What’s So Bad About Anger and How Jesus Calls Us to Freedom

Photo by WenPhotos

According to Jesus, people don’t make you angry. You do. And if you want to be free, you have to take responsibility for it.

Last post, I talked about the three principles of morality as Jesus teaches it: it’s transcendent and therefore absolute; it’s internal; and it’s individual. As such, it’s demanding.

Jesus doesn’t pull his punches. He goes straight for a very painful, very personal sin: anger. And where we universally want to blame our anger on others, Jesus puts the responsibility for it – and the impetus to change – squarely on us.


Nowhere is the principle of individual responsibility more obvious than in the first two moral issues Jesus addresses: anger and lust. Maybe more than any other sin, we automatically blame these on the other person.

You can hear it in the language we use. We rarely say “I got angry.” We say “He made me angry” or “That made me really mad.” Our language makes it clear where we stand: It’s not OUR fault. Someone else did it to us. We couldn’t help it. We are the victim here.

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. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Anger, Jesus says, is not okay; and furthermore, you are responsible for it. Not the other person, not the circumstance. You. You are so responsible, in fact, that by kingdom rules you can be hauled into court for it.

Here we see one of the major differences between the law of God and the laws of men: men can only judge us, or haul us into court, for externals. They can only judge what we DO. The law of God is in our hearts and deals with our hearts, and because of that, it can call us to judgment over things we feel, things we think, things we say in the heat of the moment.

It’s strict. Not graceless or soul-crushing, but strict indeed. This kind of righteousness runs deep, much deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

It requires us to own up to a whole lot more.


Is anger, in and of itself, sin? This passage would seem to say so.

But the issue isn’t totally black and white. Some New Testament manuscripts add the phrase “without cause” here in Matthew 5, so that the passage reads, “everyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be subject to judgment.”

It’s also clear that God gets angry—sometimes really angry—and he never sins. Paul elsewhere instructs us to “be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

There is an anger that isn’t sin. We call it “righteous anger” because it’s justified.

(I’m sure we can all think of a list of real justifications off the top of our heads. Mind you, that doesn’t make anger an optimal response. Unlike God, we don’t handle anger well. When we can say with God that we are “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth,” (Exodus 34:6), then maybe we’ll handle anger okay.

In the meantime, what if we chose another route? What would happen to the world if those who are “radicalized” by real oppression and real injustice instead took the route of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, Jr.?)

I’m also not sure we can say that any emotion is sin in and of itself. Anger certainly has an emotional component, and at the point where that is all anger is—not an action, not a thought that is kept and sustained, not an ongoing attitude—I’m not sure Jesus would call it sin.

When we are “subject to judgment” because of it, we might get off without a guilty sentence.

But here’s what I’ve noticed. We are very quick to bring up the subject of righteous anger when Matthew 5 is quoted, as if the possibility of righteous anger means our anger is probably fine. But 99 percent of the time, our anger isn’t that kind.

Jesus’s use of the word “brother” suggests he’s talking about the kind of anger we turn on people close to us. We’re having a rough time, so we make our loved ones suffer.

Most of the time, our anger isn’t really even about the other person. It’s the result of some undealt-with issues in our lives, and the pressure of those issues explodes at somebody else.

• I’m hormonal, so I bite your head off when you track mud on the floor after I cleaned.

• I’m late for dinner, and my relationship with my spouse is already on the rocks because of a fight we had last night, so I blare my horn at the guy who cuts me off in traffic.

• I feel hurt, unloved, and rejected because of deep wounds in my past that aren’t healed, and I let the negative emotion of all of that come out in my interactions with you over stupid things I wish I could just let go of … over the annoying way you eat your food, or how you’re always late, or how you can’t seem to get a grip on your finances, or how you forgot to pick up milk when I asked you three times today.

The anger is my problem, born out of other problems which are also mine. But if someone calls me on it, I’ll say, “But she made me mad.” “He made me angry.”

It’s not MY fault.


As Jesus goes on to teach about this, the crux of this particular subject becomes clear:

No matter what you may be feeling, it is not okay to demean another human being because of it.

Angry people wound those around them deeply and constantly through their words, their tone, sometimes their actions. But if you call them on it, often they don’t even seem to be thinking about the other person.

“I’m just having a bad day. I needed to let off a little steam. I know I shouldn’t have said it, but it felt good.”

THAT is the issue Jesus is pinpointing. He’s pointing to our tendency to justify things that make us feel better even though they hurt other people and in the process reveal what we think of others when push comes to shove—that they really don’t matter that much.

According to Jesus, anger and murder are equivalent. This is why. This thing inside of us that says our needs are actually more important than someone else’s in the moment, that what we feel is more pressing than watching out for our impact on other people, that our need for release justifies hurting others — that other people are actually in some way less than ourselves — is the impulse behind murder.


An externally based morality system can tell me, “If you blow up like that again, you will be fined. Do not raise your voice, or it’s ten demerit points. Treat your colleagues with respect, or you will be dismissed.”

An internally based morality system—the kind Jesus teaches—says, “Clean up your heart.”

God knows and cares about your pain. He cares about the stuff that’s going on, and he gives us his own Spirit to dwell within us and empower us to take a better road. But first we have to repent.

Take responsibility. Own up: it’s not okay. It’s not okay what you’re feeling. It’s not okay what you’re expressing. It points to things being off in YOUR heart. Anger is happening in you, and it points to something in you.

If you struggle with anger, if you find you are being “called to judgment” by the Spirit of God in this area, don’t just try to modify your behavior. Recognize conviction as the call to freedom that it actually is.

Healing and change begin when we own up to our stuff and take responsibility for it.

We aren’t asked to change on our own, without God’s intimate, compassionate, gracious, faithful, and loving help.

But if we struggle with anger, if we demean and devalue others through our words and behaviors, we are asked to change.

That’s central to Jesus’s vision of morality.

Next week, we’ll go deeper into Jesus’s understanding of sin, as expressed in the comparison of murder with anger. And in the process, we’ll glimpse a little more of the glory of the gospel.

(This is Part 41 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *