What makes you really, really mad? Maybe it’s a small thing, but for whatever the reason, it pushes your buttons. It might be what happens to you on your daily commute; it could be when someone fails to show you respect; maybe it’s a certain trait in someone else that you just can’t stand. Whatever the case, all of us know what it’s like to be angry.
But there’s something revealing about the way we ask the question: What makes you angry? In the question itself, we are assuming that something has the power to make us feel anger. If that’s the case, we let ourselves off the hook; after all, we can’t control something being done to us. So anger can’t be our fault, and it can’t then be something we have to seriously think about and deal with.
Not according to Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
In these verses, Jesus takes the old law the people knew very well and takes it to a different level. The commandment they knew was a prohibition against taking someone’s life. That’s easy enough, even for us today. But Jesus isn’t content to settle for the physical act of murder; He takes the issue much deeper. The deeper issue is the anger we feel in our hearts, whether or not it’s manifested in some physical action that harms another person.
Furthermore, Jesus helps us see that anger is not something that happens to us; it’s a choice we make. Even though we might not be able to control the circumstances that lead to our anger, it’s ultimately our choice about how to respond to those circumstances.
True enough, it’s not always wrong to be angry. There are plenty of times when God or Jesus Himself was righteously angry. He is the same one who at one point was so enraged that He turned over tables and whipped the money-changers out of His Father’s house. There is a kind of anger, then, that’s good and right and justified.
This kind of anger happens when we look at the world around and see clear examples of injustice brought about by violations in God’s desire. Whenever we feel a righteous indignation because of these things, we aren’t only justified; we are good and right in doing something constructive with that anger.
But that assumes that our hearts are aligned with God’s heart, and most of the time, our hearts are not. We get angry at the slow-moving traffic or the child who has to be told to clean up his toys for the thousandth time; this isn’t righteous anger. Neither is the kind of anger Jesus described in these verses.
Notice that in the passage Jesus doesn’t address the question of whether or not the person we are angry at might actually deserve it. It’s possible they actually did something wrong to us or another. Instead, He directed His teaching at us, the ones who have the choice, regardless of circumstance, about how to respond.
That forces us to ask the really hard question: Why do we really get angry?
If we push passed the circumstances, we’ll find the true reason we get angry is because we feel like our rights have been violated. We should be treated better. We deserve more. Our anger stems from a deep held sense of entitlement that, when crossed, make us really, really mad.
In other words, our anger is a reflection of our commitment to ourselves.
How, then do we avoid anger? It’s by looking deeper into the root behind what we are feeling. When we do and we find that sense of entitlement, our hearts will start to soften. We realize that the only thing in the world we truly deserve is eternal punishment. And it’s tough to be mad when you realize that.