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Anger is also one of our most accepted behavioral sin habits. Its 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 not recognizing our sinful anger as a sin issue is that we cannot repent of something we accept, ignore, blame, or don’t perceive (Hebrews 3:7-8, 4:7, 5:12-14).
Perhaps the most common mistake we make when thinking about sinful anger is its subtleness. The word anger conjures big things like rage. You may remember Bobby Knight, the Indiana Hoosier basketball coach, throwing a chair across the gymnasium floor. Volatile anger is indeed a problem. We’re all familiar with road rage. Then there is hate speech, of course.
Anger is much more than these things. There is a more refined side to this hideous sin. I’m not suggesting they are the same consequentially, but the ubiquitous nature of anger is more subtle than overt, and that is the danger. More people participate in these milder forms, making them more destructive in everyday relationships.
Some years ago, our daughter walked 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 from her sin to God and my wife. She did, thankfully. 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 to feel better about our actions. He put sinful anger in one basket—a murderous one. Suppose we reduce sin to acceptable behavior. In that case, we are well on our way to becoming okay with it while never recognizing how detrimental it is or how it can morph and escalate into other iterations.
One of the most vital keys to understanding our anger and reacting redemptively to it is to expand our categories beyond the scope of its most heinous forms. Anger has more manifestations than you might imagine, as the graphic illustrates. Oh, and these subcategories to the main anger category are not exhaustive. Perhaps your most oft-repeated anger reaction is not on the list.
While the core problem of anger is unbelief motivated by a heart of fear, I want to take another approach in this chapter. Later in this book, I will discuss how our insecurities or fears of not getting something we perceive as essential tempt us to anger. For now, I want to address the critical heart motivation that entices a person to yield to anger’s temptations. In a word, our sinful heart motive is self-righteousness.
When working with people who struggle with anger, I will sometimes diagram their anger for them. A picture is like sharing one-thousand words with them. Here is a representation of a sketch I commonly draw for folks who struggle with sinful anger. This infographic illustrates Paul’s thoughts about sin and grace when he wrote 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).
He wanted Timothy to know how he thought about himself, the foremost sinner. If you perceive yourself as the worst sinner in the room, it isn’t easy to look down on others, which is the position of the self-righteous soul.
From Paul’s perspective, no person was worse than how he viewed himself. Paul saw himself as the foremost sinner who had 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.
He was the most prominent sinner in the room regardless of who else was in the room with him, a rational perspective when working through sinful anger problems. Without that view, you will be prey for anger’s temptations because being angry means you do not believe you are the worst sinner you know.
From that heart condition, we begin elevating ourselves above those who annoy us. This better-than, greater-than posture of the heart makes us easy prey for the allurements of anger as a way to put that unworthy person in their place. This posture is what the self-righteous person in red represents in the infographic.
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 no rational person can elevate themselves to a place of superiority over another. There are no degrees, gradations, or levels of righteousness among totally depraved people, as you see with the white horizontal lines in the diagram. There are only two levels: you’re either in Christ or a dirty, rotten, low-down sinner. Listen to Paul.
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).
Self-righteousness is a spiritual conundrum that shuts out the soul from receiving the grace the Lord freely gives to the humble (James 4:6). The angry person defies grace by promoting his righteousness, which keeps him from grace because Christ did not come for people like that—the self-generated righteous soul. He came for sinners (Luke 5:32).
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 non-exhaustive things that come from the heart of the angry, self-righteous person (Luke 6:43-45). Are you able to add to this list?
These statements have one common theme: I am better than you are. This attitude is full of 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. It’s raw self-righteousness.
On the other hand, an undeserving beggar understands his position before Christ. His sober self-assessment demotivates him from sinfully looking down on others. The unworthy 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 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 oneself righteous, an easy trap, which is the worldview of the Pharisees.
Once we jump on the “I deserve better” road, we’re not far from amped-up soul noise that creates relational tensions. The hard truth is that we don’t deserve better. We deserve hell, and if we happen to have something better by God’s incredible mercy, we spend our days counting our blessings rather than making sinful demands on those we think are inferior to us.
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. 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 makes any difference in 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 create a man-centered gap between him and them.
He 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 us thinking rightly and responding rightly to everyone in our lives. It will keep us humble, which is the one heart condition that sets us up to receive more grace (James 4:6).
The culture teaches us that the pathway to success begins with having a proper self-estimation of ourselves, which always means thinking we’re better than we are. Thus, when they hear “you are the biggest sinner in the room” as the pathway to success, they recoil and rage at such nonsensical teaching and say, “It’s damaging to our self-esteem.”
Assuming you have been born again, you do not have to stay in the worst sinner category. You must continue along with Paul’s thought progression: 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). Acknowledging the horribleness of your soul condition is not a sin-centered wallowing in the earthly mire for the forgiven soul.
Paul reminded us at the end of his life, in one of his last letters, that he was the worst sinner he knew. He never forgot where he came from as a sinner-man even to the end. Our culture struggles with this notion. They promote thinking boastfully about themselves, demanding respect and rights at every turn. Paul had a comprehensive, self-aware, and honest view of himself that did not apologize or disguise all he was, is, and will be.
Your most effective, positive mental attitude is never to forget that you were a worthless sinner (Romans 3:12), 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 where you were, what happened to you, where you are, and where you’re going? Remembering those four truths will give you the most positive mental attitude you could have while compelling you to walk in humility among your community as you give them the same hope and help that Christ gave you.
The little blue figure at the top of the page still has some red behind him. Did you see that? We are not entirely sanctified. We are not quite perfect. Though the Lord has broken the power of sin and we do not have to sin, we continue to choose sin on occasion (1 John 1:7-10). None of us have transformed into sinless perfection, which is why it’s essential never to 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 him (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; Romans 8:1). He had been set free (John 8:36). His freedom released him from thinking about his former life (Ephesians 4:22) and how he was in bondage to sin, one way that stirred humility and gratitude in his soul.
The person 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 used to be. The new homeowner is not sad about where he lived but motivated to express gratitude because of where he is today.
Your love for Christ and others will be in proportion to the width of your gap: the more extensive the gap, the greater your affection for others. The person who realizes the magnitude of his forgiveness loves much (Luke 7:47). Your temptation toward self-righteous anger will go away as you widen 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).
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