Pride fuels self-righteousness, self-righteousness fuels sinful anger and sinful anger fuels destructive thoughts, words and actions. Who among us has not known what it is to have sinful anger in our hearts? Who among us has not harbored a sinful longing for ill-will or revenge toward one who has hurt us–even if only momentarily? This sinful desire for retaliation is one of the most destructive of all sins in the lives of God’s people and in the church. In order to keep ourselves from it, we need to know the One who never harbored a sinfully angry thought, never spoke a sinfully angry word and never acted in sinful anger. We need to go to Him who, though He knew no sin, was made sin for us. We need to flee to the throne of grace to find grace and mercy to help in time of need. However, we also need to remember several things that God’s word says about ourselves and the nature of sinful anger.
In what is one of the most important writings in all of church history, Jonathan Edwards focused on the subject of sinful anger and its opposition to Christian love. In this work, Edwards set out four things that believers are to remember in order to watch against sinful anger. He wrote:
“The heart of man is exceeding prone to undue and sinful anger, being naturally full of pride and selfishness. We live in a world that is full of occasions that tend to stir up this corruption that is within us, so that we cannot expect to live in any tolerable measure as Christians would do, in this respect, without constant watchfulness and prayer. And we should not only watch against the exercises, but fight against the principle of anger, and seek earnestly to have that mortified in our hearts, by the establishment and increase of the spirit of divine love and humility in our souls. And to this end, several things may be considered.
First, consider frequently your own failings, by which you have given both God and man occasion to be displeased with you. All your lifetime you have come short of God’s requirements, and thus justly incurred his dreadful wrath; and constantly you have occasion to pray God that He will not be angry with you, but will show you mercy. And your failings have also been numerous toward your fellowmen, and have often given them occasion to be angry with you. Your faults are as great, perhaps, as theirs: and this thought should lead you not to spend so much of your time in fretting at the motes in their eyes, but rather to occupy it in pulling the beams out of your own. Very often those that are most ready to be angry with others, and to carry their resentments highest for their faults, are equally or still more guilty of the same faults. And so those that are most apt to be angry with others for speaking evil of them, are often most frequent in speaking evil of others, and even in their anger to vilify and abuse them. If others, then, provoke us, instead of being angry with them, let our first thoughts be turned to ourselves, and let it put us on self-reflection, and lead us to inquire whether we have not been guilty of the very same things that excite our anger, or even of worse. Thus, thinking of our own failings and errors would tend to keep us from undue anger with others.
And consider, also, Second, how such undue anger destroys the comfort of him that indulges it. It troubles the soul in which it is, as a storm troubles the ocean. Such anger is inconsistent with a man’s enjoying himself, or having any true peace or self-respect in his own spirit. Men of an angry and wrathful temper, whose minds are always in a fret, are the most miserable sort of men, and live a most miserable life; so that a regard to our own happiness should lead us to shun all undue and sinful anger.
Consider, again, Third, how much such a spirit unfits persons for the duties of religion. All undue anger indisposes us for the pious exercises and the active duties of religion. It puts the soul far from that sweet and excellent frame of spirit in which we most enjoy communion with God, and which makes truth and ordinances most profitable to us. And hence it is that God commands us not to approach His altars while we are at enmity with others, but “first to be reconciled to our brother, and then come and offer our gift” (Mat 5:24); and that by the apostle it is said, “I will, therefore, that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1Ti 2:8).
And, once more, consider, Fourth, that angry men are spoken of in the Bible as unfit for human society. The express direction of God is, “Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul” (Pro 22:24,25). Such a man is accursed as a pest of society, who disturbs and disquiets it, and puts everything into confusion. “An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression” (Pro 29:22). Every one is uncomfortable about him; his example is evil, and his conduct disapproved alike by God and men. Let these considerations, then, prevail with all, and lead them to avoid an angry spirit and temper, and to cultivate the spirit of gentleness, and kindness, and love, which is the spirit of heaven.”1
1. Jonathan Edwards Charity and Its Fruits (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1852) pp. 201-202.