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Anger is also one of our most accepted behavioral sin habits. This subtle deception is the most dangerous aspect of anger. If everybody is doing it, then it is not a big deal. The sad thing about it not being recognized as sin is you can’t repent of something you accept or don’t perceive (Hebrews 3:7-8, 4:7, 5:12-14).
One of the other problems with anger is that folks most often define it in volatile ways like Bobby Knight throwing a chair across a gym floor. Road rage is another label that comes to mind. Anger is much more than the explosive anger and hate speech we see in our culture. There is a more refined side to this hideous sin.
Some years ago my daughter was walking across the living room floor, away from her mother, while responding to her mother. Her response was a low-grade huff under her breath. I stopped her to inquire about her sinful anger while offering her an opportunity to repent of her sin to God and my wife. She did. James had a profound descriptor for what she did. He called it murder.
You desire and do not have, so you murder (James 4:2).
James did not trim anger down to its most innocuous form so that we could feel better about our actions. He put anger in one basket–a murderous one.
After we reduce sin to a standard or acceptable behavior, we are well on our way to becoming okay with it, while never recognizing (1) how detrimental it is or (2) how it can morph and escalate into other iterations. Anger has more manifestations than you might imagine, as the graphic illustrates.
While the core problem to anger is unbelief (trusting your way to get something rather than God’s) that is motivated by a heart of fear, I want to take another approach in this chapter. I want to address the critical heart motivation that entices a person to yield to anger’s temptations. That sinful heart motive is self-righteousness.
When I am working with people who struggle with anger, at times, I will diagram their anger for them. Below is a representation of a sketch I commonly draw. The infographic illustrates Paul’s thoughts about sin and grace when he wrote these words to Timothy:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Paul saw himself as (1) the foremost sinner who had (2) received mercy from the Lord. That is, he was the worst of all sinners, who received the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those two realities–his sinfulness and God’s grace–were core anchor points in his theology of sanctification.
From Paul’s perspective, no person was worse than how he viewed himself: he was the most prominent sinner in the room regardless of who else was in the room with him.
That perspective is vital when working through sinful anger problems. Without that view, you will be prey for anger’s temptations because to be angry means you do not believe you are the worst sinner that you know.
For a person to become angry, he must first elevate himself over the person with whom he is angry. This is what the self-righteous person in red represents in the infographic. For him to be angry, he has to take a “better than, greater than” position over the person with whom he wants to be angry.
Two coequal-fellow-sinners, who believe they are mutually the worst of the worst will not choose sinful anger as a response toward each other. The only way for one of them to become sinfully angry with the other person is for one person to look down on the other person.
Anger does not come from a humble heart. It comes from a proud, elevated heart. The angry person takes a superior position. This attitude is the “better than, greater than,” self-righteous posture of the heart.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).
The problem with self-elevation is that in God’s world nobody is elevated outside of Christ. There are no degrees, gradations, or levels of righteousness as you see with the white horizontal lines in the diagram. There are only two levels: (1) you’re either in Christ or (2) you’re a dirty, rotten, low-down sinner.
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).
The angry person defies grace by showing his righteousness, which keeps him from grace because Christ did not come for righteous people. He came for sinners (Luke 5:32). It’s a spiritual conundrum that shuts down the soul from receiving the grace the Lord freely gives to the humble (James 4:6).
The self-righteous man is making a loud declaration that he does not need Christ’s righteousness because he has his own. Here are eight things that come from the heart of the angry, self-righteous person (Luke 6:43-45). This list is not exhaustive.
All of these statements have one common theme: I am better than you are. This attitude is the self-righteous better than, greater than you are perspective, which is gospel amnesia. This person forgets who he was before Christ saved him, assuming Christ did save him. He has yielded to the temptation to think he is somebody apart from Christ’s work on his behalf. This posture is self-righteousness in the raw.
An undeserving beggar, on the other hand, understands his position before Christ. His sober self-assessment demotivates him from sinfully looking down on others. The undeserving beggar does not discriminate because he views himself as the foremost sinner. How could he think otherwise? He’s a beggar in need of grace, not a person who feels he deserves better while demanding it from others through sinful, manipulative anger.
Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you” (Matthew 18:32-33)?
The Cause and Cure for Anger
The self-righteous person has forgotten the gap: the distance between where he was before Christ lifted him out of his pit of sin (Psalm 40:2) to where he is now–seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). To live between those two anchor points is to appoint yourself righteous. This worldview is what the Pharisees did. It’s an easy trap.
After you jump on the “I deserve better” road, you’re not far from a relational collision. The hard truth is that you don’t deserve better. Neither do I. We both deserve hell and if by God’s incredible mercy you happen to have something better, count your blessings, rather than demanding more.
Do not get caught in the gap between who you were outside of Christ and who you are with Christ. Everybody is the same outside of Christ–bad to the bone. No person is better than the next person. You, me, the president, your pastor, Adolf Hitler, and Billy Graham are the same outside of Christ. There is none righteous.
There is only one thing that will make any difference in any of us: God imposing His transformative gospel into our lives, which is the process of becoming like Christ. Outside of the unmerited gift of the gospel, we’re all rubbish (Philippians 3:8). Paul never forgot this truth, which is why he could love and care for so many painful people (1 Corinthians 1:4). He did not fixate on the gap between who he was and who he is.
He just owned the reality of who he was before God saved him and rejoiced in the undeserved mercy that God bestowed on him. For by grace he was saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). That one truth will keep you thinking rightly and responding rightly to everyone in your life. It will keep you humble, which is the one heart condition that sets you up to receive more grace (James 4:6).
The glory for you–assuming you have been born again–is that you do not have to stay in the worst sinner category: God has shown mercy to you. You are not that person any longer. You have been born from above (John 3:7; Romans 10:13).
Essential Truth – Though Paul did not wallow in a woe is me, sin-centered, sin hunting, worm theology, he did want to remind us that at the end of his life, in one of his last letters, he was the worst sinner he knew. Even to the end, he never forgot where he came from as a sinner-man.
That is a crucial truth to appropriate to your life if you want to be mentally healthy. Our culture struggles with this. They promote thinking boastfully about themselves, demanding respect and rights at every turn. Paul had a comprehensive, self-aware, honest view of himself.
Your most effective, positive mental attitude is never to forget that you were a worthless sinner (Romans 3:12). And saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-9), and eternally secure in the hands of Jesus (John 10:28), who will always be for you (Romans 8:31), and will return to take you home with Him (John 14:1-3).
Do you want to forget (1) where you were, (2) what happened to you, (3) where you are, and (4) where you’re going? Remembering those four truths will give you the most positive mental attitude that you could have while compelling you to walk in humility among the community in which you live.
The little blue figure at the top of the page still has some red behind him. Did you see that? He is not entirely sanctified. He is not quite perfect. Though the Lord has broken the power of sin and he does not have to sin, he still chooses to sin on occasion (1 John 1:7-10). Sinless perfection is not fully realized in any of us, which is why it’s important to never forget where we were when God found us. It is not unhealthy or unwise to rehearse daily the fourfold comprehensive nature of the gospel.
Paul eagerly reminded himself of who he was before God regenerated him because he was also aware that he was guiltless before God (1 Corinthians 1:8-9). Sin had no power or persuasion over his mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; Romans 8:1). He had been set free (John 8:36). His freedom released him to think about his former life (Ephesians 4:22) and how he used to be in bondage to sin. That reminder was one of the ways he stirred humility and gratitude in his soul.
The person who is bothered by his past has not been set free from his past (Galatians 5:1). Paul experienced the neutralization of sin in his life to the point that it was not a big deal to talk about it (Philippians 3:1-12). It’s analogous to moving from an apartment to a larger home. You rejoice all the more as you remind yourself of where you came. The new homeowner is not sad about where he used to live but motivated to express gratitude because of his new home.
Your love for Christ and others will be in proportion to the width of your gap: the more extensive the difference, the greater your affection for people. The person who realizes the magnitude of his forgiveness loves much (Luke 7:47). And your temptation toward self-righteous anger will go away in proportion to the width of your gap.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).