grow up.
I have no doubt that what this man said is true: my anger is childish, and I do have a lot of growing up to do. That notwithstanding, his “advice” (judgement?) was entirely unhelpful. In my walk with Christ, I’ve learned the hard way that simply “pulling up one’s bootstraps” and white-knuckling your way to holier living is ineffective. Moreover, it’s unbiblical. I don’t have space here (nor the expertise) to get into all the theological nooks and crannies of how sanctification works, but I know what has helped me immensely with this problem. Maybe it can help you too.
My path to recovery started when I recognized that I had been telling myself stories. These stories made me angrier and angrier until I grew fully out of my own control. Here are a couple of examples:
The baby wakes up crying at 3:00 AM for what feels like the 14th time. My wife, out of respect for my work schedule, typically handles the majority of these calls. In this instance, however, a gentle voice pops into my head saying maybe I should take this one. I ignore it, my wife gets up to take care of the baby. When she comes back to bed, I can feel the irritation oozing off of her. (For all I know, she’s not in the slightest bit irritated, but my conscience is wearing on me, so I assume she must be). I start telling myself stories to justify my behaviour. “I have to wake up at 5, she doesn’t”. “The baby would have slept better if she hadn’t let her nap for three hours today – she doesn’t respect my opinion at all”. That sort of thing. Pretty soon, I now need to justify not only my failure to help out, but also the fact that I’m now angry for no reason whatsoever. As my anger intensifies, I need to keep piling on the stories to keep up with the self-justification. On it goes until, pretty soon, I’m thoroughly convinced that I’m a victim, and my wife barely respects me at all; as a result, I’m furious. I try to keep my anger to myself, but at some point the following day, out it comes.
I work as a Human Resources Manager. One day a supervisor comes in and tells me that a senior manager has instructed him to disregard my advice and do something else instead. He tells me this two or three times in the span of a week. Pretty soon, I form a narrative in my head whereby this senior manager is going around telling his supervisors to disregard the advice that I’ve been doling out. I wonder: why is he doing this? Given the “facts”, it must be that this person disrespects me, disrespects my expertise, and evidently has seen fit to start disregarding my advice altogether. Stories in my head get piled on to stories in my head; soon, I’m so angry I could spit. Later, I find out that this senior manager hasn't disregarded my advice, he didn't know about it to begin with. This supervisor who approached him is “shopping around”. I.e. he's been soliciting his boss' opinion when he doesn't like mine, neglecting to tell him that HR has already chimed in. I find this all out, of course, after I’ve hauled the senior manager into the boardroom and raked him over the coals, making a perfect fool of myself in the process.
Can you identify with these examples? Have you done this before? Do you do this now?
As an HR Manager, I’m often called upon to help people sort out these types of problems, and I can usually tell if our efforts to help them are going to work based on what’s rattling around inside their heads when I speak to them. Employees who have behaved in an angry or antisocial manner almost always admit, after being hauled into my office, that their behaviour needs to change. They get that they need to stop losing their temper (or whatever). What they usually can’t or won’t admit is that their thinking needs to change. They demand the right to believe that their feelings about the situation are correct, even when those feelings are based on false assumptions - stories. My response, in such circumstances, is to tell them that I’m here to help them sort out the behaviour, but unless they change the way they’re looking at the situation, any resources I provide will be unhelpful. The behaviour will re-appear, and sooner or later, their job will be in serious jeopardy.
The key to sorting out an anger problem begins with challenging your assumptions, questioning the stories you’ve been telling yourself, and asking yourself questions instead: why, for example, would I assume that this senior manager has suddenly decided to initiate a program of ignoring HR when he’s never done so in the past? Out of all the reasonable explanations – his supervisors weren’t telling me the whole story, or didn’t adequately communicate the advice I had provided, for example – why did I automatically jump to the conclusion that rendered me a victim, and him a villain?
Though I think we ultimately do need to get to and understand “the why” – the wounds, false beliefs, the bad experiences that create the conditions for this sort of behaviour, I’m still working on that myself – getting to those answers isn’t the point of this exercise. (There’s a place and time for in-depth psychoanalysis, while enduring a tidal-wave of anger probably isn’t one of them).
No, the point of this exercise is to recognize that you have in fact been telling yourself stories, and that these stories are probably untrue and almost certainly unfair. When we do this, something happens: acknowledging that the foundation on which our current feelings rest is flimsy at best, we stop piling more stories on. This wave of anger reaches its zenith, and the amount of time and effort it takes to calm down is significantly reduced. As we practice this discipline, we get better at it over time, to the point where, most days, we can stop the wave before it even gets started.
Again, this won’t deal with the root causes of the anger – i.e. why we feel inclined to tell ourselves such stories to begin with. That’s still something I’m wrestling with, and something I highly recommend you ask your pastor about. There are Christian resources out there for this kind of thing.
It will, however, give you a biblical means of coping. Why do I call this biblical?
When we become Christians, we aren’t instantly fixed. Sometimes this is a shock to us. We expect an inner peace to come surging out of our conversion and put our inner conflict to rest; but this is isn't Christianity. The bible affirms that we will continually struggle against the flesh as long as we’re on this side of the ground.
We can take comfort in the fact, however, that the bible also assures us of progress. If we stay rooted in scripture and prayer, if we remain in communion with the Holy Spirit, and if we continue to practice humility and repentance, the Spirit takes hold and the flesh goes into retreat. There may be other perfectly rational and helpful ways to repent of one's anger; this is what has worked for me.
Try it out, let me know how it goes.
In the end, the class learns that there will always be room in the jar for the little things as long as we put the big things in first; and the professor makes his point that if we keep our priorities in order, things will fall into place for us. If we don’t, they won’t.
Jesus agrees when he says, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 NIV). He was speaking about the necessities of life (food, clothing) in this context; but we do well, I think, to remember that “these things” may also include any number of objects, including the sorts of activities that we expect from mature Christians: charitable giving, tithing, weekly worship, leading bible studies, etc.
Jesus is saying that the horse (his kingdom and his righteousness) must come before the carriage (the other stuff I just mentioned) or the whole thing falls apart.
And this makes sense; not only does it line up very well with Jesus’ overall teachings on the nature of righteousness and our urgent need to clean the inside of the cup (see Matthew 23), it is also proven by experience. Have you ever tried to “fake it till you make it” on Christian living, to “put on” the vestiges of righteousness while somehow keeping Christ himself outside of the equation?
When this is attempted, some fall into a crippling pattern of legalism and judgement, while others end up becoming twice the sinner they were when they started (see Matthew 12:43-45) – I’ve done both – but never does it result in actual righteousness. At the end of the attempt, instead of discovering that we’ve filled our jars with Jesus’ goodness and love, we discover that we’ve filled it with religious vanity and/or self-destructive behaviours. Ergo, don’t do it, says Jesus; put his kingdom first.
Now, this all sounds like great advice for a young Christian whose jar is still pretty much empty, but what happens when we’ve already made this mistake? What happens when the jar is full of garbage and there’s no room left for Jesus? After all, the whole point of the metaphor is that the jar is full and there is no longer any room for the important stuff – does this mean game over? Are we too late? What if we’ve already been “saved” and now discover, ten years later, that we’ve been “doing” Christianity wrong this whole time, living a counterfeit religious life based on externals, for example, rather than undergoing a legitimate change of heart?
Jesus happens on a situation like this when he encounters a rich man who is eager to inherit eternal life:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
In examining this passage, most people notice that the rich man’s problem seems to be his wealth; after all, that’s really the central point of the story, as Jesus illustrates with his summation that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25) Notice, however, that this man has filled his life with other stuff too. He has kept the commandments from his youth (which is more than most of us accomplish) and manages to be a reasonably righteous man by contemporary and cultural standards.
A lot of good it does him. For all his good deeds, for all his virtue and ability to keep himself unsullied by a sinful world, the kingdom of God remains firmly outside of his grasp. While the obvious thing getting in the way is money, notice that this man’s self-made righteousness counts for nothing. Jesus doesn’t give him half-credit. This man’s jar is full, not only with wealth, but also with a religious program that he has followed his entire life; there’s no room for the very kingdom he hopes to inherit, and all the respectable living in the world won’t change that.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t count the man out, but extends a generous invitation, saying “unload your baggage and follow me”.
Now, for some people that baggage is money, for others it might be religious activity, social media, or a romantic relationship. None of these things is inherently wrong. But if and when we come to a point where we notice that we’ve filled our jars with “stuff” and left no room for Jesus, there really is only one solution: empty the jar and start again. In some cases this may mean selling everything and giving the proceeds to the poor; but this isn't always the case. Maybe it means walking away from a position of church leadership, starting over and seeking a mentor. Maybe it means giving up a certain career path. Maybe it means ending an inappropriate relationship.
Whatever it is that's blocking our relationship with Jesus, the solution is the same, empty the jar. Jesus will abide our failures and our weaknesses, he will pick us up when we fall and forgive us over and over again; but he will never abide being an afterthought. He comes first; that’s a non-negotiable condition of the kingdom.
So, here’s one I hear a lot, sometimes from pastors:
“Christians act like there’s some sort of hierarchy of sin, as if one sin is any worse or better than another. That’s not true and it’s not supported by the bible. Sin is sin, end of story”.
When people say such things, they’re well-intentioned. What they typically mean is either:
Both sentiments are true enough; we do need to take a zero-tolerance policy to sin in our own life; and it is wrong to condemn the more visible sins of others while a great big plank remains firmly planted in our own eye (Matthew 7:5). But there is a flimsy correlation between these truths and the notion that “sin is sin (i.e. equal)”.
Where they’re getting this (I think) is from verses such as this one:
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery’. But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
But Jesus isn’t saying here that “all sin is equal”. He is saying that all sin separates us from God, and we all desperately need God’s forgiveness and grace to enter the Kingdom; but He isn’t saying that leering at a member of the opposite sex is as socially or spiritually damaging as acting on that impulse and hopping into bed with that person.
Of course some sins are much worse than others, this is supported by both common sense and scripture.
I could go on, but I think my point is made. Some sins are obviously more damaging than others and demand a firmer and more immediate response from the believer who has committed them and, in some cases, even from the community of believers around that person.
As with all matters of scripture, it is important that we get this right, and that we avoid obviously incorrect sentimentalities that miss the biblical mark. All sin is sin (true) but not all sin is equal.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.