ANGER IN THE FAMILY
October 1, 2006
I read the story of a little boy who had been misbehaving and was in trouble with his mama. In fact, he had lost his temper and thrown a little tantrum. And she, in correcting him, insisted that he not only apologize but that he get down and pray to the Lord for forgiveness. She oversaw the process. He kneeled down beside his bed, and she stood over him to pray with him. And he prayed, “Dear God, please take away my temper.” There was a pause for just a moment and he continued, “And while you are at it, take away my mama’s temper, too.” So many of our families would be in much better shape if we could learn to do a better job handling our anger. As long as we are people and not vegetables, we will at times experience anger. Sometimes that so surprises couples that they wonder whether their love was real. Sometimes it becomes such a way of life and a habit that people wonder if there is anything besides angry feelings toward each other.
It is interesting to me that often in the New Testament the passages that teach about family life also have in close proximity some kind of statement about anger. Often it is in the same order as our study has been today. This morning we considered together honor where sexual morality is concerned with family life. Tonight we look into the question of how we properly control the emotion of anger in our family life. I want you to notice something that happens in Col. 3. In the latter part of this chapter, Paul speaks to husbands and wives, parents and children. In between he talks to Christians about the new life which we are supposed to be practicing. And in the beginning of this discussion he says beginning about verse 5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire…” Those are things related to what we studied this morning. Then notice that he says, “On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Look at that – the company those things keep! On the one hand there is immorality in personal conduct, and the other hand there is ungodliness in personal emotions.
That state of anger, wrath, malice and slander is an order of thought that too often finds its place in the homes of our families. This is a matter which Jesus addressed indirectly in the Sermon on the Mount. I want to try to show tonight that he actually touches on this a number of times in Matthew 5, 6 and 7, and that he does so in a completely practical way. We are way past theories here, and we are down to the practice of godliness in our personal lives.
In Matthew 5, beginning at verse 21, notice again this paragraph. The Lord said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
A Problem At Home
What does that have to do with family life? Well, consider for just a moment the problem of anger in the home. It is a problem on several different levels. In the first place, this is something that sometimes is found and felt, not in so many deeds or words, but instead in an environment, an atmosphere of resentment and of coldness which has choked out any interaction between the members of that family, and left in its place the practice of withdrawal, each into his own angry world. Bill Flatt in his book, “Restore My Soul,” says that this type of anger is often a symptom and sometimes a cause of a low level of depression in the life of a whole family. Sometimes it causes such bitterness to be the entire atmosphere in the family that the people clearly can’t stand each other, and they communicate by facial expression, tone of voice and body language that they are only putting up with each other, and they would be rid of each other if they could be. This is the opposite extreme from what we studied this morning in the sense of tossing a spouse aside through divorce and just going on. This is a case where the person says, “I can’t stand you, but I promised I’d stay with you and I’m going to if it kills me.” That, of course, is not the kind of marriage that neither honors God nor blesses people’s lives.
Secondly, anger can be a problem in the home with the presence of harsh, critical and destructive words. Sometimes anger bursts out in a moment, at the drop of a hat, with the slightest little provocation, with the bitterest kinds of attacks on each other. There is not only the raised, angry tone of voice, but it becomes almost violent in the sense of what it is saying about the person of various family members. Sometimes people say meaner things to each other in their household than they would ever say to anybody else in the world. And sometimes the words that are used are not only obscene or slanderous as we read in Col. 3, but they are completely ungodly. Slander is what attacks someone’s name. It belittles. It cuts a person down. In our families sometimes we are the master of the cut and the personal putdown.
Thirdly, sometimes anger takes a more urgently severe form than these other two, and it expresses itself, unfortunately, in violence to family members. I hate the term “domestic violence.” There shouldn’t be anything domestic about violence. We have no right to put out our hand to harm those who are closest to us and most vulnerable to our strength. Anytime our anger takes the form, either of grabbing and throwing something or kicking a piece of furniture or a hole in the wall or reaching out and grabbing and shaking a family member, or striking a family member, we of course are on ground that is ungodly by nature. Anger has to be controlled before it takes a form like that. The sad thing is how prevalent domestic violence, so called, is in our society right now. And it is just an expression of the fact that we haven’t learned how to properly process our anger.
Anger in the home is a problem. How do we deal with it? Maybe the starting place for all of us is just to get anger in its right context for a moment. Anger, you see, is an emotion. It is a God-given emotion. It is a part of being a human being. Anger is an emotion just like joy is, or sorrow, or any of the other kinds of feelings that make us persons. We have this quality for one basic reason. Do you know why it is? The same reason we are able to think or will or to love. It is because we are made in God’s image! We are able to experience anger because God made us in his holy image. He is a god who can be angry with things that he ought to be angry about.
Someone pointed out something that has helped me through the years in thinking of my own anger. Someone made the point that “anger is to the spirit of a human being what pain is to the body of a human being.” Pain is felt physically in order to tell us, to warn us, that something is wrong and something needs to be addressed before it does further damage. Anger touches our inward man that same way. It lets us know there is something in the relationship that is not right. There is something in our thinking that is dangerous. There is something here that needs to be addressed before it gets worse.
When you look at it this way, you understand that anger in and of itself is not a sin. It is not sinful to experience anger. It is normal. Jesus was someone who was able to experience anger, according to Mark 3:5. His anger was unselfish, and it was directed toward things that were in affront to God and to other people, but the Lord knew what it was to be angry. James says in James 1 that it is possible to be angry and not to sin. So anger must not be a sin! It is the question here of how we feel with that anger.
The thing that determines whether sin is going to get in the door or not is whether we control that anger and do healthy things with it and conduct ourselves nobly. You remember when Cain experienced anger over the fact that his brother’s sacrifice had been accepted and his wasn’t, God came to him and said to him, “Sin crouches at the door.” Anger allows that possibility to be present. In Ephesians 4 Paul warns us to not let the sun go down on our anger and not to give the devil an opportunity. Anger is a critical moment because there is the question of whether we will allow the enemy to take advantage of it or not or whether we will control it and let it make us better people. But the anger itself is not the problem. The question is whether we will handle it in a godly way.
How can I tell whether I am handling it in a godly way? What are the signs that anger is causing a problem at my house? It struck me as I read from Matthew 5 this week that the warning signs are present in what Jesus says in this paragraph. In the first place, anger is becoming a problem if I am allowing it to become the settled mood in my life and in my house. It is one thing to experience a moment’s frustration or to feel a flash of anger when we are trying to deal with the burdens of everyday life. It is completely another matter when I am not just experiencing anger but when I am an angry person. A passing feeling of frustration is one thing. Living in a state of frustration is another thing. Notice that the Lord in verse 22 of Matthew 5 uses the present tense here: “I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother.” “Is” angry! He not only becomes angry, but he stays that way.
Now you can see how this would be a problem if it were happening in your family. What do you do when you get angry? Probably we have our own ways of responding to that situation. Kay would probably tell you that mine is to grow silent and go off by myself for a while. And when I am allowing anger to be a problem, it means that we can sit there in the same room like strangers as long as I am angry. How do you deal with it? If that goes on for a very long time, can you see how the family begins to grow apart? If that is allowed to exist for very long, then the first thing you know neither one of us have taken the first steps, and we have allowed love to grow cold and we are wondering if there is anything left.
Secondly, I can know that anger is becoming a problem if it produces any sort of abusive language in the household in our relationships. The Lord says, “Whoever is angry with his brother and whoever insults his brother.” Saying “Raca” to somebody probably means nothing to us. But from what I understand, that term was a personal insult which attacked the other person based on his ability, and especially his mental ability. It is somewhat akin to saying, “You bonehead, you nitwit, you imbecile, you stupid person.” The closest terms that you and I use or get to this kind of statement is just about anytime we start a discussion with the word “always” or “never.” “You always” and then we begin to show somebody’s inadequacies or faults. Or “you never” and we zero in for the attack with that kind of phrase. And it leaves the other person feeling like a midget, feeling persecuted, and it leaves a gulf between the two family members. Of course, abusive attack language takes other forms, but whenever it belittles, whenever it humiliates, whenever it takes away the personal significance of the other person, that is a danger sign.
Thirdly, I can know that anger is becoming a dangerous threat in my family when it discounts, when it devalues that other person, that individual. Notice at the end of verse 22, the Lord talked about saying to the other one, “You fool.” This time the personal insult, instead of dealing with the person’s ability and especially his mental capacity, is dealing with his person and especially with his moral and spiritual life. You are basically calling him an infidel, an unbeliever. The word for fool here is the one from which we get “moron,” only in scripture it generally is used of someone’s relationship to God. You remember in the Old Testament in Psalm 14:1, “Who is it that has said in his heart ‘there is no God?’” Well, it is the fool. And what have we done when we attack someone else with this approach? We have claimed the right for ourselves to do what only God can do in that person’s life. We have looked in on his heart and have begun to decide what his spiritual level is, and we have begun to attack his motives. It is one thing when you say to me, “You are not very bright.” It is another thing when you say, “You are not very good.” And when you insult a family member based on his moral and spiritual character, you are saying to him, “You are no good. To me, you are a worthless person.” You can see that relationships can’t be established and strengthened where that kind of character is.
The fourth warning sign of anger here is that I can know there is a problem when there is a sense of alienation developing, when I can feel the distance between me and a family member. Notice in this passage that the Lord talks about offering your gift at the altar and remembering if someone is angry with me, that there is reconciliation needed here. When that sense of distance that has been created between me and a family member is present, then I am to stop and examine whether I am angry, or she is angry, and whether something needs to be done about it.
The fifth warning sign is passing time. If this goes on for very long, the problems multiply. Verse 25 says, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser.” You realize that if things are not dealt with immediately, they are usually not dealt with, and what was a flash of anger settles into a cold condition between two people. The story of the prodigal son with the rejoicing father celebrating with his younger son inside, realized that his older son was out in the dark pouting. He went out and appealed to him right then. The times in my life when I have messed up with this most are the times when I knew that something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what it was, but I just let it go like that. And then finally situations existed that I suppose are not going to be put back together. That is too bad isn’t it? I pray for the grace of God over that.
And then notice the other warning sign is refusing to grant to the one you are angry with the same mercy that you require for yourself. At the end of this discussion in Matthew 5:25-26, where the Lord spoke of either coming to terms quickly with your accuser or finding yourself in court with a judgment against you and being a prisoner until you paid the entire debt. What is the real problem there? How does a person end up like that? He ended up like that because he had a debt that he needed mercy for but he wouldn’t show mercy to anybody else. He was too angry.
Our families suffer for these kinds of reasons because that is what anger does to all kinds of relationships. Now what are the answers to these problems? How do we who are going to get angry because we are human beings properly process that anger? What do we do with it? If the emotion is normal and if it shouldn’t shock us or surprise us, then what should it move us to do? Again, looking through the Sermon on the Mount, I think there are some answers to this problem.
The first one is for us to become people who are not soon angered. We are to mature to the place where anger is not something that jumps out of our back pocket and takes hold of somebody by the throat at the first opportunity. The Lord wants us to grow into more patient and kind people than that. Do you want to know the truth of the matter? The truth of the matter is that sometimes people who ought to know better are just flat mean in what they are willing to say and do to other people.
When I was a senior in college, Kay and I moved to the little community of Wellman, TX outside of Lubbock. The sweetest people in all this world! While we lived there, there were two brothers in the congregation who got in a fuss with each other. It spilled over into the community. It was a fuss that refused to be settled. Observing that situation, one of our older men in the congregation said that when he was young someone told him one time you could go to any community in Texas and you could find the meanest fellow in town and he would be a member of the church of Christ! I hope that wasn’t true. Sometimes I wonder. If you think about this, if that is the case in our families, if our family members have to walk on eggshells around us, if we are so liable to explode into a fit of temper that nobody can be comfortable around us, what will that do to a family over time? In Proverbs 19:11 it says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” That is what I am saying here. Patient people don’t get mad over every little thing. There is no use in that, is there?
Then notice in the second place, that when anger does come we are expected to control it. Just like any other emotion or any other part of human nature, we are expected to do the right thing with our anger. That is why Jesus is talking about it here. If there is nothing I can do about it, if I get angry and I explode and that is just who I am and how I am, then why is he even talking about it here? Why didn’t he just say “be yourself” and let that go? Two people were in a discussion about this and one said to the other, “When I get angry, I just explode. But I don’t stay that way very long. And when it is over, it is gone.” The other fellow said, “Well, so is a shotgun blast. But look at what it leaves behind.” We are supposed to control our anger and do the right thing with it.
Thirdly, the Sermon on the Mount tells us to put priority on our relationships in the way we deal with our anger. Notice the way this is worked out in this text. Jesus says if you come to church and you realize that your brother is angry with you, then first be reconciled. “Reconcile” means to “make friends again.” It may involve begging for forgiveness. It may involve apology for a misstatement or for a wrong deed done. It may just involve going and saying “I care about you. I want things to be right between us.” There is not always a way that a Christian can make it right, but at least he cares enough about the relationship to try. Notice that this is another aspect of what we talked about this morning in not just tossing a person aside. Remember how we talked about that with lust and divorce? One of the ways I struggle with my anger is if somebody wants to reject me and walk off from me, I am not likely to call them names or get in a big fuss with them. But I am likely to say to myself, “If you feel that way about me, I will just show you that I can do without you just fine.” There is pride to that. But what it really is is sort of a form of anger. It says, “I will put you in your place by showing that I don’t need you and you are not that important in my life.” If husbands and wives do that to each other or if parents and children do that with each other, then the distance becomes so great that they hardly know each other any more.
Next, the Lord calls for us to use the anger constructively by addressing the problems in the relationship. Anger can do you a favor in this way. If anger comes up some way or another, then obviously there is something there that needs to be dealt with. Sometimes the old cowboy types would say, “What’s the burr under your saddle?” Well, maybe this is the time to find out something that needs to be talked about before it does spoil things in life.
Then the Sermon on the Mount says that we ought to forgive willingly. Remember at the end of the model prayer, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14, 15). Forgiveness answers anger in several ways but one is that it makes us kinder, gentler and more gracious people.
Then we deal with anger by blessing anyhow. The Sermon on the Mount says that if anyone slaps you on the right cheek (I think that would make anybody angry, wouldn’t you), turn the other one also, he says. And then he calls for us in this text to be people who love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us so that we may be sons of our Father in heaven. One of the things about being a Christian in a family is that the Christian realizes that he maintains a certain sort of autonomy in the sense that he still is an individual who is responsible to his Lord no matter what the other person does. Instead of just reacting, the Christian controls his anger by choosing to be a blessing anyhow.
Last, be careful to not become a critical, harsh, judgmental person. Over time when you experience frustration or resentment or anger, it can so take hold of you that you become a critical, fault-finding, impossible-to-please human being. So the Lord would caution us, I think, with this little phrase, “Remember, with what measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Look at Matthew 7:1-2, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Be careful that you don’t decide somebody else’s heart and motives and then trash that person’s good name to other people. Most of all, family members, don’t do that to those closest to you. You are in a position to know the heart and the person of another human being better than anybody else does. You have a sacred trust. For you to take that and embarrass and humiliate and ruin that person in the eyes of other people would be the worst kind of unkindness. Don’t do it.
We have said, then, that anger can be a problem at home, but there are some warning signs which, if responded to and if then processed properly, can allow us to turn anger into a way of improving our lives. Remember that our handling of anger should occur in imitation of the way the Lord has dealt with us. It is no wonder that the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” If God never said anything to us about our anger other than go out and treat each other like the Lord has treated you when he had reason to be angry, that would be instruction enough, wouldn’t it. That really is what we have been studying about tonight.
Are you a person who has allowed God in Christ to forgive you, and then have you been treating other people that same way? If you are here tonight and you need to confess your faith in the Lord and be baptized into him, won’t you decide to do that this evening? If you are somebody with whom things are not right and you know they need to be, won’t you make that right tonight? If you need to, come while we stand and sing together.